To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf


After I finished listening to this book, I listened a second time and found that to be worthwhile. Mrs. Dalloway was irresistible; this one has more ruminative “self talk” that eludes me. Still, I enjoyed the moments of clarity and brilliance. I was reminded of the Edward Albee play/movie “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” about the elusive Virginia Woolf, dreaded by students.

The first half of the book is largely focused on Mrs. Ramsey as she manages her large family (eight children) and many guests in their summer cottage on the Isle of Skye. Mr. Ramsey teaches school and writes books about philosophy and requires much support and attention from her. She promises James, the youngest child, a visit to the lighthouse the next day, a promise unpleasantly countermanded by Mr. Ramsey, saying the weather will be bad. Guests include the painter Lily Briscoe, the poet Mr. Carmichael, the young Mr. Tansley, and more. An afternoon and an evening meal comprise this section.

A short section follows called “Time Passes” that tells us that in the ten years between 1910 and 1920 Mrs. Ramsey has died, her daughter Prue married and died in childbirth, Andrew died during the war and the summer cottage has deteriorated in their absence. Mrs. McNab describes the decay and when asked to prepare it for their return, musters workers to restore it.

The third section takes place over a morning when Mr. Ramsey, son James, daughter Camilla, Lily Briscoe, and Mr. Carmichael are back in place. Lily recalls the various folks who had been there and laments the demise of Mrs. Ramsey as she paints. The three Ramseys do make it to the lighthouse in a triumphal moment amidst much grousing about Mr. Ramsey’s grumpiness.

While I am not “afraid of Virginia Woolf,” I’m not equipped to give her her due, so I will record the bits I want to remember:

Lily Briscoe thinks about Mr. Tansley watching her paint and telling her “women can’t write, women can’t paint,” and notes, it’s not that he believed it, but he wished it. To be fair to Charles Tansley, she says she would have to see him through the kindly Mrs. Ramsey’s eyes.

Mr. Ramsey’s needs are mentioned. Here is an interesting interaction between the Ramseys when he comes into the room wanting her attention:

[Mrs. Ramsey] seemed to raise herself with an effort and at once to pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating, quietly though she sat, taking up her stocking [knitting] again, and into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself like a beak of brass, barren and bare. He wanted sympathy. He was a failure, he said. Mrs. Ramsey flashed her needles. Mr. Ramsey repeated, never taking his eyes from her face that he was a failure. She blew the words back at him, “Charles Tansley,” she said. But he must have more than that. It was sympathy he wanted. To be assured of his genius first of all and then to be taken within the circle of life, warmed and soothed, to have his senses restored to him, his barrenness made fertile, and all the rooms of the house made full of life.

Whatever does he want? This is not the only instance where Mr. Ramsey requires the “attention” of a woman.

In likening philosophical thought to the letters of the alphabet, Mr. Ramsey’s “splendid mind” had no difficulty running over those letters one by one until it had reached the letter Q.

But after Q what comes next? After Q there are a number of letters, the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes but glimmers red in the distance. Z is only reached once by one man in a generation. Still, if he could reach R, it would be something. Here at least was Q. He dug his heels in at Q. Q he was sure of. Q he could demonstrate. If Q then is Q, R, here he knocked his pipe out with two or three resonant raps on the handle of the urn, and proceeded, then R, he braced himself, he clenched himself, qualities that would have saved a ship’s company exposed on a broiling sea with six biscuits and a flask of water, endurance and justice, foresight, devotion, skill, came to his help, R is then…..what is R?

And on she goes! This paragraph alone makes the book worthwhile for me.

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, first published by Harcourt, Brace, 1927, 310 pages (I listened to the audiobook read by Virginia Leishman). Available from the public library in print.

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