Gardens at Virigina Woolf’s St Ives home restored
PUBLISHED: 12:52 22 September 2020
Cornwall has inspired many writers but few places had the impact that St Ives had on Virginia Woolf
Look carefully and you will see literature fans look up in wonder at the upper windows of Talland House in St Ives. More than a century ago, modernist writer Virginia Woolf spent much of their childhood in the house inspiring her St Ives trilogy: Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse and The Waves.
Now a new novel takes inspiration – and its title – from her St Ives childhood home. Woolf scholar Professor Maggie Humm has taken the story of Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse and created a pitch perfect novel of the characters that fans love.
Virginia – and her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell – spent much of their childhood at Talland House in St Ives; a childhood full of memories which informed her writing in the so-called St Ives trilogy. There are dozens of references to the town and her feelings for it. Vanessa in turn was influenced by the artist colonies in Cornwall at Newlyn and the St Ives Arts Club.
Their father Leslie Stephen discovered St Ives on a walking tour of Cornwall and bought the lease of Talland House in 1881. For several months of the year the elegant house overlooking St Ives Bay was the Stephen’s family home until 1895 when their mother Julia died when Virginia was 12. The house was no longer used, but Virigina would return to St Ives regularly.
Maggie Humm’s novel Talland House goes behind the scenes of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and tells the story of one of the most iconic literary heroines. We meet Lily Briscoe outside of the confines of Woolf’s novel. The book also solves the literary mystery of Ms Ramsay’s sudden death, only briefly mentioned in To the Lighthouse.
“I have always wanted to solve the mystery of Mrs Ramsey’s death,” says Maggie who became a fan of Woolf from an early age. “My mother died when I was 13 at the age of 49, the same age as Virginia’s mother, Julia Stephen.”
Her novel considers the character Lily Briscoe who begins as a young, uncertain painter attempting a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay and James and suffers at the claims of Charles Tansley, another guest, who asserts that women can neither paint nor write. So how did Mrs Ramsey die? Was she murdered? Lily Briscoe – who works in a pharmacist during the war might have the answer, says Maggie.
Virginia Woolf and her modernist stream of consciousness writing style – along with her well-publicised mental ill-health and eventual suicide – have given her novels a reputation of being difficult. This myth belies the beauty of her writing – much of it inspired by her childhood spent in St Ives and to which she returned again and again in her adulthood to be inspired, to write and to find solace. “Probably nothing that we had as children was quite so important to us as our summer in Cornwall,” Virginia wrote. “To have our own house, our own garden – to have that bay, that sea, and the Mount; Clodgy and Halestown bog, Carbis Bay, Lelant, Zennor, Trevail, the Gurnard’s Head: to hear the waves breaking that first night behind the yellow blind, to sail in the lugger; to dig in the sand; to scramble over the rocks... I could fill pages remembering one thing after another that made the summer at St Ives the best beginning to a life conceivable.”
Today Talland House is split into flats and its owners have recreated the remaining gardens around the house to look as they would have done during the Stephen family’s occupancy - thanks to painstaking research by heritage horticulturist Polly Carter who read through the novels for references: To the Lighthouse talks about artichokes in the roses and poppies in the cabbage and red trailing geraniums, she says. Polly also plundering photographic archives to find images of the gardens at the turn of the last century. The house attracts many ‘Woolfians’ who will make the pilgrimage to see the house that is plundered again and again for inspiration within Virginia Woolf’s novels.
Virigina Woolf’s St Ives trilogy Jacob’s Room (1922): Woolf’s first modernist novel and feeatures family holidays in Cornwall
To The Lighthouse (1927): Recreates her childhood at Talland House in Cornwall – and the view of St Ives Bay towards Godrevy Lighthouse. The Stephens family are recreated as The Ramseys with a petty, selfish, vain, egotistical’ father who wears his wife to death’. The novel is regularly chosen as one of the world’s top English language novels.
The Waves (1931): An experimental series of soliloquies broken up by a coastal scene in varying stages in a day from sunrise to sunset.
Talland House is on sale now: amazon.co.uk/Books/Maggie Humm
This article first appeared in Cornwall Life. For our latest subscription offers click here