Several years ago, my dad bought me a Penguin boxed set of twentieth century novels that included the likes of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Animal Farm, something by D H Lawrence; this is the first that I’ve read. I’d never read any Virginia Woolf; I won’t be hurrying to read anything else by her, I think.
First impressions of the book were quite good. It’s a portrait of a fairly disparate group of more or less socially awkward people all brought together by the Ramsays to stay on their summer home on a Scottish island, along with their various children. Mr and Mrs Ramsay are the focus of the novel (and are based on Woolf’s parents, the blurb assures me), but they are by no means the dominant viewpoint characters.
There is a strong sense, now that I think about it, of the fleetingness of life. The narrative does a lot of head-skipping – jumping around from viewpoint to viewpoint. I found it rather annoying, actually. There are various places where, for instance, there are two female viewpoint characters, maybe in successive paragraphs, each of whom may be thinking about the other or other women in the house, and too liberal use of pronouns, making it hard to identify exactly who is being referred to.
But where this technique does work, it shows a group of people who are all thinking about each other and who don’t really understand each other. However, you don’t necessarily get an in-depth portrayal of any one character – at least, until the end of the book.
The structure of the novel increases the sense of transitoriness. The main, first part of the book is as I’ve described; the second, very brief section shows time passing (it’s entitled ‘Time Passes’) and various events happening to the Ramsays and their friends; in the third part, some of the characters return to the house and revisit their earlier activities or intentions. This latter segment is quite melancholy, as various characters have died or moved on, and, while the viewpoint is more stable, alternating between just two characters for the most part, it’s quite dull; I missed some of the more interesting people.
Some of the writing is quite beautiful and evocative, like this from the second part of the book:
Nothing stirred in the drawing-room or in the dining-room or on the staircase. Only through the rusty hinges and swollen sea-moistened woodwork certain airs, detached from the body of the wind (the house was ramshackle after all) crept round corners and ventured indoors…. And so, nosing, rubbing, they went to the window on the staircase, to the servants’ bedrooms, to the boxes in the attics; descending, blanched the apples on the dining-room table, fumbled the petals of roses, tried the picture on the easel, brushed the mat and blew a little sand along the floor. At length, desisting, all ceased together, gathered together, all sighed together; all together gave off an aimless gust of lamentation to which some door in the kitchen replied; swung wide; admitted nothing; and slammed to.
There were a couple of moments when the characters’ reactions and motivations struck me as being perfectly realised – such as James Ramsay’s hatred for the father whose pronouncements about the weather deny him the chance of a trip to the lighthouse (and who, much later, takes him and a sister). Charles Tansley’s pride at holding Mrs Ramsay’s bag made me stop reading and think, Wow – that’s exactly right:
… all at once he realised that it was this: it was this:—she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.
With stars in her eyes and veils in her hair, with cyclamen and wild violets—what nonsense was he thinking? She was fifty at least; she had eight children. Stepping through fields of flowers and taking to her breast buds that had broken and lambs that had fallen; with the stars in her eyes and the wind in her hair—He had hold of her bag.
“Good-bye, Elsie,” she said, and they walked up the street, she holding her parasol erect and walking as if she expected to meet some one round the corner, while for the first time in his life Charles Tansley felt an extraordinary pride; a man digging in a drain stopped digging and looked at her, let his arm fall down and looked at her; for the first time in his life Charles Tansley felt an extraordinary pride; felt the wind and the cyclamen and the violets for he was walking with a beautiful woman. He had hold of her bag.
In addition to the aforementioned head-skipping, the long sentences were often difficult to process and made reading the book an often frustrating experience. In this passage, the first paragraph consists of one short (or non-long) sentence and one incredibly long one (this excerpt comes just after the previous quote where Tansley realises his love for Mrs Ramsay, so the second paragraph not only clarifies the first, but also sets the young man’s thoughts in context):
But here, as she turned the page, suddenly her search for the picture of a rake or a mowing-machine was interrupted. The gruff murmur, irregularly broken by the taking out of pipes and the putting in of pipes which had kept on assuring her, though she could not hear what was said (as she sat in the window which opened on the terrace), that the men were happily talking; this sound, which had lasted now half an hour and had taken its place soothingly in the scale of sounds pressing on top of her, such as the tap of balls upon bats, the sharp, sudden bark now and then, “How’s that? How’s that?” of the children playing cricket, had ceased; so that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, “I am guarding you—I am your support,” but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all ephemeral as a rainbow—this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror.
They had ceased to talk; that was the explanation. Falling in one second from the tension which had gripped her to the other extreme which, as if to recoup her for her unnecessary expense of emotion, was cool, amused, and even faintly malicious, she concluded that poor Charles Tansley had been shed. That was of little account to her. If her husband required sacrifices (and indeed he did) she cheerfully offered up to him Charles Tansley, who had snubbed her little boy.
What I’ve cut and pasted from the text into my review show some very noteworthy writing. Ultimately, however, the lack of narrative focus and drive and the deliberately anti-climactic latter parts of the book made finishing it a real chore, even though it’s a mere 230-odd pages long. The last section, only a third of the book, with Lily Briscoe agonising over her painting and Mr Ramsay, oblivious to their spite, taking two of his children to the lighthouse, seemed interminable.
To the Lighthouse is not a terrible book, by any means, but it’s not an easy one to enjoy or appreciate.