Maggie Humm is an international Virginia Woolf scholar and Emeritus Professor at the University of East London. Her novel Talland House is a work of historical fiction that interweaves people, places, and events from Woolf’s life with a character – Lily Briscoe – from one of her best-read novels. It’s a delight to have Maggie Humm on the blog.
Talland House and Feminism by Maggie Humm
Talland House was not meant to be a feminist novel. Set between 1900 and 1919 in picturesque Cornwall and war-blasted London, Talland House takes the artist character Lily Briscoe from the pages of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and tells her story outside the confines of Woolf’s novel―as a student in 1900, as a young woman becoming a professional artist, her loves and friendships, mourning her dead mother, and solving the mystery of her friend Mrs. Ramsay’s sudden death. Talland House is a stand-alone novel – part detective story, part romance and historical fiction. But, as my heroine Lily develops, making connections between her personal life and the larger world, she begins to question the authenticity and masculinity of public selves.
Active in feminist politics all my life, I was Co-Chair of the British Women’s Studies Association, founded the first full-time undergraduate UK Women’s Studies degree, and have written many feminist academic books, so I suppose it was inevitable that Talland House would have a flavour of feminism.
One of the most striking features of British women’s writing in the twentieth century is its feminist undercurrent. From Rebecca West through to Angela Carter’s uncompromising allegories, Margaret Drabble’s heroines and beyond, women’s literature often contains strategic metaphors of sexual politics. Woolf’s women characters too, frequently struggle to achieve personhood against socially constructed institutions and images. Why feminism matters, and why it matters to literature, is because feminism resists monolithic and nationalist reproductions. Feminism is not prescriptive or essentialist but inhabits literature in stimulating ways. Feminism has no single vision, although it is a visionary way of seeing. Mainstream literature, on the other hand, often and anxiously creates female stereotypes of ‘good mothers’, ‘barren spinsters’, and ‘hysterical careerists.’
My Lily Briscoe is a spinster and has a career as an artist, becomes a suffragette and then a nurse during World War 1 before returning to Talland House in St Ives and solving the literary mystery which has long puzzled readers of To the Lighthouse – Mrs. Ramsay’s death. One day, over tea, Lily’s father suggests that she marry when the war is over, and Lily reflects –
So what about marriage? She had never prized the idea of a house to manage, a husband and children. They would not enlarge her artistic knowledge and might even curtail her need to paint. It was a spinster in her thirties who looked back at her in the mirror during the morning wash. What she saw was mainly satisfactory. She would have liked larger breasts, rounded and womanly, but she neither disliked nor loved the figure in the frame. She had never wanted to climb out of her skin; there were a few lines, but she didn’t mind too much, and she was free to do whatever she wanted. Not needing any longer to match her life against other women’s lives, she was approaching middle age unalarmed, without fear. A husband would control the rest of her life, the separation of their minds extending as the years advanced—she had seen a gap grow even between her parents. There would be no space for art, for the passion of creation, unless for babies, and it was probably too late for those. She put down her cup of tea.
In Talland House, Lily becomes an independent professional at a time before women had the vote and her personal epiphanies make a crucial contribution to that trajectory. For me, the French writer Nathalie Sarraute’s concept of ‘tropism,’ her term for recording experience as it is felt before it passes through the filter of language, best describes Lily’s and Virginia Woolf’s moments of epiphany. Sarraute campaigned for the women’s vote (granted in 1944 in France) and was very influenced by Virginia Woolf.
By the end of Talland House I hope that readers new to Woolf will want to read her work, especially To the Lighthouse.Talland House is both a story for our present time, exploring the tensions women experience between their public careers and private loves, and a story of a specific moment in our past―a time when women first began to be truly independent.
Talland House by Maggie Humm ~~ Royal Academy, London 1919: Lily has put her student days in St. Ives, Cornwall, behind her—a time when her substitute mother, Mrs. Ramsay, seemingly disliked Lily’s portrait of her and Louis Grier, her tutor, never seduced her as she hoped he would. In the years since, she’s been a suffragette and a nurse in WWI, and now she’s a successful artist with a painting displayed at the Royal Academy. Then Louis appears at the exhibition with the news that Mrs. Ramsay has died under suspicious circumstances. Talking to Louis, Lily realizes two things: 1) she must find out more about her beloved Mrs. Ramsay’s death (and her sometimes-violent husband, Mr. Ramsay), and 2) She still loves Louis.
DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.