Talland House

  • By Maggie Humm
  • She Writes Press
  • 352 pp.

This homage to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is a wonderful tale in its own right.

To base a work of fiction closely on the work of another writer is a task not lightly undertaken, for it may expose the borrower to the risk of failure by comparison. With Talland House, Maggie Humm has more than risen to the challenge she set for herself: an imaginative expansion of Virginia Woolf’s classic To the Lighthouse and a moving homage to its author.

Part of a reader’s enjoyment of Humm’s artful take on her model is in recognizing details derived not only from Woolf’s fiction but from her life (readers familiar with one or both are likelier to appreciate Talland House) such as the titular summer house at St. Ives, Cornwall, fictionalized in To the Lighthouse as the Ramsays’ summer house on an island in the Hebrides, where the child Virginia Stephen spent idyllic family holidays.

Humm skillfully links her narrative to Woolf’s through suggestive images and themes: the still life of an arranged fruit bowl that suggests Mrs. Ramsay’s love of color and aesthetic form; a salt cellar at the Ramsays’ dinner table that the aspiring artist Lily Briscoe moves as a reminder to relocate a detail in her painting in progress; and the postponed journey to the lighthouse that presides magisterially over Woolf’s novel.

Scholars of Woolf’s work recognize To the Lighthouse as the author’s artistic transformation of her delayed grief at the loss of her mother, Julia Stephen, who died suddenly at the age of 49 when Virginia was 13. Humm reveals in her introduction that this sorrowful event has an exact parallel in her own life, including the identical ages of mother and daughter.

In both novels, the central character, Mrs. Ramsay (whose first name is absent) — the wife of an irascible philosopher past his prime, doting mother of eight, and source of succor for both family and guests — is venerated by virtually everyone who knows or meets her. Among them is Lily Briscoe, a guest at Talland House during a summer prior to the Great War, whose attachment to the nurturing older woman is prompted by memories of her own deceased mother.

During a narrative that begins in 1919 and moves back and forth starting with 1900, several characters — most importantly, Lily — return to St. Ives years later, after much has changed for the Ramsay family.

What is especially noteworthy in Humm’s extended riff is the life she imagines for a major character outside the pages of Woolf’s masterpiece. Through Lily Briscoe’s eyes, we follow both the action and her private reflections as she matures as a woman and painter. Lily nurtures an unrequited crush on the art tutor she meets at St. Ives that survives in her imagination for years afterward.

In Woolf’s novel, the lyrical elegy “Time Passes” — encompassing the interval during which the Ramsays’ summer home stands empty of human occupants — captures the profound sense of loss produced by the Great War; Humm focuses on questions that readers of To the Lighthouse may privately have entertained, particularly, what were Lily and other characters doing during that dark time?

Lily, for one, becomes a nurse, caring for wounded soldiers and working in the pharmacy at Queen Alexandra’s Hospital in London. (Though the account of the training and tasks undertaken by wartime nurses is convincing, this portion of Humm’s novel seems overly preoccupied with soldiers’ wounds and bedpans.)

One of several characters created by Humm, a nurse matron at the hospital pharmacy, becomes not only another mother substitute for Lily, but later, her partner in search of the cause of Mrs. Ramsay’s untimely death.

Regarding Mr. Ramsay, based on Woolf’s self-centered, demanding father, Humm’s version of him is initially even more insufferable than Woolf’s. However, following the war years, when Lily bumps into him by chance in London, she is pleasantly surprised by his unexpected warmth and accepts his invitation to return to St. Ives.

Humm has impressively steeped herself in Woolf’s lyrical style, crafting evocative passages that likely would please her model. For example, as Lily “clutches [her] paintbrush,” she imagines her eye becoming “a third hand, holding the scene, grasping the flowers massing behind Mrs. Ramsay’s head.”

Later, her fond memories of the Ramsays thread through her life “like a vein of solid granite forcing its way through chalk.” Late in the novel, Lily feels “a pain inside her, like collections of stones to be carried in her pockets,” an allusion to Woolf’s suicide by drowning.

Talland House also honors Woolf’s feminism and attention to matters of keen interest to women of her day. Many readers will recognize a famous echo from A Room of One’s Own: A friend of Lily’s remarks that “women mirror back to men an image of themselves at twice their size, boosting their vanity.”

Like Woolf, Humm highlights a single woman’s struggle during the early 20th century to live an independent life and, if she chooses, to resist being defined solely by marriage. Humm also takes a cue from Woolf concerning the special capacity of art, whether literary or visual, to accommodate memory and mourning. Lily muses that “people and things go on existing when we’re not there” and understands her calling as a visual artist as “a form of loving, keeping beloved people alive, or more, giving life a meaning.”

If you’ve read and loved To the Lighthouse, don’t miss Maggie Humm’s accomplished homage to its author and her masterpiece. If you haven’t read it, now might be a good time. In either case, take pleasure in the eternal lighthouse of Virginia Woolf’s imagination with a visit to Talland House, Humm’s gratifying encore.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2020.]

Roberta Rubenstein recently retired as emerita professor from the Department of Literature at American University after a distinguished teaching career. Her scholarly interests include fiction by modernist and contemporary women writers — Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood, among others — as well as literature of the fantastic and 19th-century Russian literature. She is the author of five scholarly books, including, most recently, Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View and Literary Half-Lives: Doris Lessing, Clancy Sigal, and Roman à Clef. Her monograph, Reminiscences of Leonard Woolf, describes her friendship with Virginia Woolf’s husband while she was writing her doctoral dissertation on the writer at the University of London.

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