I read To the Lighthouse very slowly over the New Year, taking nearly a week to get through its 237 pages. It is not the story that carries the reader on but the impressions, responses, and insights of her characters. In a slow read I could think about not what happened but how Virginia Woolf created this masterpiece. I wanted to think about the writing, how she achieved her effects. I wanted to think about the process of reading. I also wanted to engage with #Woolfalong on the Heavenali blog.
The Story of To the Lighthouse
The Window: Before the First World War the Ramsay family is holidaying on Skye. The youngest boy James (5) wants to go to the lighthouse the next day, but weather makes the expedition doubtful. The family and house guests, including the painter Lily Briscoe, go about their activities, walking on the beach, listening to the great Mr Ramsay and reading to James. Mrs Ramsay presides over a dinner party.
Time Passes: ten years go by, and the house is neglected. Mrs Ramsay and two of her children die, a marriage turns sour, everyone gets older and the Great War engulfs Europe.
The Lighthouse: Many of the original house party return to Skye. Lily Briscoe sets about completing her painting and Mr Ramsay sails with his two youngest children to the lighthouse.
Themes include family relationships, grief and loss, creativity, internal impressions, the effects of time.
Writing To the Lighthouse
To the Lighthouse was begun in 1925 and published in 1927. In the extracts from her diaries, edited by her husband Leonard after her death and published in 1953, Virginia Woolf recorded the three-part structure of the novel very early on (July 1925) with a sense of doing something new and challenging.
…and then this impersonal thing, which I am dared to do by my friends, the flight of time and the consequent break of unity in my design. That passage (I conceive the book in 3 parts. 1. at the drawing room window; 2. seven years passed; 3. the voyage) interests me very much. A new problem like that breaks fresh ground in one’s mind; prevents the regular ruts. (20 July 1923. 80-1)
Her diaries record writing ‘with speed and certainty’ and this pace became a reference point for her later writing. She records some of her challenges.
Yesterday I finished the first part of To the Lighthouse, and today began the second. I cannot make it out – here is the most difficult abstract piece of writing – I have to give an empty house, no people’s characters, the passage of time, all eyeless and featureless with nothing to cling to; well I rush at it, and at once scatter out two pages. Is it nonsense, is it brilliance? Why am I so flown with words and apparently free to do exactly what I like? When I read a bit it seems spirited too; needs compression, but not much else. Compare this dashing fluency with Mrs Dalloway (save the end). This is not made up; it is the literal fact. (30 April 1926. p88-9)
By September she was trying to find a satisfactory completion of the narratives of Lily Pascoe and Mr Ramsay at the novel’s conclusion. As she finished her redrafting she reflected on her feelings.
I feel – what? A little stale this last week or two from steady writing. But also a little triumphant. If my feeling is correct, this is the greatest stretch I’ve put my method to, and I think it holds. By this I mean that I have been dredging up more feelings and characters, I imagine. But Lord knows, until I look at my haul. This is only my own feeling in process. (101)
She goes on to worry about criticisms, of technique without substance, and the persistent fear of being perceived as sentimental. (I go in dread of “sentimentality”. p101) She can’t relax until Leonard says it is her best work yet, and describes it as ‘a psychological poem’.
And a few weeks later on 21st March 1927 she notes
Dear me, how lovely some parts of Lighthouse are! Soft and pliable, and I think deep, and never a word wrong for a page at a time. This I feel about the dinner party and the children in the boat; but not of Lily on the lawn. That I do not much like. But I like the end. (106)
The book was published in May 1927 and it was so well received that the Woolfs were able to buy a car.
Reflections from the slow read
The novel was considered a pioneer in the technique called ‘stream of consciousness’. She captures the interior experiences of her characters, multi-layered, profound and everyday thoughts, repetition, responses to worries and surrounding people. But the phrase is inadequate, stream suggesting a linear form, imposed by the limits of words in sentences. But Virginia Woolf conveys the layers, textures, and loops of consciousness, making the image of the stream misleading. I remember my first reading, and my fear that I would find a stream of consciousness novel hard. I remember reflecting that actually it was easy to read, not always to understand or follow, but to read because it represented the way in which everyone experiences the world – at many levels, simultaneously, repetitively and interruptedly.
Another feature of the writing is its lyrical qualities. I considered her use of poetry, especially in the dinner party scene, in a recent post about poetry in fiction.
Mrs Ramsay dominates the novel and her perceptions carry much of the first section. She knits, sits and reads to her youngest son, argues with the gardener, goes on errands to the village, checks on her children and presides at the dinner table. She is beautiful, in her deportment and in her perceptivenes and interactions with people. Here is an example, as she concludes the book she reads to James.
‘And that’s the end,’ she said. And she saw in his eyes, as the interest of the story dies away in them something else take its place; something wondering, pale, like a reflection of a light, which at once made him gaze and marvel. Turning, she looked across the bay, and there, sure enough, coming regularly across the waves first two quick strokes and then one long steady stroke, was the light of the Lighthouse. It had been lit. (71-2)
A few pages later, James having gone off, Mr Ramsay passes, and wants her to assuage his discomfort – as he so often did from women. The next few lines reveal much about their marriage.
And again he would have passed her without a word had she not, at that very moment, given him of her own free will what she knew he would never ask, and called to him and taken the green shawl off the picture frame, and gone to him. For he wished, she knew, to protect her. (76)
The flow of the sentences in those two passages makes reading a pleasure. In contrast Mrs Ramsay, having permeated the first section, is dispatched in parenthesis in a section that jars.
[Mr Ramsay stumbling along a passage stretched his arms out one dark morning, but, Mrs Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, he stretched his arms out. They remained empty.] (146-7)
To the Lighthouse is a delight. Its techniques, challenges, solutions make one wonder, how did she do that? In an essay on how to read, in The Second Common Reader Virginia Woolf wrote
Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a writer is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties with words. (Brain Pickings blog)
It’s also worth noting that Virginia Woolf was writing from her experiences: of annual holidays (at St Ives not Skye), of a dominating father and beautiful mother, and of the challenges of creativity. Virginia Woolf was close to her sister Vanessa Bell, a painter as was Lily Briscoe. The parental stuff was therapeutic as she wrote later
I used to think of him [father] and mother daily; but writing the Lighthouse laid them in my mind. And now he comes back, but differently. (I believe this to be true – that I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act) (November 1928. P138)
Not everyone finds her as inspiring. I was rather shocked to read Hilary Mantel saying,
I’ve never read my way through a Virginia Woolf book. (Paris Review: Art of Fiction #226)
My copy is falling to bits.
I had included Mrs Ramsay in my list of older women in fiction. But since her youngest son was only 5, albeit she had eight children, I think she must have been in her early 50s. She does, however, have the poise and wisdom of many older women.
Did Virginia Woolf really use so many semi-colons in her diary, or is this Leonard’s editing?
For the next phase of the #Woolfalong in March/April I will be probably reread The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf’s first novel.
To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927) by the Hogarth Press. Pages numbers refer to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of 1964 237pp
A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Leonard Woolf, first published in 1953. The edition used in this post was published by Persephone Books in 2012. 372pp.
Heavenali’s post on To The Lighthouse, part of the #Woolfalong project on her blog, for which many thanks.
In Step with Virginia Woolf about the ballet WoolfWorks
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