IN CONVERSATION WITH MAGGIE HUMM: Re-writing A Beloved Character – The Constraints and Freedom of Retellings

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Mabuhay, friends!

Retellings have become quite popular these days with books like Spin The Dawn by Elizabeth Lim, Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, Circe by Madeleine Miller, to name a few. I adore fantasy retellings; it’s quite a risky project to take on especially a story that is so beloved. I know I always hold up high expectations for the author writing a retelling because I except that the retelling not only holds the core of the original story but also that the author astounds me with their creativity.


Today, I am welcoming author, Maggie Humm, whose debut features a character from Virginia Woolf’s The Lighthouse. When I first heard about Talland House I was very curious about how the author research and re-told the character’s story. So, I was very pleased when they agreed to do a guest post for my blog.

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.

An engaging and original work of romantic historical fiction and the debut novel from renowned international Virginia Woolf scholar and Emeritus Professor at the University of East London Maggie Humm, 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.


Re-writing A Beloved Character

A literary sequel is where an author retells a story in a different way. Jean Rhys is one of the foremost contemporary authors to reimagine a classic novel – Jane Eyre – by taking Berthe away from Brontë and fleshing out her life in The Wide Sargasso Sea.

Other approaches take treasured novels like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and imagine a continuing life for their characters, for example Mrs de Winter by Susan Hill. Readers hope that some of the pleasures of Austen or du Maurier can be restored and new delights created.

As well as reimagining classic texts, fan fiction, fuelled by the internet, creates fresh stories from beloved books such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, using the same characters and settings with websites devoted to fan rewritings.

Virginia Woolf has not been immune to these contemporary appropriations. Maggie Gee’s Virginia in Manhattan imagines what would happen if Woolf came alive in the twenty first century. Most writers however focus directly on Woolf (and that of her sister Vanessa) recreating their lives as with the pioneering Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers and Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar.

Rather than updating a Woolf novel or focusing entirely on Woolf’s life, Talland House, set between 1900 and 1919, tells the story of Lily Briscoe from Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, at the time of the original, interwoven with fictional versions of Woolf’s life, friends, and family. The people Woolf met when staying in St Ives are characters in Talland House: Hilary Hunt son of Holman Hunt, and the artists Louis Grier, the co-founder of the St Ives Arts’ Club, Julius Olssen, and Eliza (Lisa) Stillman, and in WW1 (the interregnum of To the Lighthouse) Lily becomes friends with Marie Spartali (Lisa’s stepmother and pre-Raphaelite ‘stunner’ and painter).  My aim was to create a character rather like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz or Guildenstern who deserved a novel of their own.

My Lily lives through one of the most momentous periods in UK history, falling in love with her artist tutor, becoming an independent woman artist, a suffragette, and a nurse in WW1. Mourning her dead mother, Lily loves her surrogate mother Mrs Ramsay while painting her portrait. Finding out that Mrs Ramsay died suddenly and unexpectedly, Lily must solve the mystery of the death, and decide if love or art is more significant in her life. Lily is the one character in Woolf’s novel who would most want to know how Mrs Ramsay died. Talland House combines a detective story with romance and history with echoes of the present moment and solves a literary mystery which has puzzled twentieth-century readers.

 Talland House is not then a modern-day version of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse but takes an original and rather complex approach by imagining Woolf’s characters in ways not described by Woolf but hinted at by her.  For example Woolf tells us, but does not show, that Lily Briscoe and Mr Bankes, another visitor to the Ramsay family, visited Hampton Court in the novel’s interregnum. Talland House re-enacts the visit in full as a significant plot moment. 

Familiar events do unfold but are seen aslant. Mr Ramsay, the abrasive husband of To the Lighthouse is more violent in Talland House. Did he murder Mrs Ramsay whose death is suspicious?  With imaginative sympathy and a detailed knowledge of the world of early twentieth art, Talland House offers an intriguing look beyond the edges of the Ramsay world.

The amount of research was phenomenal but the hardest constraints were not letting the research dominate, or foolishly trying to write like Woolf, and keeping (very roughly) to the possible timescale of To the Lighthouse and to the historical lives of Woolf’s friends while interweaving both. Lily Briscoe is an independent woman at a fascinating historical moment – in many ways a new woman – and writing Talland House gave me the freedom to tell her full story.

Image credit: Juliet Furst


Maggie Humm is an Emeritus Professor, University of East London, UK. An international Virginia Woolf scholar and the author/editor of fourteen books (the last three focused on Woolf and the arts), Humm is a former Co-Chair of the British Women’s Studies Association, founded the first full-time undergraduate UK Women’s Studies degree, and was a judge of the Fawcett Society book prize. To transition to creative writing, she earned a diploma in Creative Writing from the prestigious programme launched by the University of East Anglia in partnership with the Guardian, followed by mentorship with The Literary Consultancy. She contributed a programme note for the ‘Woolf Works’ ballet at the Royal Opera House and a catalogue essay for the major Woolf exhibition at the Tate St Ives, as well as speaking there at a conference.

Talland House is Humm’s debut novel. Shortlisted for the Impress and Fresher Fiction prizes (as Who Killed Mrs. Ramsay?) and Retreat West and Eyelands prizes, and longlisted for the Lucy Cavendish and Historical Writers’ Association / Sharpe Books Unpublished Novel Awards, Talland House is set for official release in August 2020 with She Writes Press.

She lives in London and is currently writing Rodin’s Mistress about the tumultuous love affair of the artists Gwen John and Rodin.

🌸 Which author would you like to see guest post on my blog?

🌸 Do you enjoy retellings or are they a no-no for you?

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Blog header: Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash


2 thoughts on “IN CONVERSATION WITH MAGGIE HUMM: Re-writing A Beloved Character – The Constraints and Freedom of Retellings

  1. Erin Tweed says:

    Talland House sounds beautiful. I do like retellings but there are, of course, many ways they can go wrong. I love fairy tale or mythological retellings the most. Although, I would not call Circe a retelling as Circe never actually had her own mythology or story. She only appeared in other tales, like the Odyssey. That is the beauty of the novel because Madeline Miller grants an otherwise delegated side character her own story and voice. Awesome post!


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