To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf
My Vintage Classics edition of To the Lighthouse comes in at 224 pages, including the introduction by Helen Dunmore. It would be easy to write a book twice that length about it.
My first completed Woolf was Mrs Dalloway, after two unsuccessful attempts at The Voyage Out neither of which made it past the first couple of pages. I described Dalloway as “an easy and effervescent read that brims with life”, which surprised me because I’d expected something rather difficult and forbidding. Somehow despite that experience I was still daunted approaching To the Lighthouse. It’s curious how much a book’s reputation can be a barrier to it.
Lighthouse opens with the sprawling Ramsay family on holiday in Skye. Mr Ramsay is a philosophy professor, well regarded but perhaps falling slightly from fashion. His wife, Mrs Ramsay, is an extraordinarily beautiful woman largely unaware of her own beauty and who frankly could be Mrs Dalloway after some slightly different life choices.
With them are their many children and guests, most notable in memory their youngest son James who has set his heart on going to the lighthouse the next day and is cruelly disappointed by indifferent adults commenting that the weather will forbid it. Among the guests are Lily Briscoe, a self-doubting amateur painter who may have genuine talent; Charles Tansley, an abrasive young man insecure by reason of his impoverished background; Augustus Carmicheal, a minor poet.
I could pick any of several themes to discuss, but the one that stands out for me as I write this today is the question of what makes a life worthwhile. For James the answer is simple – the much promised trip to the lighthouse. He has the relentless focus of a small child. His whole hopes are invested in that one thing and yet he has no influence at all on whether it happens.
Others’ dreams are more complex, though perhaps no more within their power. Mr Ramsay obsesses on how his work will be remembered by posterity. He’s a vain man, his success and praises to date insufficient bulwark against his ever-encroaching insecurity. He knows his most recent book was not his best.
One in a generation. Is he to be blamed then if he is not that one? provided he has toiled honestly, given to the best of his power, till he has no more left to give? And his fame lasts how long? It is permissible even for a dying hero to think before he dies how men will speak of him hereafter. His fame lasts perhaps two thousand years. And what are two thousand years? (asked Mr. Ramsay ironically, staring at the hedge). What, indeed, if you look from a mountain-top down the long wastes of the ages? The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare. His own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year or two, and would then be merged in some bigger light, and that in a bigger still. (He looked into the darkness, into the intricacy of the twigs.)
Mrs Ramsay has her own fears and disappointments, but her sphere is firmly domestic. She comforts her husband when he despairs of being remembered and tries to bask in the reflected glory of the intensity of his intellect (yet each time we dip into his thoughts, they are on his legacy, not some great work). She looks to arrange marriages among her guests, seeks to preserve her children’s happiness which she knows cannot last into adulthood. She is the rock the family stands on, a light guiding them through stormy seas (you could write another book no doubt on the symbolism of the lighthouse itself…)
The marriages that happen do so without her help, those she seeks to bring about come to nothing. Her children’s happiness in the case of James can be dashed with a harsh word from the bumptious Tansley, and in the case of the older children is moving beyond her reach. Her husband’s dependence on her reassurance is a sign of a smallness in him, a truth she tries not to recognise.
Universities and people wanting him, lectures and books and their being of the highest importance—all that she did not doubt for a moment; but it was their relation, and his coming to her like that, openly, so that anyone could see, that discomposed her; for then people said he depended on her, when they must know that of the two he was infinitely the more important, and what she gave the world, in comparison with what he gave, negligible. But then again, it was the other thing too—not being able to tell him the truth, being afraid, for instance, about the greenhouse roof and the expense it would be, fifty pounds perhaps, to mend it; and then about his books, to be afraid that he might guess, what she a little suspected, that his last book was not quite his best book (she gathered that from William Bankes); and then to hide small daily things, and the children seeing it, and the burden it laid on them—all this diminished the entire joy, the pure joy, of the two notes sounding together, and let the sound die on her ear now with a dismal flatness.
And yet. What marriage is perfect? We see inside the Ramsay’s thoughts and so we see their failings, but that’s not the whole story. There’s the broader picture too: husband and wife; parents and children; the noise and chaos and love of a large family. The Ramsays are enviable, even if they don’t know it.
