Royal Academy, London 1919: Lily has put her student days in St. Ives, Cornwall, behind her―a time when her substitute mother, Mrs. Ramsay, seemingly disliked Lily’s portrait of her and Louis Grier, her tutor, never seduced her as she hoped he would. In the years since, she’s been a suffragette and a nurse in WWI, and now she’s a successful artist with a painting displayed at the Royal Academy. Then Louis appears at the exhibition with the news that Mrs. Ramsay has died under suspicious circumstances. Talking to Louis, Lily realizes two things: 1) she must find out more about her beloved Mrs. Ramsay’s death (and her sometimes-violent husband, Mr. Ramsay), and 2) She still loves Louis.
Set between 1900 and 1919 in picturesque Cornwall and war-blasted London, Talland House takes Lily Briscoe from the pages of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and tells her story outside the confines of Woolf’s novel―as a student in 1900, as a young woman becoming a professional artist, her loves and friendships, mourning her dead mother, and solving the mystery of her friend Mrs. Ramsay’s sudden death. Talland House is both a story for our present time, exploring the tensions women experience between their public careers and private loves, and a story of a specific moment in our past―a time when women first began to be truly independent.
Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and partly set at Talland House, which Woolf’s family rented when she was a child, this story fleshes out the details Woolf left out of her own narrative – primarily the death of Mrs Ramsey.
A beautifully written, lyrical meditation on art, the particular light of St Ives, families, women, war and love.
Following Lily Briscoe from her days as an art student, then as a Queen Alexandra’s nurse in WWI (as was my own great-grandmother), we encounter the seismic changes in society in the early years of the 20th century. Lily is present when a suffragette slashes a painting in protest of the government’s treatment of Emmeline Pankhurst.
Her fascination with Mrs Ramsey never really wains, she thinks of her often, even though years pass by without them meeting. I was reminded of the similar relationship in Howards End, where Margaret is fascinated by Mrs Wilcox.
The novel evolves in its final third into a investigation of Mrs Ramsey’s death. Lily suspects foul play, the suddenness of it seems suspicious, and she enlists her pharmacist friend after the cleaner and cook give her a small bottle found among Mrs Ramsey’s things. Shades of Agatha Christie, herself a pharmacist in the war.
I found this book deeply fascinating and strangely moving. St Ives is a place I’ve visited and I could picture it in my mind as Lily painted on the quayside and strode around the town with her friends.
Even if you’re not a fan of Woolf, this is very enjoyable and readable, Woolf isn’t present in the pages and the author really makes the characters her own.
*I was kindly gifted a copy of this book in exchange for taking part in the blog tour but all opinions remain my own.