by Virginia Wolff
The British Library describes Wolff as ‘one of the most innovative writers of the 20th century. Judged on To the Lighthouse, it isn’t a description I would deny. Innovative she certainly was, but having read the novel – recommended to me as one of her best, and typical of her style, I found her writing depressing. There is very little plot. Nothing much happens and, though plunged into the thoughts and emotions of the characters – and there’s no denying Wolff does that well, my foremost feeling on leaving them was So what?
‘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 …..’
The story centres on the Ramsay family, a middle-aged couple with eight children, the youngest, James, only six years old. They spend their time between London and a house in the Hebrides where, at the start of the novel they are hosting several friends and acquaintances. Mr Ramsay is an academic.
In Part 1, The Window, James wants to visit a nearby lighthouse. His mother is agreeable but his father decides the weather won’t be suitable. This introduces tension between husband and wife and we get a peek into Mrs Ramsay’s mind for her thoughts on their relationship. Another of her unspoken objectives is to match Lily Briscoe, a struggling artist (painter) to the botanist William Bankes. By the end of the novel, James and his father do actually reach the lighthouse, but that is only after ten years of war and social change have wrought a world very different from the one in which we began.
‘It came over [Lily] too now – the emotion, the vibration, of love. How inconspicuous she felt herself by Paul’s side.’
The narrative of To the Lighthouse makes use of ‘stream of consciousness’, a term coined by the philosopher William James, brother of the novelist Henry James, to describe the flow of thoughts in the minds of a character. Virginia Wolff exploits the technique by giving an inner voice to several, most prominently Mrs Ramsay herself and to Lily, who is one of the family’s guests.
Lily is beset with doubts about her talent, doubts not assuaged by the remarks of the atheist Charles Tansley, who maintains that women can’t write, paint or do much else of value. Tansley is apparently a pupil of Ramsay though one can’t help wondering why he was invited to the house at all. The tension between Mr and Mrs Ramsay temporarily resolved, she reaches out to him in her thoughts and finally acknowledges the love she is unable to express in words.
‘Toads had nosed their way in. Idly, aimlessly, the swaying shawl swung to and fro. A thistle thrust itself between the tiles in the larder. The swallows nested in the drawing room ….’
The middle section of the novel, entitled Time Passes, condenses ten years into a few short chapters, during which several of the characters die. The house is empty and falling into decay. No one visits except the elderly housekeeper Mrs McNab.
‘Can’t paint, can’t write, [Lily] murmured monotonously, anxiously considering what her plan of attack should be. For the mass loomed before her; it protruded; she felt it pressing on her eyeballs.’
Part 3, To the Lighthouse, reintroduces Lily and three of the surviving Ramsays, Mr Ramsay, James and Cam(illa). It continues in the same vein as Part 1, switching the ‘internal monologue’ from character to character. We get a glimpse of the feelings of James and Cam. Lily reminisces about the past, her relationships and her art, and watches the boat taking Ramsay, James and Cam toward the lighthouse. Maybe she even gets to finish her painting.
Judged by both Random House and Time magazine as among the best novels of the last century, To the Lighthouse had some nice literary touches. There were times, as I read, when I thought for example – What beautiful language! How like real life! However, as a novel it disappointed me. Introspection is OK but I prefer my fiction with more action and a more intriguing story line.