Talland House by Maggie Humm – A Woolf character finds new life in the story of a young artist

Talland House by Maggie Humm


“To The Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf is a favourite book of many, with influence on many writers and thinkers ever since its publication early in the twentieth century. Humm’s brilliantly written book takes a character from that novel, gives her not only a back story but an entire novel, and makes her life a vibrant part of the mystery of the Ramsays’ family life in their Cornish holiday home.  Lily Briscoe is a new woman, choosing a life beyond a suitable marriage, determined to live as an artist, but still irresistibly drawn to one of her tutors, almost hypnotised by the memorable Mrs Ramsay, and trying to find a way to live in a violently unstable world. This is a lyrically written, gorgeously textured book, as Lily is shown looking at her surroundings through the colours, shapes and images of potential paintings. Lily’s feelings for people, her art and her life before, during and after the First World War are brilliantly realised in this book which is on the edge of Woolf’s masterpiece, but also contrives to be a brilliant read in its own right. I was extremely pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this fascinating book.  


The book opens with a later date in the narrative, as Lily and her friend Eliza visit the Royal Academy exhibition in 1919. When they meet with some old friends, there is terrible news that both throws Lily off balance, and leads into a recollection of her first arrival in St Ives, fresh from an extended visit to France following the death of her much loved mother. She is to study painting with two teachers, the highly critical Mr Olsson and the sympathetic Louis Grier. While she makes a friend of Emily, her confidence is severely shaken by criticism. When she is persuaded to stay, her friendship group expands as Mrs Ramsey buys one of her paintings and invites her to visit Talland House where her family is staying for the summer. While hugely enjoying the presence of Mrs Ramsey and indeed her children, fascinated by her other guests and inspired to begin a portrait, Lily is aware of undercurrents of unease in the relationship between Mrs Ramsey and her mercurial husband. As life begins to change for everyone Lily leaves the vividly described Cornish town, and finds new tasks and new stimulation for her life and work.


This novel is a very enjoyable and memorable read, full of images that linger in the mind. It is a thoroughly absorbing book, doing far more than telling a story of a young woman seeking inspiration, as it captures a moment in time as the world descends into war and women have new opportunities. There are references to the suffragette movement and the wider challenges faced by women in many respects, as they have to adjust to new expectations and opportunities. The vivid descriptions of the coastal town, the colourful gardens, the way that an artist sees her subject, all infuse the story with life. This is a novel full of ideas and life, with a sadness at its core, and a lyrical power of its own. I recommend it as a really strong read, especially for those who love Woolf’s novels, but also anyone who enjoys sophisticated historical fiction with a strong narrative drive and a wonderful setting.