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TO THE LIGHTHOUSE // VIRGINIA WOOLF 📚
1927 // NOVEL // LITERARY MODERNISM
‘Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,’ said Mrs Ramsay.
FROM THE BLURB
I would normally quote something about the novel from the blurb, but in this case I can’t because there isn’t one. Instead I’ll quote from the short biographical essay with which the publishers thought it wise to open the book. Before I do, it’s worth saying that my edition of To The Lighthouse was published in 2013 and the introduction written, presumably, around the same time.
2013 and this is its closing sentence:
An innovative masterpiece, To the Lighthouse cements Woolf’s position as one of the greatest ever female—and modernist—writers.
I can’t tell whether whoever wrote these words believed that ‘modernist’ amplified ‘female’ or vice versa. Either way, it’s not only clunky, but thoroughly insulting—not so much any longer to the dead Virginia Woolf as to the intelligence of the reader.
I struggle to imagine a publisher writing a similar recommendation for one of James Joyce’s modernist novels:
An innovative masterpiece, Ulysses cements Joyce’s position as one of the greatest ever male—and modernist—writers.
I know one shouldn’t take Wikipedia as the last word, but crowdsourced information has a tendency to bring the popular imagination to the surface. So it is significant that. for Wikipedia editors, Virginia Woolf not merely participated in, but defined the terms of literary modernism.
Meanwhile, Woolf’s own publishers seem astonished that a woman—no less—could write such a masterpiece. Remarkable. Especially when a central theme of To The Lighthouse is Lily Briscoe’s simmering resentment at the chauvinism of pompous Charles Tansley:
[H]ow could he love his own kind who did not know one picture from another, who had stood behind her smoking shag (‘fivepence an ounce, Miss Briscoe’) and making it his business to tell her women can’t write, women can’t paint, not so much that he believed it, as that for some odd reason he wished it?
I wonder whether the hapless biographer even read the novel, because the publisher thought the singular fact of Woolf’s gender so astonishing that they repeated the phrasing on the inside cover:
Her position as one of the greatest ever female—and modernist—writers is incontestable.
Their bizarre choice of words motivated me to look up said publishers, ready to demand an explanation. But it would appear that they stopped printing books a few years ago and now sell expensive perfume. Probably a good call.
Anyway. Here are some snippets from an exquisite novel that I would recommend to anyone: full of sly observations of human nature as well as the frustrating internal conflict involved in smashing the patriarchy. Let it wash over you: not so much a stream of consciousness as an ocean.
‘BEING IN LOVE’
We’re inside Lily Briscoe’s head:
Directly one looked up and saw them, what she called ‘being in love’ flooded them. They became part of that unreal but penetrating and exciting universe which is the world seen through the eyes of love. The sky stuck to them; the birds sang through them. And, what was even more exciting, she felt, too, as she saw Mr Ramsay bearing down and retreating, and Mrs Ramsay sitting with James in the window and the cloud moving and the tree bending, how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach.
‘SO THAT IS MARRIAGE’
We’re inside Lily Briscoe’s head again:
So that is marriage, Lily thought, a man and a woman looking at a girl throwing a ball.
THE ‘SEVENTH ARTICLE’
We’re inside Lily Briscoe’s head again, during a moment of awkwardness at dinner, when Lily notices that Mr Tansley is struggling to join the conversation:
There is a code of behaviour, she knew, whose seventh article (it may be) says that on occasions of this sort it behoves the woman, whatever her own occupation may be, to go to the help of the young man opposite so that he may expose and relieve the thigh bones, the ribs, of his vanity, of his urgent desire to assert himself; as indeed it is their duty, she reflected, in her old maidenly fairness, to help us, suppose the Tube were to burst into flames. Then, she thought, I should certainly expect Mr Tansley to get me out. But how would it be, she thought, if neither of us did either of these things? So she sat there smiling.
‘THE THING SIMPLY’
At the dinner party, Woolf skewers the self-obsession of the intellectual. Mrs Ramsay and Paul Rayley are attempting to discuss Tolstoy, without much success. Mrs Ramsay reflects that the academic Charles Tansley could talk at length about Tolstoy, but, in his anxiety to impress, Tansley would end up revealing more about himself than about the famous writer.
We’re in Mrs Ramsay’s head:
‘Oh, Anna Karenina,’ but that did not take them very far; books were not in their line. No, Charles Tansley would put them both right in a second about books, but it was all so mixed up with, Am I saying the right thing? Am I making a good impression? that, after all, one knew more about him than about Tolstoy, whereas what Paul said was about the thing simply, not himself. Like all stupid people, he had a kind of modesty too, a consideration for what you were feeling, which, once in a way at least, she found attractive. Now he was thinking, not about himself or about Tolstoy, but whether she was cold, whether she felt a draught, whether she would like a pear.
Part II of To The Lighthouse is called Time Passes and consists of nothing much more than darkness, light and air moving through the house. It’s a beautiful piece of writing. Here’s the gentle air:
And so, nosing, rubbing, they went to the window on the staircase, to the servants’ bedrooms, to the boxes in the attics; descending, blanched the apples on the dining-room table, fumbled the petals of roses, tried the picture on the easel, brushed the mat and blew a little sand along the floor. At length, desisting, all ceased together, gathered together, all sighed together; all together gave off an aimless gust of lamentation to which some door in the kitchen replied; swung wide; admitted nothing; and slammed to.
At the end of the novel, Mr Ramsay has just praised his son James for the way he’s steered the boat across the bay to the lighthouse. We’re inside the head of James’s sister Cam:
There! Cam thought, addressing herself silently to James. You’ve got it at last. For she knew that this was what James had been wanting, and she knew that now he had got it he was so pleased that he would not look at her or at his father or at anyone. There he sat with his hand on the tiller sitting bolt upright, looking rather sulky and frowning slightly. He was so pleased that he was not going to let anybody share a grain of his pleasure. His father had praised him. They must think that he was perfectly indifferent. But you’ve got it now, Cam thought.
Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.
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This book was recommended to me by F.M. Thanks!
221 pages, ~65,000 words
Read: 20 December 2020 to 19 January 2021
This newsletter review is published under the ‘fair dealing’ copyright exemption for criticism, review or quotation. If you’ve enjoyed this newsletter, please consider buying the book: find your local bookshop.
Hello, I’m David Charles and I’m a UK-based writer and outdoor instructor. Say hello by replying to this email, or delve into davidcharles.info. I also publish a weekly newsletter that helps you make a little more sense of the world. Thank you for reading!