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When I first heard that renowned Virginia Woolf scholar Maggie Humm was writing a novel featuring Lily Briscoe and based on Woolf’s semi-autobiographical novel To the Lighthouse (1927), I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

The opportunity came in March, when I saw on Facebook that Maggie had advance reader’s copies in her grasp. After meeting Maggie at many Woolf conferences, I consider her a friend. So I contacted her and asked for a copy. She immediately promised to send one.

Pandemic realities on both sides of the pond

A few hours later, pandemic reality hit her. Recalling that the coronavirus had pretty much grounded all international flights, thereby shutting down international mail delivery, Maggie realized that a copy mailed from England would be unlikely to reach me. She put me in touch with her U.S. publicist to obtain a copy stateside instead.

The book arrived quickly, and I expected to jump right in. But my pandemic reality meant I had difficulty focusing on Maggie’s book — or any book — until recently. That made me late finishing the novel and late posting about it here as well. But since it is now available on Amazon, better late than never. So here goes.

Talland House fills in and illuminates

Maggie, emeritus professor of cultural studies at the University of East London, is the author or editor of 14 books, with the last three focused on Woolf and the arts. So it is only natural that in her first novel, Talland House, Maggie focuses on artist Lily Briscoe from To the Lighthouse.

To that end, Talland House fills in Lily’s back story — the death of her mother, her art studies in Paris and St. Ives, her work as a nurse during the Great War, and her involvement in the suffrage movement. Set between 1900 and 1918 in both Cornwall and London, it also provides a prequel to Woolf’s novel and reimagines that work from Lily’s perspective.

That reimagining includes Mrs. Ramsay’s demise. Her death, mentioned briefly and parenthetically in Woolf’s novel, is “discovered” or explained in Maggie’s novel. But I will include no spoilers here.

While conducting research to write the novel, Maggie pored over old photos of St. Ives, as well as Cornish newspapers, artists’ memoirs, and art journals to get a feel for the seaside town and its art community during the years the novel covers.

St. Ives Bay, June 2004

The extent of her research shows in her luminous prose that paints a compelling and colorful picture of St. Ives and its charms, the location of all of Woolf’s novel and much of Talland House. The picture is so complete — from the view of the lighthouse from Talland House to the fishing boats in the harbor — that one is transported back in time to the cobblestone streets of the Cornish town.

References slipped into a must-read

Woolf scholars and readers will delight in catching the specific references to Woolf’s work that Maggie slips into this historical novel.

Lily makes note of Mr. Ramsay’s boots and his recitation of Tennyson’s poems. She recalls moving the salt cellar at dinner and describes the animal skull on the nursery wall and the tapping sound of the window blind’s acorn on the nursery floor. And in a fresh take-off on Woolf’s famous line in “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” (1940), “Thinking is my fighting,” Lily proclaims that painting is hers.

If you are a fan of Woolf, this is a must-read. If you are not, it will make you want to become one, just so you can connect this enchanting novel to Woolf’s works.

More on the novel

Talland House was shortlisted for the Impress and Fresher Fiction prizes in 2017 (as Who Killed Mrs. Ramsay?) and the Retreat West and Eyelands prizes in 2018.

Read more about Talland House:

Maggie Humm has brilliantly filled in the edges beyond Woolf’s canvas; she has a deep, awe-inspiring understanding of the role of the visual in Woolf’s work, and here she reveals that she also has a novelist’s gift to create something new, that has its own imaginative life, from that understanding. -Lauren Elkin, author of the award-winning Flaneuse

Maggie Humm talking about Virginia Woolf and her photo albums at Waterstone’s Gower Street during Dalloway Day celebrations in London in 2018.

 

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The Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain has postponed two events until next year, due to the coronavirus.
  1. The Virginia Woolf Short Stories Conference and General Meeting, originally scheduled for this Oct. 17, will instead be held Saturday April 10, 2021, from 10:30 a.m. – 4 p.m., with registration beginning at 10 a.m.
    Venue: Oriental Club, First Floor, 11 Stratford Place, London WIC IES, opposite Bond Street tube.
    Cost: £35 Members, students & conc., £38 non-members. Lunch and refreshments are included. The event is sold out but please email latham_phillips@yahoo.com if you would like to join a waiting list. Please note any member is welcome to attend the AGM at 2 p.m.
  2. The Virginia Woolf and St. Ives Conference, originally scheduled for this fall, will instead be held Thursday, Oct. 7, to Sunday, Oct. 10. For members only.
    Venue: Porthmeor Studios, Back Road West, St Ives, TR26 1NG, Cornwall.
    Details: The conference will include talks on To the Lighthouse, Virginia in St Ives, Julia Stephen, St. Ives Artists and Writers and St. Ives local history. Visits to the Tate St. Ives, Talland House garden and Zennor will be part of the conference. Accommodations to be booked by attendees. Two dinners will be booked in St. Ives, with lunch and refreshments provided during the day. The timetable is designed around the Paddington train.
St. Ives bay

