When she was in her late fifties, Virginia Woolf wrote that her most important memory was of lying in bed at Talland House—the nineteenth-century home in St Ives, Cornwall where she, her parents, and her seven siblings spent every summer until she was thirteen—and listening to waves break on the beach as sunlight pressed against a yellow blind. It was “of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.” This radiance and cresting water would be consecrated again and again in her writing, saturating not only essays, diaries, and letters but also Jacob’s Room, The Waves, and To the Lighthouse. As Hermione Lee notes in her biography of Woolf, “Happiness is always measured for her against the memory of being a child in that house.”
When Woolf’s mother died of rheumatic fever in 1895, the Stephen family’s visits to Talland House abruptly ceased. Its lease was sold soon afterward. Some thirty years later, this sudden, devastating break—the actual and figurative end to Woolf’s childhood—would spark the plot of To the Lighthouse, her novel about a family of ten who spends the summer in a remote seaside town. The family’s house, and its surroundings, are as vital to the book as its cast of human characters; I went to St Ives to see what they might teach me, not just about Virginia Woolf but also about those homes by which we measure happiness.
It was a clear June afternoon when I boarded the train, sipping wine, skimming past apricot bluffs; I was feeling as dreamy as Woolf about the journey. “This time tomorrow,” she wrote in 1921, “we shall be stepping onto the platform at Penzance, sniffing the air, looking for our trap, & then—Good God!—driving off across the moors to Zennor—Why am I so incredibly & incurably romantic about Cornwall?” Four hours later, St Ives Bay at last unveiled itself, the same view, more or less, that causes Mrs. Ramsay—Woolf’s mother’s analogue—to stop short, exclaiming at “the great plateful of blue water,” with its “hoary Lighthouse” and “green sand dunes with the wild flowing grasses on them.” I’d read those words a hundred times, and the image they had always conjured was of a seascape much nearer and brighter than this one, but I liked this readjustment of my vision. It was an enlargement, the gentle pop of a jigsaw puzzle fitting together, and so, too, after dinner, when the cobblestone path curved around and up to reveal a vast sandy beach, the waves coiling and crashing in rows of four. I understood then what Woolf meant when she wrote, addressing Cornwall’s pull, of “old waves that have been breaking precisely so these thousand years,” and when she wrote, in her original notes for To the Lighthouse, that “the sea is to be heard all through it.” As much as anywhere I’ve ever been, the sea is the lifeblood of St Ives.
The following morning I woke early and wandered into town, a heap of shops and houses, nestled around a harbor, whose turquoise waters and spiky palms gave it an unexpectedly Mediterranean feel. This wasn’t my first literary pilgrimage, but I was still surprised by the faintness of Woolf’s footprint; the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, whose nearby studio and garden were on view, had handed down a far more potent legacy. It wasn’t until I approached one of the tour guides on the wharf hawking expeditions that my pursuit was in some sense rewarded. “We aren’t going to the lighthouse today,” he told me. “There isn’t enough interest.” His competitor said the same, adding that the tides would make the trip unfeasible for some days’ time, but she also handed me a crumpled printout: Godrevy Lighthouse “inspired Virginia Wolf [sic] to write the book The Light House,” it declared with confidence, explaining that the author had visited in 1892 and signed a guestbook that would later fetch £10,250 at auction.
That was my only overt brush with Woolf that day, but as I continued to explore the town it was easy to see how such a spot might have helped to birth her novel, a narrative rife with angry seas and images of wreckage. The fierce currents that precluded my Godrevy trip—an apt failure, given the Ramsays’ own aborted voyage in the novel—have left deep scars on the community. I consoled myself with a cruise to Seal Island, our boat hugging the crumpled, lime-green cliffs; the guide was a retired lifeboat captain who remembered climbing the rocks as a child and being stranded as the tide rushed in. Later, roaming the cobblestone streets, I chanced upon a large bronze plaque, tarnished and sweetly wordy: IN MEMORY OF THE MEN OF SAINT IVES WHO LOST THEIR LIVES IN THE PURSUIT OF THEIR PROFESSION OF FISHERMAN WHILE WORKING IN VESSELS REGISTERED IN THE PORT OF ST IVES. And when I read up on Godrevy Lighthouse, with the help of a more reputable source, I learned of dozens of additional disasters, among them the 1649 wreck of the Garland, a ship carrying the possessions of newly beheaded King Charles I and his fugitive queen. Of the sixty or so passengers, a man, a boy, and a wolf-dog were the sole survivors; for years afterward, it was said, gold buttons washed up on the beach at Hayle.
