This is my review of To the Lighthouse (Wordsworth Classics) by Virginia Woolf.
Rereading this novel after many years, I have grasped for the first time the brilliance of Virginia Woolf’s work. One of the pioneers of “stream of consciousness” writing in the 1920s, she conveys various characters “interior monologues” with great technical skill and poetic beauty streaked with acerbic wit, weaving together the rapid fleeting impressions of their surroundings, appreciation of objects, fragments of memories, shifting perceptions of other people, the tendency to think one thing but say something else. For this reason, a novel which might seem dated retains relevance and the power to move us almost a century later. It reveals in an original way aspects of the relations between men and women, even the meaning of life.
The plot which could be written on the back of a postcard is immaterial, except that the narrative covering two separate days set ten years apart is cut in two by the impact of the First World War, subtly conveyed by the decay of a house on the Isle of Skye, left unvisited for several summers by the Ramsays. They are a cultured Edwardian family, casually taking for granted their privileged place in the world and unaware of how much things are about to change. There are clear autobiographical elements in the story – certainly, the author’s sister Vanessa thought that Mrs Ramsay bore an uncanny resemblance to their mother. Still beautiful despite being fifty and the mother of eight, Mrs Ramsay exhausts herself in supervising the servants who do the actual hard labour, in ensuring the comfort of her guests, perhaps with a little match-making thrown in, but most of all in trying always partly in vain to meet the demands of her egotistical, insecure philosopher husband, who continually seeks attention and reassurance that, having reached “Q” he may attain “R” – “What is R?” – and that his work may be remembered. Although also at times troubled by a sense of unfulfilled potential, “But what have I done with my life?”, Mrs Ramsay seems to enjoy her lynchpin role, in which she is both admired and resented by others.
A constant factor is the lighthouse (inspired by Godrevy Lighthouse near Talland House in St. Ives, rented by the author’s father for his family) which casts its regular, impersonal beam over the bedrooms at night. James Ramsay will probably always remember the disappointment of being unable to visit the lighthouse as a six-year-old when his father’s dismissive “It will not be fine” harshly shattered the dreams which his gentle mother had encouraged. Ironically forced by his father to sail to the lighthouse a decade later, the journey has a very different significance.
The narrative flows in a twisted thread which requires total concentration. This is the kind of book to reread for the sheer quality of the prose, and to note how the author moulds language to fit moods and impressions, rather as an artist uses paint – one of the characters being Lily Briscoe who agonises over her pictures much as Virginia Woolf must have done, perhaps also over the written word.
How much more might Virginia Woolf have achieved if manic-depression had not caused her to take her own life at the age of 59? Yet, had they been available, modern medications could have dulled the capacity to achieve her unique streams of consciousness.