Virginia Woolf, famous novelist, feminist, essayist, critic

Virginia Woolf, Talland House, St Ives, Cornwall

Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London to Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Princep Duckworth (Woolf was her married name). Virginia Woolf was educated by her parents in their well connected household at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington, London. Her connection with Cornwall was in the fisrst 12 years of her life, as the family had holidays every year in St Ives.

Their family holidays were spent at Tallend House in St. Ives Cornwall. St. Ives played a large part in Virginia's imagination. St. Ives provided settings for Jacob's Room, The Waves, and Godrevy Lighthouse inspired her famous novel 'To The Lighthouse' although set in the Isle of Skye.

Talland House

The Stephen family leased this large house (picture above) from the year Virginia Woolf was born (1882) until the year of her mother's death (1895). Woolf's fifth novel To the Lighthouse (1927) evokes the spirit of those childhood summers with a large family and lots of house guests.

In "A Sketch of the Past," Woolf describes her father's first finding the house:

"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 Tregenna perhaps, he must have been impressed, in his silent way, by the beauty of the Bay; and thought: this might do for our summer holiday, and worked out with his usual caution ways and means. . . . It proves the ease and amplitude of those days that a man to whom money was an obsession thought it feasible to take a house on the very toenail, as he called it, of England, so that every summer he would be faced with the expense of moving children, nurses, servants from one end of England to the other. Yet he did it. They rented the house from the Great Western Railway Company. . . . [I]n retrospect nothing that we had as children made as much difference, was quite so important to us, as our summer in Cornwall. . . . to hear the waves breaking that first night behind the yellow blind; to dig in the sand; to go sailing in a fishing boat; to scrabble over the rocks and see the red and yellow anemones flourishing their antennae; or stuck like blobs of jelly to the rock; to find a small fish flapping in a pool; to pick up cowries; to look over the grammar in the dining room and see the lights changing on the bay; the leaves of the escallonia grey or bright green. . ." (Moments of Being, p. 127, Harcourt edition)

Talland House is a late Victorian villa, built in the colonial style and located on the edge of St Ives, above Porthminster Beach. From the property there are spectacular views across St Ives Bay towards Godrevy Lighthouse. Guests there on their holidays included her father's friends George Meredith, Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, and Henry James and the young Rupert Brook.

Quentin Bell, in his biography of his aunt, states: "St. Ives provided a treasury of reminiscent gold from which she drew again and again. . . . Cornwall was the Eden of her youth, an unfortgettable paradise."

Her autobiographical essay Sketch Of The Past, portrays the warm smells of a Cornish seaside garden, the long-gone Victorian tennis court, the clunk of cricket balls on the lawn and the trickle of the fountain hedged in by “damp evergreens”, smell the wild roses and the grapes and peaches which hung in the ornate greenhouses.

The house has now been converted into holiday flats.

Godrevy Lighthouse, Cornwall

'To The Lighthouse'

Two years before her death Virginia wrote, "St. Ives gave me all the pure delight which is before my eyes, even at this moment." A photograph taken in Cornwall when she was about six shows Virginia, tomboyish, concentrating on her role as wicket keeper while Adrian batted. She recorded it in Hyde Park Gate News concerning the expedition to Godrevy lighthouse in St. Ives Bay. : "Master Adrian Stephen was much disappointed at not being allowed to go."

In To The Lighthouse, Woolf used the flowers, birds, landscapes and locals that she recalled from those early holidays in Cornwall, and transposed it all to the Isle of Skye. The novel seemed totally inaccurate to anyone raised in Scotland, and she had never been there at the time she wrote the book. Letters poured in from indignant Scots: “An old creature writes to say that all my fauna and flora of the Hebrides is totally inaccurate,” Woolf complained in a letter to Vita. Lord Olivier wrote to advise Virginia that her descriptions of “horticulture and natural history” should have been researched more thoroughly, because there were no “rooks, elms, or dahlias in the Hebrides”.

Never the less the book is a classic of English Literature

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