You can’t blame a writer for taking risks, especially when the writer is as talented as Stephanie Barron, whose background includes a degree in European history and a stint as a CIA intelligence analyst. Under the name Francine Mathews, she has written contemporary mysteries centered on Nantucket and globe-trotting thrillers set in the present as well as in World War II Paris (“The Alibi Club”). These are in addition to the nine novels in the Jane Austen mystery series for which Barron is best known. Critics have praised her keen eye for period details and her ability to interweave credible fictional and real-life characters. That praise continued for 2008’s “A Flaw in the Blood,” her last novel, set during the reign of Queen Victoria.
“The White Garden” brings Barron to the mid-20th century and a woman contemplating suicide on a blustery day in 1941: “To stand on the bank of the River Ouse was to grip the edge of a volcano: she could hardly keep from hurling herself in.” The unnamed woman is Virginia Woolf, seminal author of “Mrs. Dalloway,” “To the Lighthouse” and “The Waves” and founding member of the Bloomsbury Group. But Barron’s Woolf wavers at the riverbank, raising the tantalizing question -- what if she had not walked, her pockets weighted with stones, into the river that March 28? What if, at the riverbank, she had opted for life over death? “In Latin,” the author slyly tells us, “the word would be vita.”
Fast-forward to the present. Jo Bellamy, an American landscape designer, has traveled to Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson’s Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. Sackville-West and Woolf had been intimate friends, and at one time lovers. Jo is there to research and copy Sissinghurst’s White Garden for clients Graydon Westlake, a wealthy financier, and his wife, Alicia. While the wife is ostensibly her client, Jo is drawn to “Graydon the enigmatic,” who would “run his sensitive long-fingered hands over the kitchen garden’s walls, an idea of pear trees rising in his mind. Jo had watched those fingers caress the stone, had felt the hooded eyes fix on her bent head, and had shivered.”
A recent suicide
Barron’s tenuous connection to Woolf’s last days is Jo, replete with guilt over both her feelings for Gray, as Jo calls him, and the recent suicide of her grandfather Jock, a transplanted Kentishman and gardener who hangs himself soon after hearing his granddaughter is to visit Sissinghurst, “as though her news had driven Jock to suicide.”
Among the personal effects Jock leaves for his wife to find are a regretful letter, written to his parents while he was stationed near Brindisi during World War II, that mentions the death of “that lady back home” and asserting “I never did nothing for the Lady but what she asked.” While there are no obvious clues to the lady’s identity, Jo knows her grandfather grew up in service at Knole House, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Dorset, the childhood home of Vita Sackville-West.
Jo’s search for information on her grandfather -- and possibly a reason for his suicide -- propels her to take a day off from her White Garden research to visit the Center for Kentish Studies and search the estate records for Knole House, where she learns Jock had been loaned out to Vita at Sissinghurst. Further exploration back at the gardens with Imogen Cantwell, the head gardener, unearths a heretofore undiscovered copybook, seemingly to have belonged to Jock, that contains a diary “Notes on the Making of a White Garden” and dated March 29, 1941, which readers (but not Jo) will recognize as the day after Woolf’s presumed death in the River Ouse.
A Woolf diary?
It’s little surprise when Jo and Imogen, after reading an entry, surmise the diary may have been written by Woolf. Upon spiriting the diary to Sotheby’s in London, Jo is directed to a manuscript expert, Peter Llewellyn, who can connect her to Margaux Strand, a Cambridge don who happens to be both Peter’s ex-wife and a Woolf scholar. As the coincidences stack up like jets over Heathrow, the chase that ensues -- involving Jo and Peter, an officious Sotheby’s dealer and stubborn Imogen Cantwell, drop-dead gorgeous Margaux and powerful Graydon (who happens to jet up from a business meeting in Brazil to seduce Jo) -- exposes the reader to Cambridge archives, Virginia Woolf’s haunts and a deeper mystery involving the wartime activities of a secret society of Cambridge students with ties to Bloomsbury, including a few familiar names from history.
This central World War II story and the role Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband, and others may have played in it is intriguing and highlights not only Barron’s ability to alchemize historical fact into fiction but also her ability to present absorbing details of Sissinghurst’s gardens, history and the surrounding Kentish countryside. Had Barron made these elements the focus of her story and not the formulaic modern characters, love triangles and lost artifact chase so popular in genre fiction of the moment, “The White Garden” may have pulled it off.