By Rebecca Welshman
As I reach the crown of the hill, the rugged Cornish coastline falling away behind, the dark outline of Gull Rock rises into view. A formidable mass crouched beneath a windy grey sky, the island stands alone to meet the force of the Atlantic. This small craggy outcrop, just off the coast of the Roseland Peninsula, is the territory of seabirds, which crowd its stone ledges in their hundreds. After spotting Gull Rock on the map during a short break away in December last year, I was inexplicably drawn to walk that stretch of coast. As a writer I find islands to be a source of inspiration, and I have often wondered what it is about them that appeals to authors. Home to holy sites, abandoned villages, and often havens for wildlife, plants and flowers, islands are shrouded in mystery. In their very nature – isolated, self-contained, and enduring – islands symbolise the independent and often lonesome vocation of authorship.
Islands have proved to be fertile settings, not only for fictional stories, but for the process of creative writing itself. Ian Fleming wrote all the James Bond novels in Jamaica. For Fleming, the uniquely beautiful island environment afforded precious time and space away from ordinary routine:
I wrote every one of the Bond thrillers here with the jalousies closed around me so that I would not be distracted by the birds and the flowers and the sunshine outside … Would these books have been born if I had not been living in the gorgeous vacuum of a Jamaican holiday? I doubt it.
In Why the Whales Came, by children’s author Michael Morpurgo, the Scilly Isles provide a unique setting for a story set during the First World War. The mysterious and misunderstood Birdman, a loner and hermit, has been displaced from the deserted island of Samson, once his childhood home. Through shell messages and sign language the two children Gracie and Daniel befriend the kind hearted Birdman, who is a talented sculptor. Together they put right the misdoings of the previous generation towards a pod of whales in order to save their island community.
In Alex Garland’s The Beach and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, island environments offer isolation from the usual laws and expectations of society and give rise to new experiments in living. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, which began in 1942 with Five on a Treasure Island, is set on the fictional Kirrin Island off the Cornish coast. The five solve a family mystery which ends in the recovery of lost gold and the saving of the island from greedy treasure collectors. Kirrin Island is home to a ruined castle, site of the children’s ingenious plan to capture the enemy by locking them in the dungeons. Crucially, the island setting affords time and space away from parental control, and allows the children to respond to and act upon their instincts.
Islands often have their own microclimate – the subtropical Scilly Isles, for example, or the islands off western Ireland, western Scotland, and the Faroe Islands. Individual geology, soils and patterns of land use shape island communities and determine the species which can be found there. As a unique product of the mind, a novel also has its own atmosphere that can reflect the experiences, thought processes, emotions, and circumstances of the author. When walking past Gull Rock that day in December there was something to be enjoyed in viewing and photographing the island from different sides. As the bad weather blew over and the afternoon sun broke out upon the water, the rock seemed transformed from its concentrated darkness and set aglow. The greyness of the sea and sky gave way to a mellow light that made luminous the white plumage of the gulls upon the island’s rugged ledges, made plain the green turf on its upper reaches. To look back upon it, to imagine the secret shelves of its geology, its unknown history buried deep within the sea, drew the thought process out to somewhere beyond ordinary time and space. In effect a novel is an island of the mind: a singular creation that withholds different, often multi-layered, perspectives, and crafted from the mysterious material of the unconscious.
As Virginia Woolf suggests in her novel To the Lighthouse, how an island is perceived depends on the mood of the environment and the emotional condition of the onlooker.To the young James, a promised visit to the lighthouse is something to look forward to. However, the visit does not take place until ten years later, after the death of his mother, Mrs Ramsay, and the close of the First World War. Early in the novel, the practical-minded Mrs Ramsay takes time to prepare gifts for the family who occupy the lighthouse – something ‘to give those poor fellows, who must be bored to death sitting all day with nothing to do but polish the lamp and trim the wick and rake about on their scrap of garden, something to amuse them’ In contrast to the artistic and aspiring friend of the family Lily Briscoe, who seeks to complete her conceptual painting, Mrs Ramsay imagines that island life promises little but emptiness and boredom:
how would you like to be shut up for a whole month at a time, and possibly more in stormy weather, upon a rock the size of a tennis lawn? she would ask; and to have no letters or newspapers, and to see nobody; if you were married, not to see your wife, not to know how your children were, – if they were ill, if they had fallen down and broken their legs or arms; to see the same dreary waves breaking week after week, and then a dreadful storm coming, and the windows covered with spray, and birds dashed against the lamp, and the whole place rocking, and not be able to put your nose out of doors for fear of being swept into the sea? How would you like that? she asked, addressing herself particularly to her daughters. So she added, rather differently, one must take them whatever comforts one can
The setting of the story on the Isle of Skye is modelled on Woolf’s experiences of childhood holidays at Talland House, Cornwall, from where Godrevy Lighthouse and island were visible three and a half miles out across St. Ives bay. The function of the lighthouse was to deter ships from grounding on the reef known as the Stones. To Mrs Ramsay – a character drawn from Woolf’s mother – aspects of living in a lighthouse which might ordinarily be considered romantic or unique are not to be envied. Mrs Ramsay observes the enforced isolation from the currents of daily life, which would normally find their way in through letters and newspapers. In contrast, the waves are ‘dreary’ and repetitive, bringing nothing new. The island is a place under threat from the elements, where the inhabitants and wild life are under assault. Seabirds, which would usually add colour and life to the scene, are ‘dashed against the lamp’. Far from being celebrated for its beauty and uniqueness, the island is reduced to ‘a rock the size of a tennis lawn’, upon which no recreation or enjoyment can be found. Mrs Ramsay seems to embody the limitations of a conservative mindset that does not encourage creativity or recognise the necessity of crafting conceptual raw material for original works.
