Godrevy Light, St. Ives, Cornwall

Virginia Woolf created the most famous lighthouse in British literature by transporting the icon of her childhood—Godrevy Light—from Cornwall to the harsher northern coast of the Hebrides.  But no one who has ever stood on Talland Road high above St. Ives Bay will ever mistake Mrs. Ramsay’s ecstatic vision from To the Lighthouse for a Scottish view:


            . . . but here, the houses falling away on both sides, they came out on

            the quay, and the whole bay spread before them and Mrs. Ramsay

            could not help exclaiming,  “Oh, how beautiful!” For the great plateful

            of blue water was before her; the hoary Lighthouse, distant, austere, in the

            midst; and on the right, as far as the eye could see, fading and falling,

            in soft low pleats, the green sand dunes with the wild flowing grasses

            on them. . .  (18-19).


Woolf spent thirteen idyllic summers in St. Ives at Talland House, as it was then called, from 1882-1895, in a lively summer colony awash in Stephens children, servants, cousins, her father’s intellectual visitors, and her mother’s generous spirit.  The experience permeates To the Lighthouse (1927), just as the Cornish landscape inspired part of her earlier novel, Jacob’s Room (1922)Returning often as an adult to St. Ives, “the loveliest place in the world” (Diary Vol II, 105), Woolf is most stirred by the images of her childhood idyll—the wild garden, the “semi-transparent water” washing the sandy tide flats, and the sound of the waves on Porthminster beach: “‘the most important of all my memories. . . the purest ecstasy I can conceive. . .’” (qtd. in Briggs 242).


Bell, Anne Olivier, ed. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Vol II: 1920-1924. London: Hogarth Press, 1978.

Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. London: Allen Lane, 2005.

Tresize, Simon.  “To The Godrevy Lighthouse.”  The West Country as a Literary Invention:  Putting Fiction in its Place.  Exeter:  U of Exeter P, 2000:  209-229.

Woolf, VirginiaJacob’s Room. Oxford: Oxford UP (1922), 2000.

Woolf, VirginiaTo the Lighthouse. Oxford: Oxford UP (1927), 1992


© Copyright Kim McMullen 2007