From her interior monologues it’s clear that Mrs Ramsay is intelligent, perhaps more so than her husband. She’s alive to beauty and is psychologically astute, but she has no outlet for any of it which is why she spends her days trying to pair up others perhaps so that by replicating her choices they validate them.
BUT WHAT HAVE I done with my life? thought Mrs. Ramsay, taking her place at the head of the table, and looking at all the plates making white circles on it.
Lily Briscoe isn’t a beauty, which in Edwardian Britain would generally be a distinct disadvantage save that Lily’s ambitions lie in her art. She wants to capture a relationship between objects, to solve a problem in a painting, yet doubts she has the ability. Tansley crushes her with a cruel remark that women can’t write or paint. Her confidence is so fragile he dents her even though even he doesn’t seem to believe what he says and in any event plainly knows nothing of either. She can’t bear anyone looking at her canvas.
Every sign in the book points to Lily having talent, but nothing supports her in it. She’s a woman; she doesn’t have the luxury Mr Ramsay has of a Mrs Ramsay to calm her fears. Still, she persists. Mr Ramsay wants immortality from his work; for Lily Briscoe the work itself is enough and she just wants to be true to her vision. The aging Mr Carmicheal meanwhile finds himself somewhere between the two, becoming recognised as a famous poet but seemingly just as comfortable as he was when uncelebrated.
Woolf’s prose continues to have moments of breathtaking beauty:
So she looked over her shoulder, at the town. The lights were rippling and running as if they were drops of silver water held firm in a wind. And all the poverty, all the suffering had turned to that, Mrs. Ramsay thought. The lights of the town and of the harbour and of the boats seemed like a phantom net floating there to mark something which had sunk.
All this written, and I’m not even a third of the way into the novel. Death intervenes, and more death with the war. The second section of the book shifts to an omniscient narrator quietly recording the gentle decay of the Ramsay’s neglected holiday home. The tone becomes elegiac, with occasional square-bracketed asides that reminded me of the muttered asides in Eliot’s poetry:
So some random light directing them from some uncovered star, or wandering ship, or the Lighthouse even, with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, the little airs mounted the staircase and nosed round bedroom doors. But here surely, they must cease. Whatever else may perish and disappear what lies here is steadfast. Here one might say to those sliding lights, those fumbling airs, that breathe and bend over the bed itself, here you can neither touch nor destroy. Upon which, wearily, ghostily, as if they had feather-light fingers and the light persistency of feathers, they would look, once, on the shut eyes and the loosely clasping fingers, and fold their garments wearily and disappear. And so, nosing, rubbing, they went to the window on the staircase, to the servants’ bedrooms, to the boxes in the attics; descending, blanched the apples on the dining-room table, fumbled the petals of roses, tried the picture on the easel, brushed the mat and blew a little sand along the floor. At length, desisting, all ceased together, gathered together, all sighed together; all together gave off an aimless gust of lamentation to which some door in the kitchen replied; swung wide; admitted nothing; and slammed to.
[Here Mr. Carmichael, who was reading Virgil, blew out his candle. It was past midnight.]
In the third section the family return, some ten years later. War and illness have reduced their number, and their relationships have shifted accordingly. Mr Ramsay, tyrant of the first section through his own need rather than any cruelty, is both reduced and yet made better too. He takes James to the lighthouse, praises him for how he manages the tiller on their boat. He has learned to make space for others. He is human, as are they all.
Grant of 1streading reviews it here. I had the advantage of not knowing a major story development around the half way mark of the novel and my ignorance definitely enhanced its impact. Grant assumes (fairly) that most readers are probably aware of the broad thrust of the story and so discusses that element in his first paragraph. I chose not to since I figured if I didn’t know it others might not, but by taking knowledge of the story as a given Grant does give himself more freedom to discuss some fairly key themes which I wasn’t able to explore here as much as I’d have liked.
Grant’s also spot on in saying that there’s no real sense here of the Isle of Skye as a place, but then place isn’t really Woolf’s focus. With this intensity of character and emotion, a certain shallowness of geography isn’t a serious flaw.
On a wholly unrelated note, until I ran a spellcheck on this post I honestly always thought elegiac was spelled elegaic (which still looks right to me on the page). I also thought it was a hard g (which is still how it sounds inside my head). Such are the perils of being largely self-educated. It rather makes me sympathise a bit more with poor Tansley.