Everyone knows that, one day in 1941, famed British author Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets with heavy rocks before stepping into the cold waters of the river Ouse. Perhaps because of the extra weight she carried into the water with her, Woolf’s body would not be found until three weeks later. Woolf’s family and friends, aware that she was often in a suicidal frame-of-mind, were not surprised by her end, so the official verdict of suicide was never challenged. Now, in an intriguing piece of alternate history, The White Garden, Stephanie Barron examines the possibilities of what may have happened during the three weeks between Woolf’s disappearance and the recovery of her body in the Ouse.
American Jo Bellamy has come to Kent’s Sissinghurst Castle to copy the layout of its famous White Garden for a wealthy client who wants to replicate it on the grounds of his Long Island home. Imogen Cantwell, the castle’s head gardener, has grudgingly agreed to allow Jo full access to the White Garden so that she can gather all the measurements and photos she will need to create a perfect copy of the grounds for her client. But, for Jo, this is not just a way to generate revenue for her business; it is an opportunity to visit the part of England in which her beloved grandfather, who killed himself just three weeks earlier, lived for the first two decades of his life.
After Jo discovers that her grandfather spent several months as an apprentice gardener at Sissinghurst (the home of Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West), her search for garden records from that period leads her to the discovery of what appears to be a partial diary written in the hand of Virginia Woolf herself. Oddly, however, the journal is bound with a note indicating that, when it was boxed for storage, it actually belonged to Jo’s grandfather. Even odder, the first entry in Woolf’s handwriting is dated the day after her supposed drowning in the river Ouse.
Already puzzled by her grandfather’s so out-of-character suicide, Jo now starts to wonder if her trip to Sissinghurst might have everything to do with the timing of his death. Her quest to have the first half of the journal authenticated, and to find its missing pages, draws the attention of others wanting to exploit the astounding journal for their own purposes. For Jo, it is all about understanding why her grandfather felt it necessary to end his life; others want a piece of the fame, and profit, which will result from proximity to a journal that might literally rewrite a significant portion of literary history.
The White Garden works because of the way Barron mixes her intriguing plot of alternate history with a large cast of interesting characters. Admittedly, some of the characters are a little too close to stereotypes to be completely effective but, in the context of the story, even those characters contribute to the fun. Fans of Virginia Woolf, and Anglophiles of all stripes, are likely to enjoy this one a great deal. I certainly did.