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An English girl living in Penn's Woods. I live in an old Dutch style colonial house, with my husband Mr Bit Brit, our son Rob, and our two cats Tinkerbell and Tuppence. E-Mail:

Friday, January 29, 2010

To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

Reading To The Lighthouse was easier than reading Mrs Dalloway, because now I'm in step, my mind has caught the rhythm of her writing. I can follow her steps easily in the sand, the distance, the pace, the interlude.

I can imagine Woolf always carrying a moleskin notebook, with a thin pencil that slips into the spine. she would be wearing one of those large baggy twenties cardigans, with turned up cuffs and baggy pockets. and there in a cuff or a pocket she would sequester the notebook, ready at any moment to record a thought, a phrase. Later she sits at her desk, gathers all those ramblings of her mind, in the cup of her hands, and throws them at the canvas of her page, to be sorted re-arranged and assigned.

Of course she may not have done this but this is my image.

I enjoyed this book, a gathering of family and summer guests at their summer house on the Isle of Skye. The setting is based on Woolf's own childhood summers spent in Cornwall, at Talland House in St. Ives. All the description of the scenery is Cornwall. And having just visited the Isle of Skye and also having visited Cornwall and St. Ives, I can ask the question, did Woolf ever visit the Isle of Skye?

The island does not fit her descriptions. First of all Cornwall is a 300 mile train ride from London, the Isle of Skye is over 800 miles.

"Never mind the rent was precisely twopence halfpenny: the children loved it; it did her husband good to be three thousand, or if she must be accurate, three hundred miles from his libraries and his lectures and his disciples:"

There is not a town, near a lighthouse, where you could just walk into town. And certainly not one, except for maybe Portree where a visiting Circus would come. But still we can secede to literary license. Just why wouldn't she set it in Cornwall, with the sand dunes and hotter summers. Maybe she did not want to acknowledge too much similarity to her childhood.

The Ramsay family are a large family. Mr. Ramsay a published philosopher in his early sixties, feeling that his best days are behind him academically and Mrs Ramsay in her fifties, the Victorian wife still, although set just before the first world war, about 1912. The visiting guests are Lily Briscoe an artist and single lady in her thirties, William Bankes in his sixties, Mr. Carmicheal a poet and retired teacher who had been in India, and married incorrectly; which had not been helpful for his career; an old former college mate of Mr. Ramsay's. Charles Tansley a student, working on his dissertation. Plus Minta and Paul Rayley, soon to be engaged.

The book opens with the scene of James cutting out a picture of a refrigerator, and his persistant wish to visit the lighthouse; which requires a boat ride across to it. This visit hangs upon a tyrant father's whim and the weather. You feel like two dogs are playing tug of war with a rag, backwards and forwards. James and his mum willing this visit to the lighthouse to happen. Knitting the socks for the lighthouse keeper's son; and measuring them against James's leg to see if they are long enough. Willing this event to happen for her youngest. The father so self-centred, smashing any hopes with cold logic that the weather will be bad tomorrow.

Of course he knew how important this was to James. As all those years later, at the end of the book after Mrs Ramsey's death he demands that James and Cam come with him to the lighthouse. In remembrance of a day never fulfilled.

Mrs Ramsay is an interesting pivotal part of the family, many times mentioned as beautiful.

"But was it nothing but looks people said? What was there behind it - her beauty and splendour? Had he blown his brains out , they asked, had he died the week before they were married - some other earlier love, of whom rumours reached one?"

This reminds me of Clarissa Dalloway, is there or isn't there more beneath the surface?. In both woman I think there was. I think they lived the lives they wanted.

Bankes's view of her as mother and child and Lily Briscoe's close complicated but rewarding friendship with Mrs Ramsay and the family.

I have to mention the dinner party of Boeuf en Daube. The gathering together of all in their finery in a run down tattered old house. Here again I feel shades of Mrs Dalloway.

"But already bored, Lily felt that something was lacking..."

Mrs Dalloway thinks the party is going to be a failure and then says no, no, no the party comes together, just as the Mrs Ramsay's dinner party, after a stilted beginning comes to flow. Lily helps her by engaging the prickly socially inferior feeling young man Charles Tansley.

"... but what haven't I paid to get it for you? She had not been sincere."

The book is in three sections, before WWI, Mrs Ramsay dieing, Andrew the son who was close to Mr Carmicheal is killed during the war. Prue another daughter who dies in childbirth as the middle section. Plus the deterioration of the house the visits of a local lady to keep it in order; which is impossible. The house seems to reflect the deterioration and change in the Ramsay family, with so many deaths. And then the return to the summer house after the war.

The final curtain of taking the trip To The Lighthouse and Lily Briscoe at last capturing in her painting the family's summer house.

You have to read the book, you cannot capture or even gain the essence of the book in a short review.



  1. As I walked home from work today I also wondered about the change of setting. Woolf wasn't too concerned about people knowing To the Lighthouse was based on her family - she was pretty open about why the Isle of Skye? It's interesting. Did she want for some reason to set it outside of England? And if so, why? Interesting questions.

    I also think the question of what's "beneath the surface" of Mrs. Ramsay is an interesting one - we see quite a bit of her thoughts and feelings, but she seems to have a darkness, almost a nihilism at her core (as when she thinks about inflicting all the hardships of life on eight people).

    Lovely review, Christy; thanks for reading along!

  2. I liked your connection between Mrs. Ramsay's dinner party and Mrs. Dalloway's party! You are right. They did seem to start with a flutter and then proceed a success. And it seems that both women sort of turn on the charm during their parties, willing them, in a way, to become a success. Thanks for that insight!

  3. Also yes to the connection between the two dinner parties. Really speaks to gender politics here as that was a part of their defined roles as Victorian wives/mothers. I love that the Ramsay party was a bit of a mess at the same time acknowledged as having small moments of weight that will endure past that night. One of my favorite sections of the book.

    Many thanks for reading along and for your lovely review here. Hope to see you on the 12th for Orlando.

  4. I really loved reading your thoughts on this one - I understand what you mean completely about struggling to be able to capture this book in a short review - I had the same struggle!

  5. Certainly lots beneath the surface of both Clarissa and Mrs Ramsay, though they may come across as superficial, definitely not so. Mrs Ramsay even reflects on her own vanity of wanting to help to gain attention instead of merely wanting to help. The fact she recognised her vanity is proof alone of her depth.

    Dropping by so late but I was out of time the last discussion..