As I start to pull my thoughts together about this beautiful novel I am aware that there are lots of people still reading this book or about to, so I am going to attempt to write without spoilers. This is purely a book review – I don’t write in depth critical pieces – I’m no academic – I have only ever tried to write about my experiences of what I read. So although this novel is one which cries out for a more detailed analysis – I’m not the one to give it to you.
* For those of you dipping your toes into the #Woolfalong pool – I shall be reviewing my reads as I go – but will post a short discussion style post (if I can figure how best to formulate that) at the end of each two month period.*
I did once, years ago, read To the Lighthouse – and while I certainly didn’t hate it – neither did it really take. Oh my – what a difference a couple of decades can make. Last year, reading and really loving, Orlando, The Voyage Out and A Room of One’s Own, I realised that perhaps my relationship with Virginia Woolf might have changed. About eight years ago – I read Mrs Dalloway – I liked it – but I do feel I need to read it again, so I think I will – in the next few weeks.
“The sigh of all the seas breaking in measure round the isles soothed them; the night wrapped them; nothing broke their sleep, until, the birds beginning and the dawn weaving their thin voices in to its whiteness”
To the Lighthouse is fairly simply exquisite. Impressionistic; the pitch and toss of its luminous prose, reminding the reader moment by moment of the ever present sea. While there is little really in terms of plot – there are many images which are imprinted upon the readers mind – and remain far longer than any piece of action possibly can.
Virginia Woolf saw the novel as an elegy to her own parents – and presumably her childhood. The novel itself is about a marriage, childhood, parentage, reminiscence and grief.
To the Lighthouse; – as it begins anyway – is essentially a portrayal of a family holiday in the years before the First World War. Mrs Ramsay is at the centre of everything, a wife, mother to eight children, the hostess to the guests who fill the holiday home in the Hebrides, from where an expedition to the lighthouse – might or might not take place.
“They came to her, naturally, since she was a woman, all day long with this and that; one wanting this, another that; the children were growing up; she often felt she was nothing but a sponge sopped full of human emotions.”
Virginia Woolf’s famous use of stream of consciousness and multiple perspectives in To the Lighthouse give the reader a feeling of being inside the novel themselves – seeing and experiencing so much alongside the characters themselves, that it becomes very intimate. As Hermione Lee explains brilliantly in her introduction – which I have to admit I have only briefly skimmed, Woolf’s inventive and unusual use of parenthesis means we, experience several things at once (just as we do in life I couldn’t help but think). As a character conducts a conversation, we are privy to their thoughts outside of that conversation, wonderings and observations of things around them.
The novel is divided into three sections, The Window, Time Passes, and The Lighthouse. The first section portrays the peculiar tensions of a family holiday; the Ramsays have been joined by a group of friends and colleagues – and an expedition to the lighthouse is anticipated by young James Ramsay – who it seems will be disappointed. James sits cutting pictures from a catalogue, his mother close by recognises how he will be disappointed, and how he will remember it. I loved this simple picture of motherhood and childhood – the feeling of how transitory it is, but how happy.
“She would have liked always to have had a baby. She was happiest carrying one in her arms. Then people might say she was tyrannical, domineering, masterful, if they chose; she did not mind. And, touching his hair with her lips, she thought, he will never be so happy again, but stopped herself, remembering how it angered her husband that she say that. Still, it was true. They were happier now than they would ever be again. A tenpenny tea set made Cam happy for days. She heard them stamping and crowing on the floor above her head the moment they woke. They came bustling along the passage. Then the door sprang open and in they came, fresh as roses, staring, wide awake, as if this coming into the dining- room after breakfast, which they did every day of their lives was a positive event to them; and so on, with one thing after another, all day long, until she went up to say good-night to them and found them netted in their cots like birds among cherries and raspberries still making up stories about some little bits of rubbish – something they had heard, something they had picked up in the garden.”
Painter Lily Briscoe is attempting to paint a picture of Mrs Ramsay and James, but she is unsure of herself as an artist, her confidence in herself further shaken by another guest Charles Tansley – who is heard to declare that women can’t write and can’t paint. Poor Lily is destined to return to that phrase throughout the novel as she struggles to explore her creativity and understand the impressions the Ramsays had on her. A young couple become engaged, a brooch is lost, and as this section draws to a close a dinner party is held. This dinner party serving to show the complexity of the relationships of the people seated around the table.
The second section of the novel was for me particularly poetic. As the title of the section suggests there is a sense of time moving forward – things changing. We learn of what the passage of ten years has done to the Ramsay family. The house in the Hebrides within sight of that lighthouse stands empty – and through the eyes of Mrs Mcnab who has worked for the family throughout their years of ownership we see and feel the changes that time has brought.
The final section, The Lighthouse, some of the Ramsay family and their guests from ten years earlier return to the house – and another expedition to the lighthouse is proposed – and this time undertaken.
I have found it hard to write about this novel coherently – I think perhaps it is a novel which can only be experienced by reading it – a review can’t ever get at its extraordinary essence. I loved so many things about this novel, the depiction of childhood as I’ve already said, the images I am left with certainly – but other things too. I loved how Virginia Woolf explored the nature of a woman’s creativity through the character of Lily Briscoe, the use of language and sense of place.
Hope those of you who will be reading To the Lighthouse or Mrs Dalloway in the next few weeks have as positive an experience as I did – and I hope Mrs Dalloway excites me as much as To the Lighthouse has.