Talland House: the Return of Lily Briscoe

Once my husband and I discovered a roll of film in a chest drawer in our house. When we had it developed, we were astonished to see photos of us in our first apartment twenty years before. It was unexpected; it was delightful. It was both old and new. I had that same experience reading Talland House.

Written by Woolf scholar Maggie Humm, this, her first novel, is destined to please Woolf fans as well as entertain those who are unfamiliar with her work. Talland House does not take up where Lighthouse left off, but it does revisit not only some of the novel’s key scenes, but also updates us on Lily Briscoe’s full life regardless of her marital status. (Still single, and we’re happy about that, because of Mrs. Ramsay’s insistence that she marry in Lighthouse.)

A line by Humm, “In bed, Lily was tired by the weight of everything she didn’t understand…” could well have come from Lighthouse. While Humm does not use stream of consciousness, there is something Woolfian about her prose.

In Lighthouse, Lily closely observes her hosts, the Ramsay family and their summer visitors, but mostly she scrutinizes Mrs. Ramsay, the mother of eight and wife to one irascible academic.

Humm paints the essence of her Lily with the same close attention in which Lily attempted to paint Mrs. Ramsay in Woolf’s novel. What results is a harmonious portrait of the two “Lilys.”

No one who has read Lighthouse will be surprised to learn that Lily is, in Talland House, an accomplished painter whose work is displayed at the Royal Academy in London. What might surprise the reader but fits with the time period is the revelation that she nursed soldiers during the war as well as trained with a pharmacist, something that ties nicely with a plot point regarding Mrs. Ramsay’s mysterious death, a death that unsettled many an original reader of Lighthouse by its unexpected and nearly buried notice, occurring in parentheses as it did. (This could well be the most striking instance of understatement in literature, something to be discussed in depth elsewhere.)

A tender connection mentioned in the author’s note is the author’s loss of her mother at the same age that Woolf lost hers. The reader can’t help but think of that along the journey, and it deepens the feeling in the story.

A novel that fills a gap in literature, a lingering question about a character, is a genre I find particularly satisfying, and this example does not disappoint. (If there is a name for this genre, I do not know it. If there is not, I suggest we choose one.)

Many thanks to Maggie Humm for this bonus peek into Lily Briscoe’s life. Talland House is a treat for Woolf fans as well as those who have never read her work. Although I recommend you get on that, if you haven’t. Start with Orlando.

You may remember that the main character in my next novel’s name is Briscoe. Her mother, a Woolf scholar, named her after Lily. So naturally I was excited to read more about Lily Briscoe. And while Lily is a lovely name, I don’t think my hard-edged character could wear it, so I’m pleased with my choice.

P.S. I am making Amor Towles’ Fettucine Mio Amore from his novel, The Lincoln Highway today. I’m not sure if I’m more obsessed with his book or this recipe. If I remember, I’ll take photos and share. The photos, not the pasta. 😉

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