3 December 2018

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf


My healthy respect for Virginia Woolf's writing began a few years ago, but her books were at the deep end of the pool, so to speak, and I wasn't sure about the testing the water.  After spending an afternoon at Monk's House in East Sussex while visiting London in 2016, Woolf's writing seemed a little less insurmountable for realizing that she was, after all, human.  A few postcards and a copy of To the Lighthouse were chosen from the souvenir shop and I was delighted when the woman ringing up my purchase asked if I would like the book stamped.  Yes, please!  Being ridiculously precious about the whole thing, the book was popped on the shelf to wait for the right time.  A year and a half later......

Set just prior to the Great War, Mr and Mrs Ramsey have gathered their eight children at their summer home on the Isle of Skye.  Also staying with them are a few friends of various ages and backgrounds.  Charles Tansley, one of Mr Ramsey's philosophy students, is something of a bore, a misogynist, and rather pedantic....

   'She could not help laughing herself sometimes.  She said, the other day, something about 'waves mountains high'.  Yes, said Charles Tansley, it was a little rough.  'Aren't you drenched to the skin?' she had said.  'Damp, not wet through.' said Mr Tansley, pinching his sleeve, feeling his socks.'

Charles Tansley is also quick to share his opinion when it comes to the skill sets of women; he doesn't think they can paint or write.  Which is very interesting as another guest, Lily Brascoe, has made a goal of painting Mrs Ramsay's portrait while on a break from keeping house for her father in Old Brompton Road.  Despite contemplating the downward turns of her own marriage, Mrs Ramsay seeks to play matchmaker between Lily and Mr Bankes, a childless widower just past middle-age.  Another match orchestrated by Mrs Ramsay is between a young couple, Paul and Minta, who seemingly trust the instincts of their hostess enough to go along with the idea.

While many of the characters in To the Lighthouse feel some level of affection for Mrs Ramsay, her husband is cold and distant.

'I am by way of being devoted to her.  Yet now, at this moment her presence meant absolutely nothing to him: her beauty meant nothing to him; her sitting with her little boy at the window - nothing, nothing.  He only wished to be alone and to take up that book.  He felt uncomfortable; he felt treacherous, that he could sit by her side and feel nothing for her.  The truth was that he did not enjoy family life.'

And then, with a skill that sets writers apart, Virginia Woolf begins a pin-point sharp examination and concise volley from Mrs Ramsey....

'I'm so sorry,' said Mrs Ramsay, turning to him at last.  He felt rigid and barren, like a pair of boots that has been soaked and done dry so that you can hardly force your feet into them.  Yet he must force his feet into them.  He must make himself talk.  Unless he were very careful, she would find out this treachery of his; that he did not care a straw for her, and that would not be at all pleasant, he thought.  So he bent his head courteously in her direction.'

Tragedy and sadness crumbles the traditions of the Ramsey family and their holiday home is left to ruin.  After sitting empty for many years, the housekeeper arrives to give it an airing.  I absolutely loved the description of the beam of light from the Lighthouse casting its eye over the debris left behind and the rat, swallow and thistle that have taken up residence. 

To the Lighthouse is a book to be read very, very slowly.  There were times when I read paragraphs, and sometimes pages, twice because they was so beautiful or thought-provoking.  At other times it was because I had forgotten who was speaking because of Woolf's long sentences where 'She' can suddenly morph into a different person if you're not paying attention.   

So what did I take away from this book?  To the Lighthouse reminded me of Mrs Dalloway for its atmosphere of perception, perspective and Woolf's well-honed art of observation.  There's a myriad of thought and emotion flowing through every character, how much they choose to conceal or convey could change the course of events for better or worse.  It's something we all play at many times throughout our day which makes Virginia Woolf feel both modern, and of her era.  Another interesting aspect is the way in which Woolf portrays married versus single women; there is joy and pitfalls in both camps.  Pressed to choose which book I preferred, Mrs Dalloway edges ahead of this novel but it might have something to do with the smatterings of London porn.  Another possibility is that I found myself paying quite a lot of attention to the writing in To the Lighthouse, so much so that the characters probably suffered for it. 

My next read in Woolf's oeuvre will be Night and Day, but I'll end this post with one last quote from To the Lighthouse simply because it's too lovely not to.....

'For in the rough and tumble of daily life, a sense of repetition - of one thing falling where another had fallen, and so setting up an echo which chimed in the air and made it full of vibrations.'

Portree, Isle of Skye by Jonathan Wheeler

9 comments:

  1. I'm dipping into VW very slowly but with increasing confidence, too. I started with Mrs. Dalloway and read this next, then read Night and Day (!) and found it different but very enjoyable. And I dream of going to Monk's House, and Charleston...

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    1. Have you read any of Woolf's diary entries, Audrey? They're chatty and full of fascinating tidbits about people from England's literary circles.
      I'd love to visit Charleston too!

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    2. I've read a lot of her letters, but not the diaries...thanks for the suggestion!

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  2. I love this book - you've made me want to re-read it. I love this era of Woolf's writing, she was definitely at her best!

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    1. That's wonderful, o! It's nice to finally understand what all the fuss is about. Have a lovely day!

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  3. Made me want to read it again, too. Read it years ago for my degree course and it's not fresh in my mind. Lovely post.

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    1. A desert island and Woolf's books....I'm sure something new is revealed upon each rereading. Margaret Atwood wrote a great article about reading this book while in school (she was 19), and then later in life. I'm glad I came to it later...

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  4. A lovely piece, and what a special place to buy a copy! I love re-reading this one and just soaking in the writing, and ignoring the plot and characters.

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    1. Hi Simon! Here`s hoping you`re enduring a mince pie hangover and having a wonderful time with your family.
      Isn`t Woolf absolutely sublime? It`s so hard to read other books when I would be quite happy to feast on her writings, one after the other. But everything in moderation.....

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