Lily Briscoe’s artistic endeavours, which finally culminate in the completion of her painting ten years on, reflect Woolf’s own experiences of writing fiction. The presence of the island is integral to the shape of the story and to the unfolding of the creative process. In her notebook, Woolf imagined the structure of the novel to resemble a letter H, the uprights representing the two days of holiday, with the connecting bridge between them representing the ten year stretch between and the passage of the Great War. The lighthouse on its solitary rock symbolises the artistic vision, or muse, which shifts and changes in the mind:
For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too. It was sometimes hardly to be seen across the bay. In the evening one looked up and saw the eye opening and shutting and the light seemed to reach them in that airy sunny garden where they sat.
Sometimes the muse is ‘hardly to be seen’, and other times it surveys one from afar, beckoning and enticing completion: ‘the Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening’. It is significant that Lily’s painting reaches completion just as the family finally land on the island and complete their long awaited trip to the lighthouse. The journey to the island – a fragment detached from the mainland – signifies the point of connection needed in the culmination of a creative idea. Lily’s last addition to her painting – a short stroke in the middle of the canvas – might be understood to represent the lighthouse, standing proud and alone, complete for the moment in itself.
The island’s natural condition of fragmentation, with associations of self sufficiency, isolation, and sanctity are echoed in Woolf’s fragmented dialogue and plot, which were characteristic of her contribution to the new Modern novel. As Susan Stanford Friedman has noted, post-war art of the Modern era ‘recorded the emotional aspect of…crisis; despair, hopelessness, paralysis, angst, and a sense of meaninglessness, chaos, and fragmentation of material reality’. Woolf, who was challenged by her own psychological condition of fragmentation, recognised that society had been shipwrecked on the shores of conflict, leaving the individual stranded and searching for somewhere safe to be. As Cam imagines during their trip to the lighthouse, ‘they were also making for safety in a great storm after a shipwreck’. Woolf’s conception of a new literary form, and the execution of her creative idea during such turbulent times, thus required stamina, persistence, and the ability to construct a whole from shattered parts.
Islands feature elsewhere in Modern works as places of retreat and signifiers of change. In Howard’s End, E.M. Forster wrote of the Isle of Wight: ‘the Wight is beautiful beyond all laws of beauty. It is as if a fragment of England floated forward to greet the foreigner – chalk of our chalk, turf of our turf, epitome of what will follow.’ The island offers a glimpse of the larger island of which it is a fragment. The sense of Englishness explored and portrayed by Modern authors has been subject to remarkable change over the last century, as our island has increasingly embraced global communications and ethnic and cultural diversity. Julian Barnes explores the changing fabric of English society in his postmodern satire England England. The Isle of Wight is transformed into a theme park that replicates some of England’s most popular historical buildings, figures and sites. Within the containment of the island, history and myth are given new life, while Old England experiences a severe decline. Decades later, a de-populated England has reverted back to a pre-industrial agricultural economy, without its former global political influence.
In one of D.H. Lawrence’s early novels, The Trespasser, the Isle of Wight is a key setting for the unfolding romance between the music student Helena and her older, married, tutor Siegmund. In history, Saint Helena was mother and source of guidance to Constantine the Great, who is credited with introducing Christianity to Britain on a mass scale. The island of St. Helena was where Napoleon was exiled from 1815-1821 and has been under British colonisation since the seventeenth century. In the opening pages of the novel Helena is associated with island imagery. The interior of her London sitting-room is portrayed as a sort of coastal landscape, with walls ‘the dead-green colour of August foliage’, a green carpet that is positioned ‘like a square of grass in a setting of black loam’, a ‘smooth white’ ceiling frieze and fireplace which are reminiscent of white cliffs, with ‘transitory’ furniture that seems as if it might be ‘tossed out’ by an imaginary wave. On the mantelpiece are tablets of stone, ‘rock-crystals, and shells and scraps of seaweed’. Helena herself is consistently associated with the colour white – her ‘pure white’ neck, her ‘white dress’, her being ‘easy to revive , like a white pansy flung into water’, her leaning over a table ‘like a white butterfly in the shade’. Helena’s white associations offer a pure, simple answer to the confused darkness associated with Siegmund and are echoed by her suggestion for the couple to visit the Isle of Wight. The time on the white island allows the couple time away from the constraints of their concealed relationship and temporarily distances them from domestic conflict.