St. Ives Bay, June 2004

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Since I am currently studying in Canterbury, it would be unthinkable for me, Virginia Woolf’s admirer and scholar, not to visit St. Ives, the mythic place that inspired the most of Virginia Woolf’s novels, but particularly Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse and The Waves.

Talland House

My own exploration of the site has been inspired by Ratha Tep’s Back to the lighthouse: In search of Virginia Woolf’s lost Eden in Cornwall” that appeared in The New York Times on Feb. 26, 2018.

However, as I and my husband chose to visit St. Ives at the very beginning of November, the weather conditions did not permit us to see all the places we had longed to see.

From London to St. Erth

We started our journey to St. Ives early on Friday morning and after we had arrived in London, we boarded the Great Western Service from London to St. Erth.

Surprisingly, the five-hour journey turned out to be quite tolerable, thanks to the comfortable service and a good read (Woolf’s Orlando). How different, longer and more uncomfortable the Stephens’ journey must have been at the turn of the 20th century, with all the luggage and servants packed for their summer stay in Talland House!

In St. Erth we had to change for a local service running to St. Ives, a beautiful scenic ride alongside the Cornish coast.

In St. Ives

We arrived in St. Ives around 6 p.m. and made our way up the hill to our B&B that I had chosen due to its location with a view of The Island with St. Nicholas Chapel and Godrevy Lighthouse – the lighthouse!

Although we found a lot of useful information about tourist attractions in St. Ives and its surroundings in a folder in our room, the official guide booklet did not mention Virginia Woolf and the Stephens as famous residents of the town.

The view from our window – Godrevy Lighthouse in the distance
The view of the Island and St. Nicholas Chapel

Exploring the town

The following day, which was extremely windy, we started our exploration of the town. In spite of the construction of modern buildings, numerous hotels and other vacation accommodation, the spirit of the old town from the Stephens’ days was still noticeable – crooked hilly streets in the centre, several churches and the incessant sound of breaking waves.

After hiking up to St. Nicholas Chapel, we visited Talland House, which is located right above the local railway station and which is nowadays, unfortunately, encircled by quite ugly blocks of summer apartments. Luckily, the house is now in the hands of Chris and Angela Roberts who try to renovate the house and re-create the garden in its original spirit. You can read about their praiseworthy effort on a sign attached to the wall of the house.

Woolf talks about her father’s discovery of the house in “A Sketch of the Past” as follows:

Father on one of his walking tours, it must have been in 1881, I think – discovered St. Ives. He must have stayed there, and seen Talland House to let. He must have seen the town almost as it had been in the sixteenth century, without hotels, or villas; and the Bay as it had been since time began. It was the first year, I think, that the line was made from St Erth to St Ives – before that, St Ives was eight miles from a railway. Munching his sandwiches up at Trengenna perhaps, he must have been impressed, in his silent way, by the beauty of the Bay; and thought: this might do for your summer holiday, and worked out with his usual caution ways and means.

Main shopping street in the town centre
Talland House – the steps below the left French window are those where the Stephens used to take their family photo
Sign about the current owners’ aim for Talland House garden
Talland House garden

View from the garden

Even though the house is not opened to the public to admire its Victorian beauties, we were still able to appreciate the view from the garden – Godrevy Lighthouse in the distance, which made Leslie Stephen move his London household to St. Ives every summer until 1894. We visited the garden in an inappropriate season so we could not see its blooming flowers.

However, we were able to see the steps below the left French window of the house where the family used to sit and have their family pictures taken. Moreover, the window directly makes you think of the window from the novel To the Lighthouse which symbolised the distance and seemingly impassable boundary between the house and the lighthouse, or the private life of the family and the outside.

Quite surprisingly, despite the distance from the ocean, the breaking of waves was still audible from the garden of Talland House, as well as from our hotel room, with the same intensity as Woolf describes in the following quotation from “A Sketch of the Past”:

If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills – then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind.

