The Lazy Historian

Virginia Woolf, Talland House, and Historical Fiction
September 13, 2020

This is a guest post by author Maggie Humm. Thanks Maggie!

Amazon have classified my debut novel, Talland House, as historical fiction, but the novel does not simply, or only, fit within that one genre. Set between 1900 and 1919 in picturesque Cornwall and war-blasted London, Talland House takes the artist Lily Briscoe from the pages of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and tells her story, as a prequel and in the interstices of Woolf’s novel.

Lily lives through one of the most momentous periods in UK history, falling in love with her artist tutor, becoming an independent woman artist, a suffragette, and a nurse in WWI. Mourning her dead mother, Lily loves her surrogate mother Mrs. Ramsay while painting her portrait. Later, finding out that Mrs. Ramsay has died suddenly and unexpectedly, Lily must solve the mystery of the death, and decide if love or art is more significant in her life. Talland House mixes genres by combining a detective story with romance and history, with echoes of the present moment and solving a literary mystery which has puzzled twentieth-century readers.

Virginia Woolf is not a character in the novel, but Talland House interweaves the lives of her family, people she knew, and real-life artists working in St Ives (where Talland House is situated) into the overall timeframe of Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse. Historical fictions are hugely popular — for example, Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy, two books of which won the Booker Prize. In our uncertain times, readers want to know how the past shapes the present. Historical fictions also speak to us collectively, making us feel part of a larger world. Since women’s experiences are often underrepresented in mainstream history, fictions from a woman’s or gender-fluid point of view, like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, can give us a granular sense of women’s historical experiences.

Throughout her career, Virginia Woolf’s own profound historical sense shaped her writings. Woolf’s father, the biographer Leslie Stephen, trained her in history and biography to prepare Woolf for a literary career. As well as Orlando, Woolf’s historical consciousness is present in A Room of One’s Own with its figure of Judith Shakespeare, unable to flourish like William and who dies of sexual abuse. At her death in 1941, Woolf left a sketch of her next book – a ‘Common History’.

Talland House fictionalizes a historical past but also creates a fresh fiction about Lily Briscoe set within the frame of Woolf’s novel. What happens when an author not only mixes genres (detective, romance, historical) but also must interweave the time scales of real-life historical figures with the time scale of a fiction? The short answer is sleepless nights, lying awake worrying about dates and my temerity in re-envisioning a well-loved classic. To the Lighthouse is partly inspired by the Stephen family holidays in Talland House, with Woolf’s mother and father as Mrs. and Mr. Ramsay. Woolf’s trip to the lighthouse with Hilary Hunt, the son of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Holman Hunt, but without her younger brother Adrian, gave Woolf the germ of her plot.

In my Talland House, Hilary Hunt meets Lily Briscoe along with many other historical figures: Emily Carr, the Canadian artist (who did visit St Ives, but in 1901-2), becomes Lily’s friend. Eliza ‘Lisa’ Stillman, the artist friend of the Stephen family and her stepmother Marie Stillman, the Pre-Raphaelite ‘stunner’ and artist become Lily’s friends. The St Ives artists Julius Olsson and Louis Grier, known to Woolf, teach Lily as a student. Roger Fry, the artist and art historian and Woolf’s friend has a walk-on part. Norman Wilkinson, one of Louis’s students, appears near the end of Talland House, and Norman did contribute to World War I by painting camouflage. I hope that fictionalizing these real-life people will bring a vivid, authenticity to Talland House.

Talland House is a stand-alone novel, but what do I want readers to know about Virginia Woolf after reading? First, to experience the complex tapestry of Woolf’s family, friends, and acquaintances in a more direct, vivid way. Second, to experience St Ives, enjoyed by Woolf when a young girl, through the eyes of artist Lily Briscoe, in all its glorious texture. And finally, to enjoy playing with history, as Woolf did herself in Orlando and The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn.

Talland House tells an original story, capturing a historical moment when women enjoyed new opportunities while the world was descending into instability and unforeseen change. In other words, a historical fiction for our present.


Maggie Humm is an Emeritus Professor, University of East London, UK. An international Virginia Woolf scholar and the author/editor of fourteen books (the last three focused on Woolf and the arts), Humm is a former Co-Chair of the British Women’s Studies Association, founded the first full-time undergraduate UK Women’s Studies degree, and was a judge of the Fawcett Society book prize. To transition to creative writing, she earned a diploma in Creative Writing from the prestigious programme launched by the University of East Anglia in partnership with the Guardian, followed by mentorship with The Literary Consultancy. She contributed a programme note for the ‘Woolf Works’ ballet at the Royal Opera House and a catalogue essay for the major Woolf exhibition at the Tate St Ives, as well as speaking there at a conference.

Talland House is Humm’s debut novel. Shortlisted for the Impress and Fresher Fiction prizes (as Who Killed Mrs. Ramsay?) and Retreat West and Eyelands prizes, and longlisted for the Lucy Cavendish and Historical Writers’ Association / Sharpe Books Unpublished Novel Awards, Talland House was released last month with She Writes Press.

She lives in London and is currently writing Rodin’s Mistress about the tumultuous love affair of the artists Gwen John and Rodin.


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Hi, I'm Jillianne.

I'm a lover of history, a hoarder of books, and the author of The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII.

The Lazy Historian is a history blog featuring stories from the past with sass. With a focus on Western European and women's history, I delve into anything fascinating. Learn more.

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