To the Lighthouse By Virginia Woolf
Penguin Books is encouraging us all to read the classics this year - at the rate of one a week, which is more than anyone is likely to do unless you put all other books aside. One a month is a challenge I may be more able to accept. In January, I chose To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I was a very serious reader of the novels of Virginia Woolf, and all books about her and other members of the Bloomsbury Group, in my early twenties. I have occasionally re-read some of the novels since, but it had been so long since I read To the Lighthouse I remembered nothing about it - an advantage or disadvantage of growing older? Fortunately, I enjoyed it as much as I must have done the first time. We meet the Ramsay family at their summer house on the Isle of Skye. The family is Mrs. Ramsay, a beautiful woman, her husband, Mr. Ramsay, and their eight children.
They are joined by an assortment of friends and the servants necessary to run the large household. This is very much a summer home, furnished with "crazy ghosts of chairs and tables whose London life of service is done". Mrs Ramsay is cutting out pictures from magazines with her youngest child, James.
There has been a plan for an outing, by boat, to the lighthouse but the weather appears to be changing and Mr. Ramsay says they will not go. James is angered and Mrs. Ramsay is disappointed that her husband has dashed their hopes.
As the day comes to an end, Mrs. Ramsay thinks "it was a relief when they went to bed. For now she need not think about anybody".
She does, however, continue to think throughout the evening about her husband, her friends and the socks she is knitting for the lighthouse keeper's little boy. She is annoyed with her husband, worries that he is thinking that "he would have written better books if he had not married." Mr. Ramsay, we discover now, is over 60, a well-known scholar, but feeling that he is not as well-known and successful as he expected to be by now.
There is a wonderful cast of characters, these friends of the Ramsay's. Young Minta, beautiful and glowing, ready for a good marriage in the opinion of Mrs. Ramsay. Someone to flirt with in the opinion of Mr. Ramsay. When Minta comes in to dinner with her young man ("it must have happened then, thought Mrs Ramsay") they are engaged. And for a moment, she felt what she had never expected to feel again - jealousy. For he, her husband, felt it too. Later, late in the evening when they sit alone, Mr. Ramsay thinks "He felt about this engagement as he always felts about engagements; the girl is much too good for the young man."
This novel is very much about marriage, the unspoken thoughts. There are times during the day when Mrs. Ramsay dislikes her husband intensely, and moments later when she adores and admires him.
The first part of the book comes to an end as the day ends and the second part of the book begins. Time passes. We discover that the house has been neglected, empty, mattresses rolled, faded shirts and coats in the wardrobes. "A thistle thrust itself between the tiles in the larder. The swallows nested in the drawing-room". Mrs. McNabb, a local woman, has been directed to open the house – the family is said to be returning. We discover only now the time in which the novel is set. Although the novel was published in 1927, the beginning is before the First World War and the second part is 10 years later. There have been changes in the family; there have been deaths and marriages.
There is a plan, again, dependant upon the weather for a boat trip to the lighthouse.
The relationship between James and his father becomes the focus, "the loneliness which was for both of them is the truth about things."
This edition of To the Lighthouse has an introduction by Hermione Lee, a biographer of Virginia Woolf. I always choose not to read an introduction until after I have read a novel. I want to make discoveries for myself as I read and I am content to have it explained to me afterwards. It is an excellent introduction. I had forgotten that the Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, was a great aunt to Virginia Woolf, and that Julia Duckworth, Virginia Woolf's mother, who died young, was considered a great beauty. Virginia Woolf and her family had a holiday home on the Isle of Skye, and they also visited there again after a ten year absence. So in many ways this is a very autobiographical novel, although Virginia Woolf has not chosen to portray herself in a particular character.
I encourage you to accept the Penguin Classics challenge and treat yourself to a classic. Renew an old acquaintance or make a fresh discovery in 2008.