There are novels which have an almost uncanny power to renew themselves in the reader’s imagination. Each time I return to To The Lighthouse I’m struck by something that I haven’t noticed before: a flash of description, a moment of double-edged intimacy between two characters, a touch of sensory experience so immediate that it brings a shiver. More and more, as we grow older, these great novels declare their authority. They will certainly outlive us, like sea or rock or sand. We can inhabit their world for a while, and be changed by it, but they are forever moving beyond us to the next generation. It’s like visiting the same beach every summer, first as a child, then as a teenager, then as a parent surrounded by shivering children just out of the sea. Time passes. Those children are teenagers in wetsuits or bikinis, then suddenly adults lugging the paraphernalia of parenthood themselves. The present does not obliterate the past, but cohabits with it so that sometimes one is visible and sometimes the other. Any number of lifetimes on the beaches of St Ives may be no longer than a summer’s day.
Porthminster Beach still holds the memory of the steam trains that came in round Hawke’s Point to the old St Ives station, in the glory years of the railways. In 1882, one of those trains brought the Stephen family from London. Virginia Stephen, then a few months old, was about to spend her first summer in St Ives. Her father, the alpinist, philosopher and man of letters Leslie Stephen, had bought the lease of Talland House in order to provide a summer home in Cornwall for his growing family of step-children and children. Until Virginia Stephen was thirteen, she spent every summer at Talland House, but the lease was given up soon after her mother’s sudden death in 1895. Leslie Stephen could not endure revisiting the scene of past happiness, and seems not to have considered that a more gentle weaning might have been easier for his children than a sudden rupture of their passionate attachment to the place.
These long summers sent deep roots into Virginia Woolf’s imagination, and became the temps perdu from which she was estranged and with which she would engage all her life long. Talland House sums up both the privilege and the losses of Woolf’s life. She was born into a family which had the money to maintain a large house in a fishing town hundreds of miles from its London home. The Stephen family was clear that it did not merely holiday in St Ives; it settled there for months at a time, and the annual shift from Kensington to Talland House was a substantial, laborious affair. Books, servants, children, cricket bats, photography equipment, bedding and clothes were all brought down by train. Despite its ‘crazy ghosts of chairs’ and rent of ‘precisely twopence halfpenny’, the house was (and is) one of the largest in the town, and the Stephens took their leading place in the local hierarchies. Leslie Stephen was an important figure in the Arts Club, while Julia Stephen put into practice her deep interest in nursing and public hygiene. Her work in St Ives was commemorated after her death by the founding of the Julia Prinsep Stephen Nursing Association of St Ives.
The Stephens entertained local friends and invited endless visitors, who stayed in the house or were boarded out in the town when the bedrooms overflowed. But while the adults talked with Julia in the garden, or accompanied Leslie Stephen on heroic Victorian tramps which took them fifteen or twenty miles over the landscape of West Penwith, the children went everywhere, as quick and subtle as a school of little fish. St Ives gave them a freedom they could not experience in Kensington, where stiff social conventions extended to the youngest members of the upper-middle classes. They fished, swam, hunted for moths at night, collected crabs, gazed for hours into rock-pools, scrambled and splashed to shore as the tide came in, slung sandy towels over railings and hung up seaweed to forecast the weather. As dusk fell they watched the beam from Godrevy lighthouse sweep the sea, darken, and sweep again.
These things were never forgotten by Virginia Woolf. They were planted in the deepest texture of her experience and woven into the most primitive as well as the most complex fabric of her imagination. In To the Lighthouse she draws deeply on that sensory knowledge of place which can perhaps only be acquired by a child who lies for hours listening to the tap of a blind-cord, or the swash and backwash of waves; who is thrown naked into the sea on Porthminster Beach as an infant, or plays cricket each evening until the light is gone, or vanishes upstairs to the attics with brothers and sisters to escape the adults’ dinner conversations; or longs with furious passion, as James Ramsay longs, to reach the lighthouse.
The loss of Talland House was a permanent bereavement to Woolf. It became entwined with the loss of her mother and elder half-sister Stella, and with her father’s oppressive grief. But these losses also sealed away her first thirteen summers. If they were inaccessible they were also, in a sense, inviolable. They were not idyllic years, and To the Lighthouse is not an idyllic novel. Seeds of destruction were sown in the sexual abuse by her half-brother Gerald, which Woolf describes in her memoir A Sketch of the Past: ‘I can remember the feel of his hands going under my clothes; going firmly and steadily lower and lower, I remember how I hoped that he would stop; how I stiffened and wriggled as his hand approached my private parts. But he did not stop.’ This happened at Talland House, but it was not until after her mother’s death that Woolf first suffered a breakdown and the beginning of a lifelong battle with depression and the fear of mental disintegration.
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