Virginia Woolf is one of those authors whose books I can read only when the timing is right. Years before, I abandoned Mrs Dalloway twice, only to try it much later when I was on a sabbatical. I loved the novel on my third attempt.
Something similar happened with To the Lighthouse. In a previous attempt I had not made much headway, but the current lockdown was the perfect opportunity to give this novel another go. And I loved this one too.
Despite her daunting reputation as a novelist and the perception that her novels are difficult to read, I ultimately found both Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse pretty accessible.
To the Lighthouse is essentially an impressionistic portrayal of the Ramsay family and their circle of friends during a holiday on the Isle of Skye told through various perspectives.
When the book begins Mrs Ramsay’s youngest son, James, who is around eight years old asks Mrs Ramsay whether they can visit the lighthouse. Mrs Ramsay believes the weather will be fine to make this excursion, but Mr Ramsay turns out to be a damp squib. He dashes their hopes stating that inclement weather is bound to make any such trip impossible.
This exchange at the beginning brings to the fore the tensions within the Ramsay family. Young James harbours resentment towards his father (which continues ten years later), and Mrs Ramsay is inwardly unhappy that her husband should be a spoilsport.
This brings us to one of the themes of the novel – the portrayal of a marriage, in this case the dynamic between Mr and Mrs Ramsay.
Mr Ramsay is quick tempered, and worries whether his body of work (he writes philosophy books) will stand up even after his death. He is insecure about being remembered by posterity and constantly craves for reassurances regarding his worth. For this, he more often than not turns towards his wife. To his kids, Mr Ramsay comes across as a tyrant.
Mrs Ramsay is described as a beautiful woman. In a way, she is the life of the assembly of people at their holiday home, the axis around which everything revolves. She is an intelligent woman but resigned to playing second fiddle to her husband, assuaging his moods, which often puts a strain on her. When it comes to their family life, however, she plays a central role, managing her eight children, being on top of household duties and taking care of her guests.
They came to her, naturally, since she was a woman, all day long with this and that; one wanting this, another that; the children were growing up; she often felt she was nothing but a sponge sopped full of human emotions.
It doesn’t mean the marriage is not successful because husband and wife love each other. Yet there are tensions between the two and the individual viewpoints of both Mr and Mrs Ramsay are presented to the reader.
And so she went down and said to her husband, Why must they grow up and lose it all? Never will they be so happy again. And he was angry. Why take such a gloomy view of life? He said. It is not sensible. For it was odd; and she believed it to be true; that with all his gloom and desperation he was happier, more hopeful on the whole, than she was. Less exposed to human worries-perhaps that was it. He had always his work to fall back on. Not that she herself was ‘pessimistic’, as he accused her of being. Only she thought life-and a little strip of time presented itself to her eyes, her fifty years.
Providing another perspective on their marriage outside of the family is Lily Briscoe – a young, aspiring painter who is also one of the guests at the holiday home.
Lily is very unsure of her talent as she frets over the form and composition of her paintings. It doesn’t help that Tansley, another guest, quips about how women ‘can neither paint nor write’.
Always (it was in her nature, or in her sex, she did not know which) before she exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt. Why then did she do it?
When she is not looking after her children, Mrs Ramsay spends her energy match-making and thinking about possible alliances. Mrs Ramsay knows she is beautiful but is also aware that her charms are not for everyone.
She bore about with her, she could not help knowing it, the torch of her beauty; she carried it erect into any room that she entered; and after all, veil it as she might, and shrink from the monotony of bearing that it imposed on her, her beauty was apparent. She had been admired. She had been loved….it injured her that he should shrink. It hurt her. And yet not cleanly, not rightly. That was what she minded, coming as it did on top of her discontent with her husband; the sense she had now when Mr Carmichael shuffled past, just nodding to her question….
The novel also explores the power dynamics between Mrs Ramsay and Lily Briscoe. Mrs Ramsay takes it upon herself to pair up people and in this she attempts to team up Lily with Mr William Bankes – a much older man. Lily does not fall for it and also on her part ponders on the relationship between Mr and Mrs Ramsay and the why the latter doesn’t stand up to him a bit.
There must have been people who disliked her very much, Lily thought – people who thought her too sure, too drastic. Also, her beauty offended people probably. How monotonous, they would say, and the same always! They preferred another type – the dark, the vivacious. Then she was weak with her husband. She let him make those scenes.
To the Lighthouse is made up of three sections. The first section – ‘The Window’ – is the longest; the focal point of which is the time spent by the family and their friends at their holiday home before the start of the Second World War as highlighted above. It ends with a large dinner party organized by Mrs Ramsay – where the various dynamics between the characters come into play – and the announcement of a wedding.
We then move on to the second section – ‘Time Passes’ – which is peppered with some of the most poetic and beautifully written passages in the novel. The years roll by, the war rumbles on and the Ramsay holiday home gradually sinks into decay. Important developments in the Ramsay family are conveyed in various chapters in parenthesis.
In the third section – ‘The Lighthouse’ – ten years later, the Ramsay family are back on the island again and this time make that much delayed trip to the lighthouse.
One of the questions that many of the key characters ponder over is – What is the meaning of it all?
What does one live for? Why, one asked oneself, does one take all these pains for the human race to go on? Is it so very desirable?
Mr Ramsay does not want his fame to diminish even after his death. Lily Briscoe does not aspire towards such lofty ideals, nor does she appear to have much ambition of being a great painter, although she does brood over the details of the creative processes of painting.
What is the meaning of life? That was all-simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.
In terms of plot, there’s not much that happens in To the Lighthouse, the drama is all internal. Woolf’s writing is gorgeous, whether she is describing the Ramsay marriage, the creative energy of Lily Briscoe and the painting process, the changing of the seasons and the passing of time. The novel is a lovely portrayal of family life, of the love between a mother and her children and the accumulation of moments which leave an indelible mark on the mind.