Talland House & Feminism by Maggie Humm

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.

Many thanks, Maggie. Feminism is near and dear to my heart – your novel is definitely one for my TBR list.

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.


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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Tales of Ming Courtesans – Alice Poon

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Alice Poon steeped herself in Chinese poetry and history, Jin Yong’s martial arts novels and English Literature. Always fascinated with iconic but unsung women in Chinese history and legends, she cherishes a dream of bringing them to the page. She lives in Vancouver, Canada. I’m delighted to have Alice here to give us a look behind the novel and the women who inspired Tales of Ming Courtesans.


Thank you, Mary, for having me on your esteemed blog.

Today, I would like to talk about the status of women in the context of Chinese history and literature, and how that has spurred me into giving voice to three notably talented courtesans of the late-Ming era in my new novel Tales of Ming Courtesans.

One day many years ago I was glancing through the lists of Official Biographies in Chinese history books that cover the time stretch from 960 (start of Northern Song dynasty) right up to 1912, i.e. a total of nine-and-a-half centuries or 952 years, and something hit me out of the blue.

It struck me that from this wide span of history only six females (four empresses and two woman rebels, yes, rebels) were deemed worthy of a little space in official historical records. Lucky as the four selected empresses were, on paper their achievements were almost reduced to playing well the role of dutiful wives/mothers/guardians to emperors. It was also quite apparent that the two woman rebels were included merely to stigmatize them. Perhaps nothing more need be said about how deeply rooted gender discrimination is in the traditional Chinese culture.

It thus follows that stories of many notable Chinese women who had great contributions to the arts and cultural history (sometimes even military history) of China never found their way into official histories and can only be gleaned from literature and folklore.

But then again, for hundreds of years, the stories of my main characters, Liu Rushi (an acclaimed poet), Chen Yuanyuan (a talented musician and kunqu singer) and Li Xiangjun (a famous kunqu opera singer), have been told by men in literary writings from the male perspective. As a result, these three artistically gifted ladies have always been known on paper as Great Beauties of Qinhuai, as if beauty was their only attribute. [Qinhuai is a main setting in the novel and is the name of the glitzy pleasure hub in Nanjing. It is also the name of a main river that ran through the city centre.]

Typically, male writers cannot avoid the trap of measuring these women solely in terms of their beauty/femininity and the men in their lives. They tend to conveniently gloss over the women’s incredible moral courage in their fight against subjugation, and the fact that they were extremely intelligent human beings with a mind of their own. In the eyes of self-styled moralists, these women were nothing but witless tramps whose only aim was to ruin men. What has been left unsaid is that society’s cruel bigotry and misogyny was in fact the main culprit that wrecked these women’s lives.

Eminent historian/writer Chen Yinke (1890 – 1969) was an outstanding exception. He was the adoring biographer of Liu Rushi, a poetry prodigy. In teasing out the complicated life story of Liu, he concluded by remarking that she was the embodiment of the nation’s spirit of independence and liberal thinking. That remark alone was enough to goad me into writing this novel. I was really glad to have stumbled on the 800,000-word, 3-volume, epic biography.

After reading my research materials, I was convinced that these women, who were victims of bigotry and sexism, had far more moral courage and integrity than people gave them credit for, not to mention the lasting legacy they left behind in literature and music. There was only one way to do them justice, and that is, to give them voice – something which has always been denied them. I imagined what they might have said, thought, felt and done in their daily struggle for survival, dignity and hope in a deeply misogynistic society. My musings then became Tales of Ming Courtesans. The story is told entirely from their viewpoints.

Tales of Ming Courtesans not only describes the main characters’ tragedies but also celebrates how they transcend the challenges to show kindness toward their friends and inspire them to stand up for their dignity.

To conclude, I would like my novel to send a positive message: that the human spirit is most resilient in the darkest of hours and that hope and solidarity will not only empower the oppressed but will become the very seed of positive change.

Many thanks for sharing the background and motivation for Tales of Ming Courtesans, Alice. And for your timely concluding message – one that we definitely need to hear today. Best wishes for success.

Tales of Ming Courtesans by Alice Poon ~~ From the author of The Green Phoenix comes a riveting tale of female friendship, honor, and sacrifice for love, set in 17th Century China and featuring the intertwined stories of three of the era’s most renowned courtesans, escorts skilled in music, poetry and painting who could decide themselves whether or not to offer patrons bed favors.

Inspired by literary works and folklore, Tales of Ming Courtesans traces the destinies of the three girls from the seamy world of human trafficking and slavery to the cultured scene of the famously decadent pleasure district of the city of Nanjing, evoking episodes in Memoirs of a Geisha.

