To the Lighthouse – Andy’s hungry for another Woolf

October 28, 2013

It’s a bit of a theme, but: I read the only other Virginia Woolf novel I’ve read, The Waves, in London. It was a friend’s copy. I can’t remember what she thought of it – I do remember she thought The Female Eunuch was awesome. I remember very little of The Waves, only that it was difficult and not especially engaging. I was in my early 20s and still thought reading ridiculously impenetrable fiction was worth the effort. I’m not so convinced these days.

I couldn't find the cover of my edition, so here's a picture of a lighthouse instead.

I couldn’t find the cover of my edition, so here’s a picture of a lighthouse instead.

To the Lighthouse is regarded as a modernist classic. It requires a little concentration but it’s hardly difficult. It’s certainly not remotely impenetrable. I can’t say I was especially engaged, I have to admit, although I didn’t dislike it and in fact I can say I enjoyed reading much of it. But whether I’ll make the effort to read any more Virginia Woolf in the next two decades…? Hmm.

To the Lighthouse was written in the mid-twenties, is set in the first two decades of the 20th century and is based on Woolf’s childhood in the last two decades of the 19th century. Most of the action takes place on an island off the coast of Scotland, in the holiday home of an upper-middle-class family, the Ramsays,  from London. Although “action” is a stretch – very little “actually” happens, and vast swaths of the novel take place in the minds of its characters, as they observe each other and the very little that is happening around them.

The first two-thirds of the novel take place during one afternoon, before World War I, as the family discuss and ultimately dismiss – to the chagrin of the family’s youngest son, James – the possibility of a trip to the titular lighthouse. Part 2 of the novel is a very short, strange, impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness interregnum that sums up the following 10 years, including the war and some quite shattering changes in the life of the family. There are also some wonderful descriptions of the house’s slow decline in the family’s absence, in which the home itself is virtually a character. Part 3, much shorter than Part 1, sees the family return to their holiday home 10 years after Part 1 – and James, who hated his father in Part 1 for refusing to allow a trip to the lighthouse because of the weather, hating his father now for insisting on taking that trip.

There’s loads to enjoy and appreciate in To the Lighthouse. Woolf’s style is richly poetic. She beautifully juxtaposes the difficulties and stresses of family life with the languid, lazy nature of life on holiday on an island, along with the awkwardness felt by non-family members invited along. One of those invited guests, Lily Briscoe, provides a (rather heavily coded) reference to Woolf’s lesbianism, her obsession with her host Mrs Ramsay’s beauty far more arresting than her fleeting consideration of marriage to another guest, Mr Bankes.  There’s humour in those situations too, as there is in the light, slighting observation of class and intellect – I don’t know if Woolf considered herself a socialist, although she presumably considered herself a feminist; certainly there’s plenty of sly humour in her discussion of elitism, whether sexual or social. And there’s a lurking sense of life’s futility, whether it’s Mrs Ramsay’s delight in presiding at table, or Lily Briscoe’s attempts at painting, or Mr Ramsay’s worry about his legacy as an important writer, or even James’s childhood obsession to visit the lighthouse – an obsession that is fulfilled in the final pages of the novel and yet still seems strangely ephemeral.

Which, to be honest, is a pretty accurate description of To the Lighthouse as a whole. It has much to recommend it, but ultimately it seemed strangely ephemeral.

The best thing about the book is probably a long chapter towards the end of the Part 1, in which the family and their guests sit down to dinner. Mrs Ramsay does indeed preside over this setting quite wonderfully. And there are many other elements of the novel that I enjoyed. But ultimately To the Lighthouse was not a book that left me desperate to read the rest of Woolf’s oeuvre. And ultimately I reckon that’s the literary line in the sand.


One comment

  1. Interesting, never thought about the juxtaposition between the rich, poetic language and the lazy nature of the holiday, I imagine that is where much of its rhetoric power lies…

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