Some notes on To the Lighthouse

One of the best things I did in my holidays was to read To the Lighthouse (TTL) by Virginia Woolf. I started with the Naxos Audiobook (read by Juliet Stevenson) but then she was leaving out huge chunks and I was getting confused and so I switched over to both reading and listening. I also read what some of the bloggers participating in the Woolf in Winter reading challenge (hosted by Emily) had to say about it.

Here are some of my notes:

Interesting to read the Wikipedia entry on VW as a way of getting invaluable context for her writing. The wealth of written material on her for a start. And then the basics of family, works, Bloomsbury Group, relationships. The background makes it easy to make the connection between the great beauty of VW’s mother and the great beauty of Mrs Ramsay for example.

VW’s own depression gives these lines a particular resonance for me:

Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness which, creeping in at keyholes and crevices, stole around window blinds, came into bedrooms, swallowed up here a jug and basin, there a bowl of red and yellow dahlias, there the sharp edges and firm bulk of a chest of drawers. Not only was furniture confounded; there was scarcely anything left of body or mind by which one could say ‘This is he’ or ‘This is she.’ (p.117)

And consider this reflection:

“At that season those who had gone down to pace the beach and ask of the sea and sky what message they reported or what vision they affirmed had to consider among the usual tokens of divine bounty — the sunset on the sea, the pallor of dawn, the moon rising, fishing-boats against the moon, and children pelting each other with handfuls of grass — something out of harmony with this jocundity, this serenity. There was the silent apparition of an ashen-coloured ship for instance, come, gone; there was a purplish stain upon the bland surface of the sea as if something had boiled and bled, invisibly, beneath” – p.124

For me, this is part of the genius of her imagination. To see the beach and the sea infused with the blood of those fallen in the First World War (which she mentions matter-of-factly the paragraph before). It’s the kind of ‘madness’ if you like that trauma imposes on people’s perceptions.

I love the metaphor of the lighthouse as a beacon of hope, of love, structure, solidity, promise. VW uses the lighthouse as the centrepoint of her novel.

One of the things I liked about TTL is the way Woolf can take such simple events – a trip to a lighthouse, a dinner, Lily painting — and spin such perspectives and memories and stream of consciousness out of them. The art of the narrow focus, and the grand focus too. Large and small. She’s not driven by plot but by subjectivity.

There’s also the issue of her depression and the role that writing (and reading) played in alleviating it or perhaps making it worse. For me (and many others) there’s a fascination with writers (and other artists) who have committed suicide. Can we see it in her writing? What are the similarities with Plath? Could this happen to me or to others I care about? Is writing (or reading) somehow a dangerous activity, likely to lead to morbid introspection and ultimately suicide?

Thinking about my own reaction to TTL, I enjoyed it more because of Juliet Stevenson’s reading of it. She carried me along in the middle section when I was losing my way. And then I got fired up for it again. What the audiobook did was to impose some additional (and quite helpful) structure on the book. For example the last four tracks are called In the boat, Perspective, Approaching and Arriving.

There were several great moments in the book but one that stands out for me happens in Part Three between Mr Ramsay and Lily:

Mr Ramsay sighed to the full. He waited. Was she not going to say anything? Did she not see what he wanted from her? Then he said he had a particular reason for wanting to go to the lighthouse … […] He sighed profoundly. He sighed significantly. All Lily wished was that this enormous flood of grief, this insatiable hunger for sympathy, this demand that she should surrender herself up to him entirely, and even so he had sorrows enough to keep her supplied for ever, should leave her, should be diverted (she kept looking at the house, hoping for an interruption) before it swept her down in its flow. (p. 142)

There’s a wonderful contrast between Lily Briscoe (with her little Chinese eyes, desperately trying to paint) and the dominant and yet rawly vulnerable presence of Mr Ramsay with his demand for sympathy.

I’ll be back next time with some more Woolf.


10 Responses to Some notes on To the Lighthouse

  1. doctordi says:

    Mmmm, great thoughts, Pete! I love a lighthouse; it has an emotional tug that few manmade structures do. I think psychologically and for the exact reasons you say, we all flit toward that beacon even as ships use it to steer clear.

    I think you could run a pretty persuasive argument that all artists are on a sliding scale of unhinged.

  2. william says:

    I enjoyed reading your impressions of To the Lighthouse, and thought you would be interested to know an unabridged version of To the Lighthouse is available.
    April 2010 Naxos AudioBooks will release a production of Mrs. Dalloway (unabridged); it is also read by Juliet Stevenson.
    Where do you purchase your audiobooks?

  3. Pete says:

    Di – Thanks. Reading an interesting discussion of artists and meditation and therapy. Will try and condense it for the blog. Brain is in holiday mode though so I’ll probably land up on the beach instead!

    William – Thanks for that information. I’m sure the unabridged version will be excellent. I tend to buy my books (and audiobooks too, although I generally borrow those) from the internet. But I see from your link that they are also downloadable in MP3 format. Sounds very tempting.

  4. Grad says:

    I was just out to the Tybee Light on Sunday to pick up some seashells. A bit of a rough day, so less people and more shells for me. I’ve never read Virginia Woolf! I can hardly believe I’m admitting that. But, one of the benefits of an inadequate education is reading authors for the first time as an adult. I think I would love this one. I’ll have to look for it when I’m at the library later. Thanks Pete!

  5. Courtney says:

    You have written such a lovely and insightful review of this book that I can honestly say you are the first person who has made me want to read this book. And I am going to, now.

  6. Pete says:

    Grad – Well, good luck and happy reading! It helped me to be able to look out at the sea while I was reading it. And to imagine the details of VW’s life as well. Your beach experience sounds lovely too.

    Courtney – Well I think you will either love it or hate it since there don’t seem to be too many people who fall in between. I loved it partly for its feminist take on being an artist (and the reflection of gender relations at the time). I’ll be interested to hear what you think. And I can recommend Emily’s review which I linked to at the start.

  7. Harriet says:

    Thank you for the book review. Living on the Atlantic coast we certainly have our fair share of lighthouses here. They are kind of creepy to me, always reminding me of lonely old guys living up there, and ships crashing in storms. How have you been doing Pete?

    • Pete says:

      Hi Harriet – Well those lighthouse keepers are a dying breed from what I can gather. I read an interesting account of what is was like on one of those UK lighthouses in the 70s (Stargazing by Peter Hill I think). As for me, doing OK. Quite worried about the car and then other admin-y things. Will be more active in my blog-reading from next week.

  8. litlove says:

    There’s a great book on artists and manic depression called Touched by Fire, written by Kay something-or-other, sorry, can’t recall for the moment. I realise I’ve missed Orlando week, which is a shame as it’s one of Woolfie’s novels that I’ve never read and would like to. I think it was an excellent idea to listen to the book and read it too – her style is so musical, and Juliet Stevenson is a fabulous actress!

  9. Emily Barton says:

    One of my all-time favorite books. Your thoughts are making me think it’s been way too long since I read it, but there’s so much other VW I haven’t read to read first…Sigh!

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