In the short story ‘The Man Who Loved Islands’ Lawrence goes further in exploring the consequences of enforced solitary living. The main character purchases a series of islands in his search for peace. The first island, although full of beautiful flora and fauna, does not bring contentment for the inhabitants. On the second island the islander finds freedom in having ‘dropped out of the race of progress’, but comes to regret a relationship and child he has with his servant’s daughter. Life on the island has a temporary feel:
The island was no longer a “world”. It was a sort of refuge. The islander no longer struggled for anything. He had no need. It was as if he and his few dependents were a small flock of sea-birds alighted on this rock, as they travelled through space, and keeping together without a word.
After going to live on a third island off the west coast of Scotland the islander loses all interest in contact with the wider world and lives with only bare necessities. Eventually, any form of human or animal activity repels him and he seeks to eradicate any reminders of the outside world:
He kept no track of time, and no longer thought of opening a book. The print, the printed letters, so like the depravity of speech, looked obscene. He tore the brass label from his paraffin stove. He obliterated any bit of lettering in his cabin.
He rejoices in extreme weather as it ‘swept the world utterly out of existence for him’. The sea’s roughness – ‘like eternal ramparts’ – prevents any boats from landing on the island and any form of human contact. However, when the snows of winter arrive and the islander becomes trapped and unable to leave the island by boat he loses all perspective. At the end of the story he wanders to the top of a snow-capped hill to look out over the sea where he imagines seeing a sail ‘because he knew too well there would never again be a sail on that stark sea’.
Woolf’s and Lawrence’s fictional experiments in island living, embarked upon in order to seek sanctuary from the pressures and unhappiness of mainstream existence, reveal the source of their characters’ unhappiness to be in the present condition of things, or within the self, rather than something that can be left behind. However, for writers temporary retreat from ‘the race of progress’ is often a necessity in order for a creative project to reach fruition. For those of us who are unable to afford the luxury of buying our own island, writing huts, attics, cubby holes, or the corners of bedrooms, do well enough. A writer needs an island of space that they can call their own, which contains them and allows their thoughts to roam.
More than simply symbols of space, however, islands are inspiring reminders of the gritty perseverance needed to survive the criticism and tests of the world of fiction writing. Islands can remind us of the need to remain stoical and firm amidst the currents of criticism, to stand strong against waves of self doubt, to keep believing during cloudy times when the artistic vision becomes obscured and the creative project awaits completion. Even if – as Woolf suggests in To the Lighthouse – the cloud might take years to dissipate. The joy of islands (and good novels) is that they can be returned to again and again, to experience them in different moods, varied weathers of the mind and soul, and in changing times in life when one’s perspective alters. The complex relationship between islands and fiction writing illuminates some of the seemingly infinite connections between the mind and the environment which, like gradually eroding strata on a sea cliff, continue to unfold before us and yield new treasures.
Bibliography Briggs, J. 2010. 'The novels of the 1930s'. In: S. Sellers, Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp.70-86. Fleming, I. The Official website for Ian Fleming. [Accessed 15 February 2015] Forster, E. M. 1954. Howards End. New York: Vintage. Lawrence, D. H. 2004. The Man Who Loved Islands. The Virgin and the Gypsy and other stories. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth. Lawrence, D. H. 1960. The Trespasser. London: Penguin. Stanford Friedman, S., 1981. Beyond the reaches of feminist criticism. In: S. Benstock, ed. 1987. Feminist issues in literary scholarship. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 7-29. Woolf, V. 1955. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.
Rebecca Welshman is a freelance writer, editor and researcher, and also writes fiction and non fiction. She is co-author, with Patrick Tolfree, of Thomas Hardy and the Jurassic Coast, and has published articles and essays on Richard Jefferies, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf. Her Doctoral thesis, completed at the University of Exeter, was titled Imagining Archaeology: Nature and Landscape in the works of Thomas Hardy and Richard Jefferies. She has presented her research at conferences in the UK and abroad and is currently an Honorary Fellow of the Centre for Research into Reading, Information and Linguistic Systems at the University of Liverpool. She lives in rural Somerset with her partner, son, and Jack Russell dog.