photo by P.D. Smith
How a house inspired one of our greatest writers
by Carole Buchan
Asham was a house of ghosts: a house where, according to Leonard Woolf, it seemed as if each night two people walked from room to room, opening and shutting doors, sighing, whispering.
It was the house where Virginia and Leonard Woolf spent their wedding night, where they entertained their friends –
artists, writers and intellectuals, where Virginia renewed herself as a writer, and where she was perhaps the happiest. They lived there for seven years, untroubled by their ghostly neighbours.
Writes Leonard in his autobiography: ‘I have never known a house which had such a strong character, a personality of its own – romantic, gentle, melancholy, lovely.’
Asham House stood just off the road between Lewes and Newhaven, near the village of Beddingham. It seems to have been both haunted and haunting – and was the inspiration for Virginia’s short story ‘The Haunted House‘.
Yet Asham House (or Asheham, as it was originally spelt), home to one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, was destined to be sold to a cement company, where quarrying quickly destroyed the unique character of the surrounding countryside and where eventually, uninhabitable and derelict, it was demolished. The date was July 12, 1994 – 75 years after Virginia and Leonard Woolf had to surrender the lease to the owner, moving from their beloved Asham and its ghosts, to Monks House in Rodmell.
The demolition did not come without a fight, but despite a vigorous local campaign to save it, the bulldozers moved in. That could have been the end of the story – but in fact it was the beginning of a new story. Part of the sum paid in compensation was used by Lewes District Council to set up the Asham Literary Endowment Trust. The legacy of the impact of Asham House and its surroundings on Virginia Woolf’s writing – some of the most influential of the 20th century – is the legacy which the Asham Trust exists to perpetuate.
The Trust is committed to supporting and encouraging new writing. Its flagship project is the Asham Award – the only national short story competition of its kind for new women writers.
What makes the Award unique is that the twelve winning stories are published alongside specially commissioned work by leading women writers from all over the world – names such as Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, Helen Dunmore, to list just a few.
Many winners of the Asham Award have gone on to see their own novels and anthologies published. One writer – Naomi Alderman – came third in 2004 and later won the Orange Award for new writers with her first novel Disobedience.
The first three Asham anthologies were published by the exciting and innovative Serpents Tail, and the next four by Bloomsbury. Now Asham has joined forces with Virago, the publishing house set up to celebrate women’s writing. And this year, for the first time in its 15-year history, there was a theme to the competition: Ghost or Gothic. Prize-winning novelist, and mistress of the genre, Sarah Waters, was one of the judges. And it was a line from Waters’ own novel, The Little Stranger, which inspired the title for the latest prizewinning Asham collection, Something Was There, launched in September.
This is a collection to raise the hair on the back of the neck, to make readers shiver with anticipation. But these are not all darkly Gothic stories. There is plenty of contemporary humour, too, all with a ghostly twist and a delicious sting in the tail.
Twelve new winning writers are featured in these pages – and they come from all over the UK. Their stories are printed alongside specially commissioned stories by guest writers Kate Clanchy, Polly Samson and Naomi Alderman. The collection also includes a recently discovered ghost story by another great mistress of suspense, Daphne du Maurier.
So the legacy of Asham House lives on. The wheel has turned full circle and those friendly ghosts who so inspired Virginia Woolf have inspired a new generation of writers.
The full results of the 2011 Asham Award and some of the winning stories are available on the Asham Award website.
The 2012 Asham Award will be launched in mid-June.