Wednesday 12 November 2014

Reading The Classics: To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I've been reading To The Lighthouse for my on-line course, The Fiction of Relationship. Virginia Woolf's most autobiographical work may well be my favourite of all her novels, and it clearly has a special place in the heart of course tutor Professor Weinstein, too.

Woolf has recreated her own late parents as the book's central characters, Mr and Mrs Ramsay, and their holiday home in the Hebrides is based on her childhood summers in St Ives. The story begins before the outbreak of the First World War; strong emotional currents coursing just beneath the surface are visible from the outset.

Mrs Ramsay promises James, youngest of her brood of eight, that they'll be able to visit the nearby lighthouse next day, provided the weather is good. At this, James is filled with 'an extraordinary joy', until his father makes a passing comment that, of course, the weather won't be fine:
Had there been an axe handy, a poker, or any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father's breast and killed him there and then, James would have seized it. Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr Ramsay excited in his children's breasts by his mere presence.
Mr Ramsay is egotistical and abrupt, apart from his family; an academic and philosopher who, like Woolf's own father Leslie Stephen, is nevertheless in need of constant approval to validate his life.

It is Mrs Ramsay who is the emotional heart of the novel. A woman whose extraordinary beauty affects all those around her, she is often conveyed through the impact she has on others. The odious Charles Tansley falls in love with her and his fellow house-guest Lily Briscoe, painter and spinster surrogate for Virginia herself, loves and observes Mrs Ramsay closely. At the family's dinner party, as she turns to the man next to her:
How old she looks, how worn she looks, Lily thought and how remote. Then when she turned to William Bankes, smiling, it was as if the ship had turned and the sun had struck its sails again
Mrs Ramsay breathes life into the house and provides her husband with the love and support he craves:
They became part of that unreal but penetrating and exciting universe which is the world seen through the eyes of love. The sky stuck to them; the birds sang through them.
Even though, at other times her feelings are less benevolent:
She could not understand how she had ever felt any emotion or affection for him
As Mrs Ramsay concerns herself with the well-being of family and friends, compelled to match-make those around her, she is also contemplating the 'wedge-shaped core of darkness' in her own soul.

The novel is written in Woolf's exquisitely lyrical stream of consciousness; Professor Weinstein describes it as 'throbbing and full throated.' It imbues every passing moment with depth and overturns the patriarchal point of view that Woolf so famously criticises in A Room of One's Own:
This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room
Shakespeare combines the domestic with the apocalyptic and political in King Lear and Professor Weinstein argues that in To The Lighthouse, by moving from a settled pre-war scene to the devastating short central section, Time Passes, and its aftermath, Woolf is doing the same.

To The Lighthouse can appear elitist in the twenty-first century, concerning itself with summer homes and dinner party meals of boeuf en daube. Mrs Ramsay is not the role model to women today that she might have been at the time of Woolf's writing; she has no profession and dwells entirely on the domestic. Yet, at a time of great social and class upheaval, she is the provider of social texture, the sole source of fusion, as she induces her family and reluctant guests to break bread together.

In her profound exploration of marriage and adult relationships, Woolf is is as relevant today as she has ever been. And the shocking brutality she introduces in Time Passes, with those we have come to love blotted out in brackets, emphasizes the fragility of our relationships. This is particularly poignant as, one hundred years on, we reflect on the senseless waste of the First World War. 

So what is the significance of the lighthouse? Like Mrs Ramsay, it is a beacon in the waves for human orientation. The sea is fluid, knowing nothing of human emotion, so all that endures is where a connection has taken place. 

In the final part, both reaching the lighthouse years later and Lily's finishing of her painting are paramount:
Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.
In Lily's thoughts there is also a sense that Virginia has successfully completed the task she set out to achieve; an intimate portrayal of her parents.

The edition of the book shown is published by Harcourt. Image of Virginia Woolf courtesy of The Virginia Woolf Blog.


  1. This was the first Virginia Woolf I ever read .....whilst I was doing my (law) finals at Uni and I can still remember the joy of reading that beautiful prose after a day in the library with dusty old law books. Great review .

    1. Her prose is wonderful, isn't it - I can imagine it was the perfect tonic for a day full of law!! I find this novel more accessible than some of Woolf's others and really enjoyed the additional analysis from my course lectures.


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