It’s those steps. How many times have I seen fading photos of those steps? With Henry James sitting on them or Julia Stephen or the young Virginia Woolf or Vanessa Bell?
And to stand in front of them, on them, in the rooms into which they lead is just incredible.
It’s amazing to have been here at all. Talland House isn’t a heritage building. It’s not run by a Trust of any kind. It may be a listed building, but the people who live in the flats into which it has been transformed aren’t museum curators.
What they are is incredibly welcoming, throwing open their home for a group of Woolf enthusiasts, patiently answering our questions, explaining which bits are still in the same condition as in the Stephens’ time, explaining which parts are described in ‘To The Lighthouse’ and then making us tea and scones in the downstairs kitchen. They didn’t have to do any of that. Their awareness of the history of their home and huge generosity are the only explanations for it. I very much enjoy going to writers’ homes preserved as museums. Monks’ House and Charleston are magical places. But there was something special about seeing Talland House in this way, as if those of us lucky enough to visit it were being let in on a wonderful secret.
As every Woolf fan knows, Talland House in St Ives is where Leslie and Julia Stephen brought their family for three months of every year between in the 1880s and 1890s. It’s where Virginia and Vanessa Stephen tasted the freedom that they pursued as adults and, although it informed Virginia Woolf throughout her career, it’s best known as the inspiration for her novel ‘To the Lighthouse.’
‘To the Lighthouse’ was the first thing I’d ever read by Virginia Woolf and it was the central section which elevates an awkward Victorian dinner into an emotional symphony which won me over and began a lifetime fascination with her writing and her ideas, not to mention her life and those of her family and friends. So to step into the room (now a bedroom) which she envisaged as she was writing that was quite something.
So too was being in the drawing room. One of my favourite photos of the young Virginia shows her peeking behind a sofa on which sit her parents who are reading. I’ve tried reading her expression: frustrated? Impudent? I’ve often imagined being in that room, listening to the clock ticking and, like the young Virginia, trying to work out what’s going on in her parents’ heads.
The current resident keeps her sofa in pretty much the same place as did the Stephens. I asked her permission to take this photo. Where the table with the reading lamp is where I think Virginia must have been sitting. Isn’t that amazing?
I have much more to say about the work the residents are doing in their spare time to try to restore the garden, but that’s for another time. For now, look at this incredible view from the drawing room. When the Stephens rented Talland House, there were no other buildings between them and the beach. No wonder they looked out and longed to visit Godvrey Lighthouse.