(Oxford World Classics 2008, first published 1927)
I’d never read anything by Virginia Woolf before Nymeth’s review of To the Lighthouse inspired me to seek it out (I have a copy of Orlando which I’d tried reading some years ago, and might try again when I get my books back out of storage). My copy is a version with scholarly introduction and notes – almost all of which, in my opinion, are not required to actually enjoy or make sense of the novel, but which might be useful for critical study.
The book is in three parts: the first, The Window, and longest, takes place over a single day – an afternoon and evening – at the summer home of the Ramsays on Skye in 1909; the second – Time Passes – flicks through ten years, passing at first slowly, and then more quickly; the third part, The Lighthouse, takes place, again in Skye, on a summer’s morning in 1919.
The Ramsay parents are biographical portraits of Woolf’s own parents; they have eight children, and several visitors. Like Leslie Stephen, Woolf’s father, Mr Ramsay is a philosopher; a distinguished man who still requires validation, and recognition of his intellect; he is easily, it seems, put out of temper, and as easily mollified. His wife is a model of domestic virtues, beautiful still, despite her age, a comfort and restfulness about her as she tends to family, guests, and poor people in the village. Guests include Lily Briscoe, an artist, Mr Bankes, a noted biologist, Charles Tansley ‘the atheist’, Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle – the latter two of which Mrs Ramsay hopes will become engaged – amongst others. Mr Bankes lodges in the town, but has come up to the Ramsays’ house for dinner. Lily finds some ease in talking to him, since she feels he takes her painting seriously.
In Time Passes, Woolf treads lightly over the intervening years, a little as though leafing through a diary, telling the story of the house and its inhabitants, the war years in just a few sentences with the appearance of a ship, and the death of Andrew Ramsay.
In The Lighthouse, although ten years have passed, and Mrs Ramsay is dead, it’s almost as if no time has passed at all, and the youngest children, James and Cam, are going to the lighthouse after all, despite their father’s prediction in The Window that the day would not be fine. As they sail across the bay, the children united in a hatred of their father, the tyrant, Lily watches their boat, and paints.
This is a quite extraordinary novel, powerful and experimental. Woolf gets into the head of all her characters, but she lets us see them both from the inside and the outside, and from the viewpoints of other characters. Lily, for example, probably becomes the main character in the novel, if only because it’s her views of the other people which we see most of: she is observant and incisive, though socially awkward: she has the anxiousness and uncertainty of a much younger woman – it comes as something of a surprise to note that she’s thirty three or four in The Window. Part of her awkwardness is because she wants to refuse to take part in the game of conversation and the rules which dictate that she should be tactful, particularly to the men, but yet wants not to distress her hostess – who has a much more traditional view of the woman’s role in domestic society.
Mrs Ramsay is in many ways an admirable woman, coping gracefully with a large family, but Woolf points out, gently, the little hypocrisies in her charities, and her assumptions about the relationships between men and women: her first thought on seeing the comfortable conversation between Lily and Bankes is that they should marry. Marriage, to Mrs Ramsay, is the ultimate state of a woman’s life (and possibly also to a man’s, though that’s less explicitly stated), and it’s her expectation that Paul and Minta will marry that gives Paul the impetus to propose to Minta (though we discover later that their marriage becomes a quite different, and more modern, relationship to the one he and Mrs Ramsay envisaged). While her own marriage is a successful one, she and her husband seem to be very separate people, and she gives more to the relationship than he does.
Mr Ramsay, in other hands, could be portrayed entirely negatively. There are unlikeable things about him, certainly – his dogmatism, his insecurity and neediness – and yet Woolf’s portrayal, seen particularly through Lily’s eyes, is more balanced. He doesn’t become an entirely likeable character, but he is sympathetic. Seen through his youngest son, James’s eyes at the beginning of the novel, he is not a soft man:
“What he said was true. It was always true. He was incapable of untruth; never tampered with a fact; never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure or convenience of any mortal being, least of all his own children, who, sprung from his loins, should be aware from childhood that life is difficult; facts uncompromising; and the passage to that fabled land where our brightest hopes are extinguished, our frail barks founder in darkness (here Mr Ramsay would straighten his back and narrow his little blue eyes upon the horizon), one that needs, above all, courage, truth, and the power to endure.”
This attitude contrasts with that of his wife, whose first instinct is to soften, to lessen the blow, to – in effect – lie. The harsh attitude of their father doesn’t sit well with the younger children – by the time of The Lighthouse, they silently rebel against his tyranny, his assumption of obedience, whilst at the same time finding him worthy of admiration.
This is not a long novel, but as the above extract illustrates, Woolf’s prose is unhurried and dense, though quite readable. Her sentences unfold in a leisurely fashion, but one gets the impression that they were written carefully, every word and turn of phrase chosen to illuminate. It’s not a novel to hurry through. The point of view is not constant, skipping lightly from person to person, yet those brief views are deeply enlightening.
There is a lot to think about in To the Lighthouse, despite its relative brevity, such that I could make this review a good deal longer than it is already: but it is deservedly regarded as a masterpiece.