I picked up this story because I’d never read anything by Ms Woolf before, and because many commentaries on her creative writing seemed to profoundly fall, clunk, onto this novel.
A read about Virginia Woolf’s life and then began reading. I didn’t want any preconceived ideas about what the novel meant, so I steered clear of those commentaries.
At the bottom of the first page, which took me some time to read, I thought: what the hell is this? By the end of the second page, I was all at sea. I think I stopped reading then, feeling my face was covered in different coloured crayon marks, and my hands felt they’d been feeling over an thickly embroidered, other-worldly tapestry.
I’ve read many books and like to think I’m relatively smart, but this book was different. I slept a little uneasily wondering if I’d bitten into a book I wouldn’t enjoy, or worse, be able to understand. The next night I picked it up again, ready to plod on. But the more I read, the easier I found it was to slip into Ms Woolf’s groove. She drew me into the story, making me slow down and think about what and who she was describing.
To the Lighthouse, 1927, is written in three parts: The Window; Time Passes, and The Lighthouse. The Ramsay family is on a summer holiday in the first part. The house is left alone occupies the second, and ten years later some of the Ramsay’s come back to the house ten years later.
There is little or no dialogue in the story. The Mr and Mrs Ramsay and their eight children, sundry friends and hangers on fill the first part. Mrs Ramsay is possibly the principle character here. We see, or read, everything through the eyes and the thoughts of these people on holiday. They are not exciting people, just ordinary. As the tale moves from one person, what they see and feel about each other, to another there is hardly definition of any kind. The tempo of prose smoothly drifts from one to the other: their fears, their anxieties within themselves and about each other, where they fit in the world, their opinions – which sometimes fluctuate wildly, and what they see in the house and outside.
The active participants in the the first part of story are mainly adults, with a few thoughts from some of the children. I felt unmoored. The pastiche of Ms Woolf’s prose draws multiple skeins through the eyes and thoughts of one, to another, and back again. Once I realised nobody was coming to define the hierarchy of characters, the house, the garden, the sea, or the plot itself, I could relax and go with her flow. The author wants us to experience the half felt trials, the understanding and clueless thoughts of being able to bridge the mental gaps in the relationships of those at the house. Remembering this was written in 1927, and set pre the Great War, the societal mores of the times are in evidence.
Their is no primary narrator though many of the thoughts and observations are through Mrs Ramsay (who I believe was modelled on Ms Woolf’s mother who died when she was 7, likewise Mr Ramsay, her father, who died ten years later).
The scene at the dinner table was probably my favourite part of the book as we feel and see through the eyes of a few adults sitting at Mrs Ramsay’s end of the table.
Lily Briscoe knew all that. Sitting opposite him could she not see, as in an X-ray photograph, the ribs and thigh bones of the young man’s desire to impress himself lying dark in the mist of his flesh—that thin mist which convention had laid over his burning desire to break into the conversation? But, she thought, screwing up her Chinese eyes, and remembering how he sneered at women, “can’t paint, can’t write”, why should I help him to relieve himself?
Her husband sits at the far end with Mrs Ramsay observing and speculating about him (among many other things). Lily Briscoe sits two seats to her left. She is a primary character also who spends much of the first part of the story trying to paint a picture outside on the lawn. Here is a sample of the prose as the dinner party ends:
Disappearing as stealthily as stags from the dinner-table directly the meal was over, the eight sons and daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay sought their bedrooms, their fastnesses in a house where there was no other privacy to debate anything, everything; Tansley’s tie; the passing of the Reform Bill; sea-birds and butterflies; people; while the sun poured into those attics, which a plank alone separated from each other so that every footstep could be plainly heard and the Swiss girl sobbing for her father who was…
I was so engaged in the novel I now had to ration it out, but I was in for surprise. second part: the house sits alone, unattended except for the vague ministrations of Mrs McCurdy, the caretaker. She wanders in shaking her head as the year follows year and the house begins to bend and fill up with dust and sand blown up from the beach. If ever there was a narrator, I think the house was it in part two:
But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollow of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers.
In an offhand way we read that Mrs Ramsay has died [in parentheses] of two or three lines, or that Andrew, one of the Ramsay boys has been killed in the war, and Prue…
The last part, The Lighthouse, is taken up with voyage to lighthouse, with Mr Ramsay, now a widower, Cam(illa) and James, two of his children. In the garden Lily Brisco picks up her thread of the picture she was painting and starts it again. She watches the boat travel away across the sea. She is much taken up with the absence of Mrs Ramsay, imagining her still here, or there.
The two children in the boat haver between rebelling against their overbearing father – they have a pact against tyranny. And more. This isn’t meant to be a review, just my reflections. I don’t want to speculate any further because I would love others to pick up this book and experience what it must have been like for a brilliant author, a woman, to create this story in such an enriching way.