To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (#Woolfalong)

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.

To The Lighthouse

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.

27 thoughts on “To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (#Woolfalong)

  • February 29, 2016 at 8:30 am
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    Lovely review Simon of one of my favourite books! Your post brings back such vivid memories making me want to re-read it.

    • February 29, 2016 at 3:06 pm
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      Thanks Margaret! Do re-read when you have a chance :)

  • February 29, 2016 at 8:36 am
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    Well I know what you mean about gasping out loud I think I did too. (Loving the use of brackets there Simon). Wonderful review – so glad you were able to join in. It seems to have taken me until my forties to find my way properly to Virginia Woolf my second reading of this (which I first read in my early 20’s ) wholly different and so much more glorious.

    • February 29, 2016 at 3:07 pm
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      Sneaky brackets, no? ;) I think it’s a book that is so rich that every re-read will bring much, much more.

  • February 29, 2016 at 9:43 am
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    I’m not such a huge fan as you are, but I do admire her a lot. Your quotations made me realise why!

    • February 29, 2016 at 3:07 pm
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      There’s enough in one of her paragraphs that I could read one for days! She is so quotable.

  • February 29, 2016 at 10:21 am
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    It’s been a while since I last read this one, you;ve made me want to give it a go again. Surprisingly, it was never one of my favourite Woolf books (I prefer The Waves and Orlando, Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway), but I think it’s simply because I read it when I was too young.

    • February 29, 2016 at 3:08 pm
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      My favourite changes so often, but it might well be Jacob’s Room. It’s usually whichever one I’ve read most recently.

  • February 29, 2016 at 10:43 am
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    Great comments here on the effect of VW’s prose on the reader. Thank you. I also read To the Lighthouse very slowly, and enjoyed it very much.
    And on the subject of dreadful vivas, I am so glad you called him out. I and my students have suffered from examiners who want to grandstand instead of finding the best in the work at hand. Well done for surviving it. Let’s hope the university has found a way to avoid such behaviour.
    Caroline

    • February 29, 2016 at 3:09 pm
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      Thanks Caroline!
      And I felt nervous about posting that about my viva, but it felt good to get it out of my system. It was so needlessly aggressive, and I’ve wished ever since that I’d been bolder in pointing out that it was he, not I, who’d confused two books.

  • February 29, 2016 at 10:43 am
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    Lovely review – I’m planning on writing about this next week for Mother’s Day. I’m firmly in the ‘love her’ camp but I totally agree that you need a focused space for Woolf – when I was student it seemed easier but now my head is filled with work and other annoying things that take me away from reading I need to carve out a space for Woolf – I can’t read her on the commute!

    • February 29, 2016 at 3:09 pm
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      Thanks! And a very good time to read it, of course.
      On the commute would be impossible – I found I needed silence and solitude, but did compromise with cello music in my ears in a cafe…

  • February 29, 2016 at 11:16 am
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    The last time I read To The Lighthouse was when sunbathing by a swimming pool in the French countryside a couple of years ago, so read it very slowly. My edition is a Penguin Modern Classics one, with an introduction and notes BUT I prefer to just read the text of the novel first and skip the introduction until I’ve made my mind up about the text. I’m sure that when originally published in 1927, the novel did not have an introduction or notes on the text. This attitude goes back a long way in my reading life, when my A level Eng Lit teacher told our class to read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice just as a novel, before getting down to work on the set Jane Austen text, which I think was Persuasion.

    • February 29, 2016 at 3:22 pm
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      I absolutely agree – I never read the introduction until afterwards, particularly as they so often give away the plot (less important here than with some novels, of course). Notes can be useful sometimes, though do disrupt the reading a bit.

  • February 29, 2016 at 12:01 pm
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    Wonderful review! You really captured Woolf’s ability to weave a rich prose from words weighed for their rhythm as well as their meaning. There is always something new to be discovered in her novels, which is a bonus as I usually return to them just to luxuriate in the beautiful prose.

    • February 29, 2016 at 3:22 pm
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      Thank you so much, Sarah! I find her hard to write about, so I’m very pleased that it came across :)

  • February 29, 2016 at 2:27 pm
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    Fabulous review Simon and I so agree with what you say about Woolf – nobody can write about the experience of living like her. And if the gasp-about moment you’re referring to is the one I’m thinking about, yes, how unbelievable to tell something in that way and completely pull the rug out from under the reader!

    • February 29, 2016 at 3:23 pm
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      Thank you v much Karen :) And yes, we’re thinking of the same moment – I still remember reading that on the school bus.

  • February 29, 2016 at 4:14 pm
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    I should probably reread To the Lighthouse. It was, very many years ago, my first introduction to Woolf, and I came away from it with almost no memory of the book. At the time I probably was reading for plot and characterization, since I was very young, and I didn’t like it. But I enjoyed Mrs. Dalloway a year or two ago, so I should revisit this novel.

    • March 8, 2016 at 12:23 am
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      I think you should definitely revisit, particularly if you enjoyed Mrs Dalloway. It bears many visits!

      • March 8, 2016 at 2:59 pm
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        I’ll give it another try, then.

  • March 2, 2016 at 12:46 am
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    First of all, a wonderful review! And the cover of the book is really beautiful.
    I have only read one book from Virginia Woolf and that is Mrs Dalloway. But, I don’t remember much of it and I need to re-read it again. So, in a way I can say I am novice when it comes to Woolf’s novels. But, I really want to read her books and I plan to get on to those some time. Your review wants me to do that as soon as possible. I should probably pick up something this year.

    • March 8, 2016 at 12:24 am
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      Thank you Nita! I do hope you can join in with some of the Woolfalong this year – it’s a great way to investigate more of her writing, or revisit it.

  • March 2, 2016 at 4:03 am
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    I’ll come back and read this when I’ve finished the book. My February wasn’t long enough so I hope to finish in March. Not my first reading of this most wonderful book. It makes me so happy that one as young as you loves Virginia.

    • March 8, 2016 at 12:25 am
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      And it makes me happy that somebody still thinks I’m young, Nan! But I was very young when I started liking her, and that has been a blessing – I loved Woolf before I realised that she was considered a tricky author.

  • March 6, 2016 at 4:12 pm
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    A gorgeous review, Simon, gorgeous. I too re-read for Ali’s challenge, and found my appreciation had deepened. And the fact that so many of us have taken part in the challenge means that the reading of other reviews has yielded even more riches in my appreciation of Woolf, as we all come to a book from a slightly different place.

    However, on a less happy note, your recounting of your experience in academia with the foreword/notes writer left me feeling both raging, anxious and very upset – I think you made me tap into my own personal memories of how destructive and crushing ossified academics can be. I kind of found myself fists clenched wanting a professor to punch!

    Sometimes I think it is a MIRACLE that people survive academia without having their joy in literature shredded to dry sawdust. Hopefully, this is probably due to other academics who are capable of honouring a student’s fire and passion and help them to find ways to carefully lay and tend their own fire without it burning itself out in a kind of formless gush! I do remember with GREAT affection two personal tutors who, in different ways, did exactly that, guiding, encouraging, recognising the strengths of individual students and getting them to attend to where they needed to further develop. But I too also had a crusher! Hence my fist clenched, wanna punch a professor moment!

    • March 8, 2016 at 12:27 am
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      Thank you so much for what you say about my review, that’s lovely – and just as lovely is you spoiling for a fight on my behalf; I really appreciate that!

      I was really lucky not to come across too many people like that, and not to have him for a supervisor – I knew of one or two people who did suffer that, and it sounded pretty dispiriting. My own supervisor was very encouraging when I needed her!

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