Words by Rebecca Bentley
I could fill pages remembering one thing after another that made the summer at St Ives the best beginning to a life conceivable,” writes Virginia Woolf in her autobiographical work Moments Of Being. It was here, in Talland House, that she spent her summers until the age of 13, and it was these experiences that formed the basis of some of her most celebrated works.
In her latest book, Virginia Woolf & Vanessa Bell: A Childhood In St Ives, author Marion Whybrow explores and celebrates the influence that the coastal town had on the sisters during their formative years. A St Ives resident herself, Marion has penned a number of books on the town’s artistic connections, including a biography of Robert Borlase Smart and a study on the history and reopening of Porthmeor Studios.
“Although the book is about the girls growing up and the impact the town had on their lives, there is in fact a third character – that of St Ives itself,” says Simon Butler, of Halsgrove Publishing, who worked closely with Marion. The book devotes a section to the coastal town, looking at how the introduction of the railway link turned a sleepy fishing port into the iconic town we now know as one of the world’s biggest artist colonies.
The household that Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell grew up in was rife with literary and artistic inspiration thanks to their father, Leslie Stephen, an author and critic with a large library and an equally substantial circle of influential friends among the literati and emerging St Ives and Newlyn artist colonies. Writers Henry James, George Meredith and James Russell Lowell are just a few of the regular visitors to the Stephens’ family homes in St Ives and London.
This environment nurtured the sisters’ creative talents, with Vanessa becoming a renowned artist and Virginia one of Britain’s leading modernist writers of the 20th century. In the foreword to Marion’s book, Helen Dunmore says: “What is striking is that these two Victorian girls should conceive such ambitions. Their family did not encourage women to enter professions. Women should be beautiful, charitable, charming promoters of male achievement rather than the realisers of their own dreams.”
Three of Woolf’s popular novels – To The Lighthouse, The Waves and Jacob’s Room – are often referred to as her St Ives trilogy for their autobiographical content drawn from her childhood memories of Cornwall. Although set on the Isles of Skye, the influence of these times is most evident in To The Lighthouse, in which the Stephens family and the girls’ childhood is recreated under pseudonyms and the lighthouse is based on Godrevy Lighthouse in St Ives Bay.
“Across the bay from Talland House was the iconic Godrevy Lighthouse, standing on its natural island and shining its beamed light into the bedrooms bringing comfort and reassurance to children who couldn’t sleep. It was the inspiration for Virginia’s novel To The Lighthouse,” writes Marion.
When Virginia was 13 and Vanessa 15, their mother Julia died and the lease on Talland House was sold. It spelled the end of their childhood summers on the Cornish coast, but the fond memories forged here brought Virginia back to the county throughout her life and it was amid the wild, rugged landscape surrounding St Ives that she often sought to recover from her recurring mental illness.
Marion says: “Cornwall was the usual place for Virginia’s recovery after illness or a panacea to ward off another attack of depression. The women [Virginia and a companion] walked extensively in some of Virginia’s favourite places, into the moors and usually in sight of the sea, as at Gurnard’s Head, where they sat and surveyed the boats and smelled the gorse and noted the wild flowers, and Virginia satiated
herself in the perfumes of Cornwall.”
It’s plain to see the profound impact that the time Virginia Woolf and her sister spent in St Ives had on their lives – not just the happy childhood memories that brought them back to rekindle feelings of youthful joy, but also the freedom that their time in Cornwall gave them. It was a freedom that enabled Woolf to fulfil her dreams and remain a household name a century after she chose her vocation.
Helen Dunmore adds: “During those formative years, Vanessa and Virginia had two homes and two lives, and it’s arguable that their St Ives life left the deeper impression. Without those early years by the sea, and the sounds and images laid down in brain and senses, Woolf would have been a different writer.”
Marion’s book is available in all good bookshops and online, and can also be purchased from the publisher via www.halsgrove.com