Writers In Cornwall: Virginia Woolf


Virginia Woolf was a modernist writer whose experimental techniques brought public recognition, in her lifetime and still to this day. She used non-linear narratives and stream of consciousness to reflect on themes like gender identity, patriarchy and the role of women, which made her quite a progressive figure, both in society and in the literary world. The issues Woolf addressed are still very relevant in our society, so it is unsurprising that her writing should continue to be discussed in literary groups, educational environments, and even online.

Using the stream of consciousness technique allowed Woolf to explore her characters and their issues in depth, leading to a rather sophisticated style of writing. She could depict all angles of things; her work wouldn’t just make us feel things as if we touched them from above, but also from below, on the side, and inside them. What many of us don’t know is that Woolf took inspiration from Cornwall for many of her novels; particularly her so-called ‘St Ives Trilogy’, which includes Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves.

Her interest in Cornwall can be traced back to her childhood, when she spent every summer in St Ives with her family, in Talland House. Today, the house has become holiday apartments, but it was once a holiday villa that overlooked Godrevy lighthouse. Woolf wrote about the villa in her memoir, reminiscing the feeling of bliss it gave her:

 “It still makes me feel warm; as if everything were ripe; humming; sunny… The gardens gave off a murmur of bees… The buzz, the croon, the smell… it was rapture.”

Woolf’s memories in Talland House were evidently precious to her, as were her memories of St Ives. In 1922, she wrote in her diary:

“Why am I so incredibly and incurably romantic about Cornwall? One’s past, I suppose; I see children running in the garden… The sound of the sea at night… almost forty years of life, all built on that, permeated by that: so much I could never explain.”

Unfortunately, Woolf stopped visiting St Ives after she lost her mother at the age of 13, which preceded the death of her half-sister, brother, and father, all within the short span of 15 years. Her mother’s death caused her to have a mental breakdown (the first of many) which led to the deterioration of her mental health and later her suicide in 1941. The contrast between her early life and later one was very strong, and that was a concept Woolf explored in her work, anchoring it in Cornwall. In To the Lighthouse, James, as a child, dreamt of going to the lighthouse but was never allowed to by his father. When he becomes an adult, his father forces him to go, and he is confronted with how different it looks from the shrouded image he used to have of it. Woolf writes:

“The Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening. Now—James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it? No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too.” 

The lighthouse seems to symbolise, in part, truth: that there can be multiple ones, depending on what perspective we have on it. James found the lighthouse attractive when he watched it from his garden, as a child; as an adult, as he stood in front of it, he found it stark and bland. The fact that he admired the lighthouse from his garden is interesting because it is reminiscent of Woolf’s own view of Godrevy lighthouse from Talland House. Perhaps James’ character was used as a proxy to express Woolf’s own emotions while watching the lighthouse, first as a child on holidays and then as a tormented adult. Regardless, the influence of Godrevy Lighthouse is strong, and it is a lovely homage to Cornwall, whose scenery inspired so much of Woolf’s work.  

When we think of Virginia Woolf now, we tend to pay too much attention to her mental health issues and scandals. What we should be remembering is her legacy: unconventional writing at its best, empowerment of women, and of course, Cornwall appreciation.

by Melissa Saryazdi