On this day in 1927, the Hogarth Press published the book regarded by many as Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece To the Lighthouse. In her diary, Virginia pretends to be unconcerned.
Book out. We have sold (I think) 1690 before publication – twice Dalloway. I write however in the shadow of the damp cloud of the Times Lit Sup. review… I am anxious about Time Passes. Think the whole thing may be pronounced soft, shallow, insipid, sentimental. Yet, honestly, don’t much care; want to be let alone to ruminate.
Yet a few days later, she admits:
What is the use of saying one is indifferent to reviews when positive praise, though mingled with blame, gives one such a start on, that instead of feeling dried up, one feels, on the contrary, flooded with ideas… some people say it is my best book… much more nearly a success, in the usual sense of the word, than any other book of mine.
The reason for its success might be that it strikes the perfect balance between a more conventional type of narrative at that time (a reasonably well-off and artistic family on holiday, with assorted guests, little intrigues, character portraits) with the lyrical beauty of Woolf’s prose, as well as those glimmers of insights both superficial and profound, both daily routine matters and startling thoughts that can utterly change or shape our lives.
Far from being sentimental, the Time Passes section of the book is a prose poem tour de force, perhaps the best description of the relentless march of time that I have ever seen captured on paper. People marry, grow old, are born, die, wait and hope, give up. Nature takes over the house. There is sadness but also a strange beauty in that decay:
The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sand hill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it. The long night seemed to have set in; the rifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed… Toads had nosed their way in. Idly, aimlessly, the swaying shawl swung to and fro. The swallows nested in the drawing room; the floor was strewn with straw; the plaster fell in shovelfuls; rafters were laid bare; rats carried off this and that to gnaw behind the wainscots. Tortoiseshell butterflies burst from the chrysalis and pattered their life out on the window pane. Poppies sowed themselves among the dahlias; the lawn waved with long grass… while the gentle tapping of a weed at the window had become, on winters’ nights, a drumming from sturdy trees and thorned briars which made the whole room green in summer.
To the Lighthouse has always been in my ‘second circle’ of Virginia Woolf works, i.e. not my absolute top favourites (the diaries, A Room of One’s Own, Three Guineas and The Waves represent that), but amongst those that I really enjoy and rate highly (Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, Between the Acts, Night and Day, Jacob’s Room), certainly ahead of the third circle, which I like least of her efforts, but still rate much more highly than other people’s writing (her short stories, mostly). However, after this most recent reread, I think I will elevate it to the innermost circle. Perhaps it’s a time of life thing: I am much more open to the melancholy beauty of this book when I am of a similar age as VW when she wrote it.
The characterisation of Mr and Mrs Ramsay is so subtle. In my youth, I hastily labelled him as a domestic tyrant, and her as a wonderful, loving, giving goddess. But the truth is much more complex than that.
Mrs Ramsay is beautiful and sweet, true, but the way she lavishes attention on all those fragile masculine egos and downplays the needs of the women and girls around her (other than to try and arrange possible romances and marriages for them) indicates she is too wedded to the gender division of both labour and expectations of her time. There is both triumph and sadness in the way she finds creativity in running a household and arranging a perfect dinner table. And yet we catch flashes of her intelligence and wit, and her wonderfully human and humane reflections, her perception of life as a wily adversary, for instance:
She took a look at life, for she had a clear sense of it there, something real, something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband. A sort of transaction went on between them, in which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to get the better of it, as it was of her; and sometimes they parleyed… there were, she remembered, great reconciliation scenes; but for the most part, oddly enough, she must admit that she felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance.
Meanwhile, Mr Ramsay can be quite hateful, but there is also something pitiful in his desperate need to be loved, admired, flattered, in the way he feels ‘time’s winged chariot’ just behind him – forever ready to hound him, and his need to leave a legacy (and possibly well-grounded fear that he won’t). While he hasn’t yet acquired that self-awareness that makes the lead character in the Kurosawa film Ikiru change so dramatically, he fills me with sadness just like that character, because of his inability to truly connect with others. He is ultimately a very lonely figure, but a truly infuriating one:
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 of 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 hope are extinguished, our frail barks founder in darkness… one that needs, above all, courage, truth and the power to endure.
Of course, Lily Briscoe was the character I most identified with as a girl, partly because of her antipathy towards marriage, but mostly because of her thoughts about painting, about trying to capture a mood, a thought, a landscape, a character in her painting (and failing), which is really Virginia musing about the writing process. But, just like the other characters, the older Lily looks back and muses about life in general:
What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark… In the midst of the chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at hte clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability.
There is something of the great Russian novelists about the way Virginia Woolf gets her characters to wonder about the big fundamental questions in life, although the way they approach them are very different. The Russians spar in dialogues (or alternate lengthy monologues), while in Woolf the most important things remain unsaid, are only hinted at, and even the thoughts going through people’s heads are like fleeting clouds, until you are almost unsure if you have seen the moments of clarity and brightness or not.
Well, there I was wondering what I could possibly say about To the Lighthouse that hasn’t been said before – and the truth is, nothing of what I’ve said is new. But the fact that it remains a much-loved classic (hopefully, not just by reputation, but actually frequently read) gives me hope that there are sufficient discerning readers out there in the world.