Book Review – Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927)

IMMIGRATION RAIDS 012307: El gr?fico presenta los arrestis de la Operaci?n `Return to Sender? desde mayo; 96.3 mm x 108 mm; with BC-Immigration Raids
Virginia Woolf, and a first edition copy of To the Lighthouse (right). 

Out of everything that I’ve read in the past six months or so, To the Lighthouse has probably had the most lasting effect on me. It was one of those books which can be slow to get into, and I have to admit, skipping through the long, scholarly introduction by Hermione Lee (in the 1992 edition) really didn’t help. In some ways, I disagree with placing elaborate and technical appraisals of the critical value of a text before the reader has had a chance to look at the text itself. It can make it seem heavy, and oddly daunting. In retrospect though, the more I read about this novel, and the more reviews I find, the more I like it. This is deeply ironic given the nature of the novel itself; a retrospective narrative, which, much like The Great Gatsby, is about trying to reach back into the past, and recreate the time in which a person believed they were the most happy.

To the Lighthouse is a reflection of sorts of the author’s own experiences, it is a pilgrimage to the past, and the rugged Scottish coastline. It is Virginia Woolf before A Room of One’s Own (1929). It is, at its most basic, the story of the Ramsay family on holiday in Skye, and of a promised journey to a lighthouse which only takes place years later.

The title of the novel reminded me of the dedication of a sonnet, an ode, or perhaps some of the Tudor/Stuart poetry, written about a particular location (e.g, “Tagus farewell“, written in 1539 by Sir Thomas Wyatt, or the model Country-House poem “To Penshurst” by Ben Jonson, published 1616). “To the Lighthouse” gives a sense of action and urgency, though not as dramatic as Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1854) , it does suggest a course of action for the novel’s characters, who appear unbound by chronological constraints – the novel is told almost entirely through the recollections of various characters – and in sections which are set years apart in time, if not place.

“The time of Victorian, neo-classical pastoral has passed; this is a twentieth-century, ‘modern’ novel” – Hermione Lee, Introduction, pg. xxxvii

The strange thing is, a century later, and it is the Victorian elements of To the Lighthouse which attracted me to it. The invention of childhood. The obsession with death. The distortion of trying to achieve a perfect standard of harmony in family life (as a microcosm of society), that in reality had actually never come to pass. The myriad classical allusions.

Let’s look at some of those elements in more detail. Firstly, the spectre of death. The burden of mortality.

According to Lee, the entire subject of Lighthouse is death, “not just people dying and being mourned, but for the wish for death” (pg. xxxix). Furthermore, even for those still living, there is a “sense of cruelty and sadness of being alive”.

Fundamentally then, the idea is one of feeling stuck at a certain stage of life, but realising that this is an illusion; life cannot be stationary. Or perhaps we are, at present, unable to rid ourselves of the illusion. In painting (and there are frequent references to Lily’s paintings) and literature (again, constantly referenced, and encapsulated by the novel itself) humans defy nature in attempting to preserve a part of themselves to shore against the passage of time (literally, as Woolf triumphantly names the final section of the novel “Time Passes”).

This leads on to the next major element; classical references and pastoral allusions. As Lee sees it, all references to the lighthouse itself, and the proposed journey are in fact a “feast for the dead, journey to the underworld” (pg. xxxvi) and the links to Orpheus, Demeter and Persephone are obvious. In the manuscript, Mr. Ramsay quotes Matthew Arnold’s “Thyrsis” (1865), a pastoral elegy for Arthur Clough, a friend of Arnold’s, also a scholar and poet. “Thyrsis” is a Greek lament, based on Virgil’s 7th Eclogue, but transposed onto the fields of Oxfordshire. It is from this poem that some of the most famous descriptions of the city of Oxford in the English language appear (the view of the spires from Boar’s Hill). Arnold looks back on his own Arcadia (a type of pastoral paradise) from “the great town’s harsh, heart-wearying roar”. Like Arnold, Woolf has lifted aspects of the classical tradition for her own use, but she does not conform completely to this structure. She supersedes Arnold in that To the Lighthouse as a whole, rather than just her narrative persona, looks back on a landscape and time that she loved, and family she lost. With the arrival of the ‘modern’ novel the twilight of Victorian England could be (dis)missed like a childhood, and would be mourned as the decline of a golden age.

Personal highlights;

  • The description of the Ramsay children, with their own epithets, “like Kings and Queens of England”.
  • The latter part of the novel (“Time Passes”) and James and Cam’s interactions with their ageing father.
  • Lily Briscoe’s idealised memories of Mrs Ramsay.
  • “Blank misgivings of a creature/ Moving about in worlds not realised” – a reference from Wordsworth’s “Ode to Intimations of Immortality” (from Recollections of Early childhood, 1807). [referenced pg. 257, note 28, 1992 edition]

In addition, I stumbled across a  particularly poignant article about discovering To the Lighthouse, as a 22-year-old, and then re-reading it decades later. The fact that the theme of the post was failure, another topic discussed on this blog, makes it seem worthwhile linking to this post.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review – Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927)

  1. Wonderful thoughts on a great book, Nikita! I love the way you engage with the ‘Thrysis’ allusion and compare the ways Arnold and Woolf re-appropriate classical form.
    Do keep these book reviews coming 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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