Thank goodness it’s a leap year, as this helpful 29 February means I’ve just snuck into the January/February bracket for posting my first contribution to Ali’s Woolfalong – more on that here. Basically, in these first two months, the aim was to read (or reread) either Mrs Dalloway or To The Lighthouse – the two most famous Woolf novels. Being a massive Woolf fan, I was delighted with the opportunity to reread.
This is, I think, the fourth time I’ve read To The Lighthouse (1927), but the first time I’ve done so since about 2009. Would I still love it as much? Short answer: yes. Slightly longer answer: I seem to need more of a focused opportunity to read Woolf than I used to. Perhaps my brain has become more scrambled, but I found I needed a bit more concentration than usual to properly appreciate her prose – but it more than pays off.
It is often said that Woolf novels have little plot. Certainly, despite multiple reads, I couldn’t remember a great deal about what happened in To The Lighthouse. (And yet, in a moment I won’t spoil in this review, it is the only novel at which I have ever gasped aloud in shock at something that happens, and the ingenious way that it is told.) Essentially, the Ramsay family and some hangers-on are staying by the coast, waiting to see whether or not they can travel to the lighthouse the next day – and that is the starting point for conversations, musings, changes, hatreds, heartaches, observations. And what a starting point:
“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs. Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.
To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night’s darkness and a day’s sail, within touch. Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss.
I only meant to quote up to ‘…within touch’, but I couldn’t stop. It’s such beautiful, such rich writing. Woolf uses words and sentences with an extraordinary sense of their patterns and waves, forming sentences that flow in and out – darting here and there; observing and reflecting – until the simplest moments become daring composite images of the person concerned. The worst writers are those that imitate Woolf and get it wrong; the best writer of the 20th century (to my mind) is Woolf. Her strength is seeing past the surface of a simple word or action, and delving into every nuance.
This is also why readers will tend to love or loathe Woolf. If you read for plot, there is little for you. If you like prose always to be sparse and effective (a style I also love), then Woolf will probably rankle. If you like to read quickly, then you’ll have to learn to slow yourself down to appreciate Woolf – I certainly had to this time around (perhaps I read faster than I used to?) – but I was encouraged by this passage about reading towards the end of To The Lighthouse:
But he was absorbed in it, so that when he looked up, as he did now for an instant, it was not to see anything; it was to pin down some thought more exactly. That done, his mind flew back again and he plunged into his reading. He read, she thought, as if he were guiding something, or wheedling a large flock of sheep, or pushing his way up and up a single narrow path; and sometimes he went fast and straight, and broke his way through the bramble, and sometimes it seemed a branch struck at him, a bramble blinded him, but he was not going to let himself be beaten by that; on he went, tossing over page after page.
Isn’t that glorious? Time and again, for almost any experience she documents, Woolf is able to explore and unravel more than the moment suggests. Her descriptions aren’t always intuitive, but they reveal more than any other author I’ve read; there is infinite richness here.
Of particular note are the ways Woolf documents the evolving relationships between Mr Ramsay and his son James, the latter of whom harbours passionate but silent hatred. (‘Hating his father, James brushed away the tickling spray with which in a manner peculiar to him, compound of severity and humour, he teased his youngest son’s bare leg.’) Equally wonderful are the scenes of Lily the artist, looking at her canvas and battling against feelings of failure and creative obstacles.
The edition I read was the Oxford World’s Classics pictured above, which is lovely to look at and to read, but David Bradshaw’s notes are eccentric to say the least. I can write now (since my DPhil is over) that he took my first year viva, and was so aggressive and discouraging – not to mention unscholarly, in a rude criticism based on his confusing of two different books – that I almost quit my research afterwards. I was not predisposed to enjoy his editing, therefore, but I hope this isn’t colouring my view of his footnotes, which feel rather phoned in and are often facile (who needs to know, for instance, Bradshaw’s hypothetical musings on why the rent is to low?), though there are some useful points among them. But there are so many editions of To The Lighthouse out there that you can more or less have your choice of them.
The important thing is, I think, that you try her. Try her fiction, and try her non-fiction (which we’ll get to later in the Woolfalong). Perhaps you’ll love her, perhaps you’ll hate her, but if you’re in the former camp, it will change your reading life forever and add a depth and dimension to your experience of fiction that no other author I’ve read has been able to match.