Cornwall has inspired many writers but few places have the influence St Ives had on Virginia Woolf
Look carefully and you will see lovers of literature peering through the upper windows of Talland House in St Ives in amazement. More than a century ago, modernist writer Virginia Woolf spent much of her childhood at home and inspired the St. Ives trilogy: Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse and to the Waves.
Now a new novel – and its title – is taking inspiration from her childhood home in St Ives. Wolfe scholar Maggie Hamm took Lily Briscoe’s story in To the Lighthouse and created the perfect narrative about the characters 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 taught by her writing in the so-called St. Ives trilogy. There are dozens of references to the city and her feelings towards it. Vanessa, in turn, was influenced by the Cornwall artists’ colonies at Newlyn and the St Ives Art Club.
Their father, Leslie Stephen, discovered St Ives on a walking tour of Cornwall and bought the lease on Taland House in 1881. For several months of the year the elegant house overlooking St Ives Bay was the Stephen family home until 1895 when their mother Julia died when Virginia Kahn 12. The house was no longer in use, but Virigina was back in St Ives regularly.
Maggie Hamm’s Talland House tells the behind-the-scenes story of Wolfe to the Lighthouse and tells the story of one of literature’s most iconic heroines. We meet Lily Briscoe outside of Woolf’s novel. The book also solves the literary mystery of Ramsay’s sudden death, which is only mentioned briefly in To the Lighthouse.
“I’ve always wanted to solve the mystery of Mrs. Ramsay’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 deals with the character of Lily Briscoe who begins as an uncertain young painter attempting to paint a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay and James and suffers from the claims of Charles Tansley, another guest, who maintains that women cannot paint or write. How did Lady Ramsay die? Was she killed? Maggie says Lily Briscoe – who works as a pharmacist during the war – might have the answer.
Virginia Woolf and her modern style of consciousness writing—along with her well-publicized mental ill health and eventual suicide—gave her novels a reputation for being difficult. This legend 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 adulthood to be inspired, write and find solace. “Perhaps nothing we had as children was so important to us as our summers in Cornwall,” Virginia wrote. To have our own house, our own garden—to have that bay, that sea and mountain; Clodgy and Halestown bog, Carbis Bay, Lelant, Zennor, Trevail, the Gurnard’s Head: to hear the waves breaking that first night behind the yellow curtain, to sail in the cart; to dig in the sand to ski over the rocks… I can fill pages remembering one thing after another that made a summer in St Ives the best start to a life imaginable.”
Today, Talland House has been divided into flats and the owners have recreated the remaining gardens around the house to look as they would have during Stephen’s family occupancy – thanks to the painstaking research of heritage horticulturist Polly Carter who read through the novels for references: The lighthouse speaks of artichokes in Roses and poppies in cabbage and red geraniums, she says. Polly also rummages through photographic archives to find turn-of-the-century photographs of gardens. The house attracts many “Wolvians” who will make pilgrimages to see the house, which has been repeatedly ransacked for inspiration in Virginia Woolf’s novels.
Virginia Woolf’s trilogy in St Ives’s Jacob’s Room (1922): Woolf’s first novel of modernity and imitates family holidays in Cornwall
To the Lighthouse (1927): relives her childhood at Talland House in Cornwall – and the view of St Ives Bay towards Godrevy Lighthouse. The Stevens family is recreated as the Ramsey family with a petty, selfish, vain and egotistical father who wears his wife to death. The novel is regularly selected as one of the best English-language novels in the world.
The Waves (1931): an experimental series of soliloquies broken down by a coastal scene at different stages in a single day from sunrise to sunset.
Talland house now for sale: amazon.co.uk/Books/Maggie Humm
This article first appeared in Cornwall Live. For our latest subscription offers click here