It’s been a long time since I read any of Virginia Woolf’s fiction, but this moment in time seemed particularly auspicious for “To the Lighthouse”. Middle Child studied the book; Youngest Child is currently doing so; and I came across what’s called “The Definitive Edition” in a charity shop. So obviously the omens were good, the stars were aligned or whatever!

Virginia with her father, Sir Leslie Stephen. By George Charles Beresford (Monk’s House Photo Album, Harvard University) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“To the Lighthouse”, described by many as Woolf’s best work, paints a portrait of the Ramsey family. Mr and Mrs Ramsey, their children and a motley collection of friends and hangers-on are staying at their holiday home on the Isle of Skye. The book is split into three sections and the first, “The Window” observes part of a day of the holiday. Mrs. Ramsey is reading to James, her youngest child. Mr. Ramsey paces up and down outside the window where she sits, somewhat menacingly. Lily Briscoe, artist and modern women, observes the other guests and their various activities with a cool eye. Mr. Tansley, the atheist and Mr. Carmichael, who takes opium, flit through the scene. The symbolic figure of the lighthouse, which James has a passion to visit, recurs regularly through the narrative. But the weather has deteriorated and the unintended cruelty of the very male Mr. Ramsay and Mr. Tansley, by constantly telling James that they will not be able to make the trip, is contrasted with the feminine response of Mrs. Ramsay saying that conditions may improve.

The central section “Time Passes” moves the story on from the day on Skye, through the war years and the changes brought to the family. Through a series of lyrical and beautifully written passages, Woolf evokes the passing of time and this section contains some of the most beautiful and moving prose I’ve ever read, with  evocations of the changes wrought on the family house and indirectly the people themselves.

In the final section, the remaining Ramseys return to the house on Skye and finally undertake the postponed trip to the Lighthouse. Once again, Lily and Mr. Carmichael are the observers, silent in Mr. Carmichael’s case and intense in Lily’s. Although the characters may reach the Lighthouse, why are they finally undertaking the trip and what will it gain them?

Virginia’s mother, Julia Stephen. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Woolf’s portrait of Mrs. Ramsey, based on her mother, does not give a saintly person; she is a complex character who whilst well-meaning, uses her beauty and charm to get people to do what she wants and this is not always the best thing. She is woman of the old school, desperate to marry everyone off. However, Lily does not marry Mr. Bankes and their friendship instead is more valuable, allowing Lily to have her art and her own life. Woolf recognises that humans are too complex to be seen in simple black and white terms and refuses to portray her mother in simple terms.

Indeed, the representation of her father as Mr. Ramsay is masterly. His constant demands for sympathy from women, sucking the life and resources out of them, are terrifying. At the end his children James and Cam sit in the boat on their symbolic visit the Lighthouse hating him for his dominance yet both wanting his approval, in their different male and female ways (as Cam realises). The Lighthouse will always stand for James’ lost childhood and lost mother. Mrs. Ramsey knew in the first section of the novel that James would always remember that they did not go and she is prescient because he will; but more so because of the changes that are to come.

Middle Child has always commented on the character of Lily Briscoe, and after my re-read I agree that she is pivotal. She is a modern women, with all the frailties and doubts of someone trying to make her way in a man’s world; but she is detached enough to resist Mrs. Ramsay’s wishes for her and to see the scene clearly. It is relevant too that she is an artist as paint is an apt word for the way Woolf uses her words. Her use of language is as impressionistic as Briscoe’s picture and has left me with some wonderful visions in my head.

Although I’ve read some of Woolf’s non fiction in recent years, I’d forgotten just how magical her fiction prose could be. The shifting perspectives of the narrative (particularly around the dinner table) capture so brilliantly the fragmentary nature of human thought; and the juxtaposition of different (male and female) thought streams only serves to accentuate the differing priorities and viewpoints of both sexes. But all are vulnerable in one way or another – in the end we are all human beings.

No short review or summary can really do justice to this rich and complex novel. Woolf’s achievement is immense and her use of language quite unique. I’m so glad I revisited this wonderful novel and I’m sure I’ll be going back to more of Woolf’s fiction from now on.