Is it any wonder, given this fearsome history, that Woolf’s characters in To the Lighthouse, grappling with their own catastrophic loss, embraced a language of nautical apocalypse? Cam, the Ramsays’ youngest daughter, has a fantasy of being “in a great storm after a shipwreck,” Mr. Ramsay finds comfort in recitation of William Cowper’s “The Castaway,” and Macalister is haunted by the memory of seeing three sailors clawing at the mast as he watched their ship go down. In Virginia Woolf’s Cornwall, it is the ocean’s fury—not its beguiling beauty, not the ecstasy it kindles—that is at the heart of things.
Talland House sits on a hill to the east of St Ives Harbour. When, at the end of a cul-de-sac, it finally materialized, I felt a stab of disappointment. Its ivory walls were streaked with rust, and a tangle of exterior metal staircases crept up the rear. A Ford Focus was parked in the driveway. I was still debating my approach when a beefy young man in blue sweatpants walked out with a Rottweiler. “Yeah?” he asked, suspicious.
“I’m just looking at the house,” I said. “You know Virginia Woolf lived here?”
“Is it okay if I look around?”
“Yeah,” he said again, gesturing toward a snarl of vegetation. “There’s a lawn round back if you like.”
I thanked him, wondering how many seekers had appeared at his door, then plunged into the upper garden. Much of the land had been sold off, and a parking lot replaced the orchard, but I could still see what Leslie Stephen, Woolf’s father, had meant by “a garden of an acre or two all up and down hill, with quaint little terraces divided by hedges of escallonia.” A stepping-stone path led off to the left. I followed it down into a clearing with a tiny pond, hidden from the house above. Then, treading onto the main lawn, I finally met the Talland House I knew from pictures. The ivy had been stripped from its façade, and its railing replaced by an addition, but I recognized the two sets of French doors that opened onto steps—there’s a photograph of Henry James perched here, reading—and, above them, the wrought iron verandahs that appear in one of Woolf’s earliest memories: her mother emerging “onto her balcony in a white dressing gown” as passion flowers spilled from the walls. I was peering through the French doors into the drawing room when I heard the gardener, crossing the lawn with a stack of severed branches in his arms.
He was in his early forties, friendly, weathered, with strawberry blond hair. “I could show you some pictures if you’re interested,” he said, when I explained why I was there.
“Oh, yes!” I said. He raised his bundle of branches, and told me he would bring the photographs on his return.
In his absence, I looked through windows. One revealed a generous foyer, another a bedroom with a collection of dead-eyed antique teddy bears. The door to the apartments upstairs was open, and I climbed the narrow stairs toward the attic, which in To the Lighthouse “the sun poured into,” drawing from “the long frilled strips of seaweed pinned to the wall a smell of salt and weeds, which was in the towels too, gritty with sand from bathing.” I had always loved that porous image, and in fact all descriptions of the Ramsays’ home suggest a space as bleached and weathered as a rowboat, a space that maintains only the flimsiest barrier between the family and the elements—an encroachment by nature that prefigures “Time Passes,” the novel’s anarchic middle section. But the attic that day was dark and dry, with clean blue carpets and bolted doors that precluded further exploration; even the rooms facing the bay seemed unusually hermetic, as if they hailed from an altogether different book.