The girls all existed – Rushi was a famous poet, Yuanyuan became the concubine of a general who changed the course of Chinese history by supporting the Manchu invasion in 1644 and Xiangjun challenged the corruption of court officials to try to save her lover. Rushi’s daughter, Jingjing, gradually pieces together the stories of the three from a memoir left to her by her mother.

Betrayal, tenacity and hope all come together in a novel that brings to life an important era in China’s history, and particularly highlights the challenges faced by independent-minded women.

Alice visited the blog in 2019 with History as a Mirror of Our Present.


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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Favourite Historical Research Resources – K.M. Pohlkamp

K.M. Pohlkamp uses the byline Historical Fiction With a Touch of Noir. Her titles give you than hint of noir: Apricots and Wolfsbane, Physicists in Petticoats, Shadows of Hemlock. Last year, K.M. (Kara) posted a very interesting article on her favourite historical research resources and has graciously allowed me to repeat that article here in A Writer of History.

My Favorite Historical Research Resources by K.M. Pohlkamp

Small details transfer the reader into another world, and for historical fiction, another time. Lingering honey upon a tongue after a character sips mead, the warmth of a candle flickering in the mind, the sound of a metal zipper opening in the corner…

And nothing destroys the mood more than an anachronism.

All of this condemns the historical fiction writer to hours of research – a thankless task necessity for our genre. To aid the burden, here are some of my favorite resources available from the comfort of your favorite writing place.

A Timeline Of Slang

These timelines were developed by Jonathan Green, a “slang lexicographer.” His website has timelines for 31 terms including oaths, weapons, rich/poor, death, money, and private body parts.

For example, clicking on “drunk” brings up this visual timeline of what people called that slop in the tavern over the years.

Online Etymology

Etymologies are explanations of what words meant and how they sounded in the past. This Online Etymology website is a fantastic way to check if a word was common in the period of your manuscript and the origins of a term.

Ngram Viewer

Another way to check if a word was used during a time period is Google’s Ngram Viewer. This tool lists the earliest written record of a word. Keep in mind, especially for early historic periods, a word was likely used in speech decades before written records.

Historical Thesaurus

Well shoot, the word you just typed was not used during the era of your manuscript. No worries, use this Historical Thesaurus!

Historical Maps

My favorite source for historical maps is Old Maps Online. You can search via geographical area and obtain links to historical maps within the search field. For example, I’ve zoomed in on London, England and historical maps are linked to the right.

Another great map source is the Leventhal Map & Education Center, part of the Boston Public Library. This site allows you to also search by date with the timeline selector on the left.

Historical Names

What’s in a name? Well, a lot.

I find naming characters stressful. They can affect a reader’s preconceived notions before any description is offered. Are they an eccentric pirate with an exotic name? Are they one of a hundred farmers named Thomas?

Here are my favorite lists of early English names:


Have 30 minutes during your commute or jog? Why not research your novel at the same time?

Listening to historical podcasts from your period of history can be a great way to pick up little bits to weave into a manuscript and make the world come to life for your reader.

My favorite history podcast is the Renaissance English History Podcast produced by historian, Heather Teysko. Her casts are short, entertaining, and jam packed with interesting facts. I especially enjoyed this episode about 16th century cosmetics.

Historical Bibles

Given the domination of religion upon past society and politics, religious quotes often come up in historical fiction. But historic bibles are different than modern ones. Bible Study Tools provides multiple translations from different eras and languages.

Social Media

Yes, you read that right.

Facebook has a breath of historic groups and societies, many of whom are pleased to answer your questions. My current WIP takes place near Hinckley, England and I’ve received aid from the Hinckley Past & Present Facebook Group of historians. Shout out also to the English Historical Fiction Author’s Group who have helped me with research in the past.

Similarly, there’s a a breath of historical fiction authors on Twitter who are ready and willing to help. Checkout these historical fiction hashtags:

Wow! That’s a great list, Kara. Many thanks for permitting me to share your post here in A Writer of History. You can check out K.L. Pohlkamp’s novels on her websitehttps://kmpohlkamp.com. 

Apricots and Wolfsbane by K.M. Pohlkamp ~~ Lavinia Maud craves the moment the last wisps of life leave her victim’s bodies—to behold the effects of her own poison creations. Believing confession erases the sin of murder, her morbid desires are in unity with faith, though she could never justify her skill to the magistrate she loves.

At the start of the 16th century in Tudor England, Lavinia’s marks grow from tavern drunks to nobility, but rising prestige brings increased risk. When the magistrate suspects her ruse, he pressures the priest into breaking her confessional seal, pitting Lavinia’s instincts as an assassin against the tenets of love and faith. She balances revenge with her struggle to develop a tasteless poison and avoid the wrath of her ruthless patron.


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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.