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