The gardener came back covered in blood. “I cut myself looking for the pictures,” he said apologetically, holding up three large black-and-white photographs, or rather, photocopies of photographs, encased in rickety frames, ribboned with cobwebs, and now slightly smeared with red. He assured me he was all right and turned the frames around to reveal their written descriptions. “Family by front door c. 1892,” read one, and another, “Adrian, Thoby, Vanessa, Virginia with dog.” I was struck by Woolf’s fidgety hands, by the girls’ heavy skirts, by the obvious intimacy between sisters. “You’re welcome to them,” he said, “if you can get them back to America.” Looking closer, I saw that spiders had attached their egg sacs to the glass, but I accepted the photos gratefully and held out my hand to say goodbye. The gardener hesitated: “I’m a bit bloody, I’m afraid.” We shook with his left instead.
Before leaving, I paused and looked one last time at the house. Time passes, I thought, yes, but what does that mean? To the shock and despair of all who have read To the Lighthouse—if you haven’t, consider this your spoiler alert—Mrs. Ramsay dies unexpectedly midway through the novel; with her gone, the Scottish property is abandoned, its light extinguished. Mrs. McNab, the housekeeper, eventually intervenes to protect against the house’s total collapse, but not before Woolf can offer an alternate rendition of its fate:
In the ruined room, picnickers would have lit their kettles; lovers sought shelter there, lying on the bare boards; and the shepherd stored his dinner on the bricks, and the tramp slept with his coat round him to ward off the cold. Then the roof would have fallen; briars and hemlocks would have blotted out path, step, and window; would have grown, unequally but lustily over the mound, until some trespasser, losing his way, could have told only by a red-hot poker among the nettles, or a scrap of china in the hemlock that here once some one had lived; there had been a house.
Woolf’s vision of the future could just as easily be a vision of the past. The prickly, poisonous foliage restores the land to wilderness; the figures she chooses to populate the scene—lovers, tramps, and shepherds—are eternal. But as I gazed up at Talland House and the nearby flats and cranes (a rising apartment block will soon obstruct Talland’s lighthouse view), I felt a twinge of nostalgia for that more elemental prophecy. I wished for the reabsorption of the home into the earth, so that, for trespassers like me, it would live on only in language. Instead, with its rusty staircases and labyrinthine additions, it seemed some grotesque distortion of itself.
I was halfway down the drive when the gardener ran toward me with a folded piece of paper. “My CV,” he said, “in case you ever need a gardener in the States.” He admitted that after twelve years he was being let go—apparently the landlord had decided that Talland House no longer needed full-time upkeep. I thought of Mrs. Ramsay as she joins her husband on the lawn, lamenting the fifty pounds that it will cost to mend the greenhouse. Even so, she says, the gardener’s beauty is so great that she couldn’t possibly dismiss him.
As I walked down the hill to the beach, it occurred to me that Mrs. Ramsay’s refusal to fire the gardener is yet another way in which she protects her family and home against the ferocity of nature, and that, conversely, the dismissal of Andrew Shaw—the name on the CV—was the first step toward Woolf’s vision of a timeless, sylvan future. Perhaps the garden will grow wild after all.
On my last morning in St Ives, I dove beneath the waves at Porthmeor Beach—dodging the noxious jellyfish that Woolf described as “lamps, with streaming hair”—and then sat dripping on the sand, overcome, not for the first time that trip, by a kind of quiet, spreading contentment. Woolf would retreat to Cornwall again and again over the course of her life, lured by its sea air and seclusion; this spot “on the very toenail” of England, as her father called it, seemed to offer her a sustenance unlike that of anywhere else in the world. “I went for a walk in Regents Park yesterday morning,” she wrote to her sister Vanessa Bell in 1909, explaining an impulsive journey that dropped her at the station in Lelant in the middle of the night, without her glasses or a coat, “and it suddenly struck me how absurd it was to stay in London, with Cornwall going on all the time.” But though she would return to Talland House on several occasions, sneaking across the grass and peeking through its windows, this site of so much early happiness remained forever out of reach. One evening, in 1905, she and her siblings climbed the steps of their childhood home for the first time since their mother’s death. “As we well knew,” she wrote, “we could go no further; if we advanced the spell was broken. The lights were not our lights; the voices were the voices of strangers.”
Katharine Smyth is the author of All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf. A graduate of of Brown University, she has worked for The Paris Review and taught at Columbia University, where she received her M.F.A. in nonfiction. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Adapted from All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf, by Katharine Smyth, published this week by Crown.