The view of the Lighthouse from Talland House garden

The fact that Woolf places this memory of St Ives and at the base of her life-experience bowl reveals how much she was influenced by the place. As she mentions later in the same memoir, “In retrospect nothing that we had as children made as much difference, was quite so important to us, as our summers in Cornwall”, by which she admits the formative effect of the Stephens’ holidays on the Cornish coast. It was so overwhelming to stand in front of the house to which Woolf pays tribute in To the Lighthouse, but sadly, without being able to talk to the Stephens.

To the lighthouse . . . sort of

The following day we decided to pursue James’s childish wish to visit the lighthouse. Owing to windy weather conditions and rough sea we were forced to abandon the idea of making a boat trip and we went by bus to Upton Towans (line T2 for those who would like to do the same) and from there we followed the Coastal Path to Godrevy Beach and the headland providing the best view of Godrevy Lighthouse.

The scenery along the path was astonishing and it was exciting to approach closer and closer the lighthouse which is the main source of the novel’s symbolism. The inner voice in my head was repeating Mr. Ramsay’s excuse “It won’t be fine” and Nancy’s and Lily’s concern about “What does one send to the Lighthouse?”

When we got to the closest viewpoint on the mainland, we sat on a bench and observed waves breaking on the little island’s shore. It is a pity that today you cannot see the lighthouse’s rotating “yellow eye” because it has been replaced by LED light mounted on a platform nearby the original lighthouse.

I must frankly admit that after two days of harsh wind and rain, after getting soaked while watching seals in a cove, I started to be more sympathetic to Mr. Ramsay’s scathing sentence “It won’t be fine” – was he just the more rational one? Did my own journey to the lighthouse reconcile me with the man?

Coastal path to Godrevy Lighthouse
Godrevy Lighthouse

I would recommend visiting St. Ives to all those who are deeply in love with Virginia Woolf and her writing because it is great to get a sense of the place that I had been imagining in my head for at least a decade.

More Cornish coast magic to explore

Unfortunately, we did not have time to visit surrounding villages such as Zennor where Woolf lived when she returned to the town as an adult woman. I am convinced that this visit to St. Ives is not our last one and that we will continue exploring the magic of the Cornish coast and landscape. We definitely need to make a boat trip from St. Ives to the lighthouse, which must be really enjoyable in the summer.

 

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Virginia Woolf common reader Nell Toemen was visiting St. Ives this week and sent Blogging Woolf the accompanying photo of Talland House, where local residents Chris and Angela Roberts are sprucing up the garden.

For more on visiting St. Ives, see In Her Steps.

Talland House, St. Ives, Cornwall

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Despite opposition from Woolfians worldwide, the destruction of Virginia Woolf’s view of Godrevy Lighthouse from Godrevy LighthouseTalland House is set to move forward, according to a Nov. 7, 2015, story in The Independent.

The proposed multi-story development of six flats and a car park will be built, thanks to a decision by Cornwall County Council that the development can move forward once Porthminster Beach View Ltd. pays £136,000 for not having to provide any “affordable housing.”

The move comes after Woolf scholars and common readers from around the globe raised an outcry last summer, using email, social media and the Web. Their efforts generated media coverage that included the BBC and resulted in the Cornwall Council Planning Committee postponing its decision on the project.

The construction project was further stalled in early August when the English High Court threw out 2014 legislation that said developments of 10 or less could avoid paying an affordable-housing levy or offering any such housing in their development.  The August ruling meant that the developer of the St. Ives project must rethink the economic viability of the project and resubmit it — or pay £136,000.

With the Cornwall County Council decision that the development can take place once the fee is paid, it is unlikely the project can be stopped, despite an outcry from Woolf readers and scholars, as well as her family members.

This appears to be the case despite an email from English Heritage saying legislation includes a provision to “avoid harm to the setting of a listed building if it contributes to the significance of the building.” Talland House is considered Grade II, which means it is “nationally important and of special interest.  The St. Ives resident cited National Planning Framework Section 12 paras. 128,9,132 and noted that he would add this information to the planning comments page for the project, PA15/04337.

Woolf and her family summered at Talland House for the first 12 years of her life. The lighthouse she could see from her summer home plays an integral role in her famous novel To the Lighthouse (1927).

This is a short-sighted move by St Ives and Cornwall’s planners, who seem unaware of the legions of Woolf’s admirers who make the pilgrimage to the town lured by the special, untouched atmosphere captured in my great-aunt’s visionary novel To the Lighthouse – the view of which should remain unobscured for generations to come. – Virginia Nicholson, Woolf’s great-niece

Links to more about the view

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