Friday, August 21, 2020

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is that rare writer who is acclaimed for both her fiction and non-fiction writing.  She is a marvelous essayist, diarist, book reviewer and also a great novelist.  But as much as I have enjoyed her essays, a Room of One's in particular, I have avoided her novels.  I had heard they were difficult but I have also known that to really appreciate Virginia Woolf's brilliance you have to give her fiction a try and so this year for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic with a place in the title, I decided to take on Virginia Woolf's greatest novel, To the Lighthouse. And I have to say it was not the difficult read I feared.  Yes it is written in a stream of consciousness style and you do have to go slowly but it is accessible and a true work of art, well deserving of its canonical status.  

To the Lighthouse is set on the Isle of Skye in Scotland in the years before and after World War I.  The novel revolves around Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their children and a few guests who come to the Ramsay's summer home to vacation.  The novel is divided into three chapters and in Chapter One, the Window, the day begins with the Ramsay's six year old son James asking if the family will be able to visit the lighthouse the next day.  Mrs Ramsay, says that it might be possible weather permitting but Mr. Ramsay sternly says no, the weather won't be fine.  This infuriates young James: "what he said was true.  It was always true.  He was incapable of untruth; never tampered with a fact; never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure or convenience of any mortal being least of all his own children. 

Mr Ramsay is a formidable character, accomplished in his field of metaphysics  but he is also gruff and short-tempered.  HIs opposite is his elegant beautiful wife, Mrs. Ramsay.  She is at the core of this book, shielding her children from disappointment, bolstering her husband's spirits, making sure her guests feel included. She is a kind and patient woman but there is also a mysterious, and sad quality to Mrs. Ramsay.  In the privacy of her thoughts we learn that her view of life is pessimistic:

"There it was before her - life.  Life: she thought but she did not finish her thought.  She took a look at life, for she had a clear sense of it there, something real, something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband.  A sort of transaction went on between them, in which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to get the better of it as it was of her; and sometimes they parleyed (when she sat alone); there were, she remembered, great reconciliation scenes; but for the most part, oddly enough, she must admit that she felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile, and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance" 

Chapters Two and Three, Time Passes and The Lighthouse take place a few years after World War I and alot has changed.  We learn that Mrs. Ramsay died suddenly from a heart attack a few years back.  Andrew, the Ramsay's son, died in combat during World War I and the Ramsay's daughter Prue  died in childbirth.  The book closes with Mr. Ramsay and his younger children, James and Cam, now teenagers, retuning to their summer home.  Some of the guests we met at the beginning of the novel return as well.  Mr. Ramsay and his children finally take that voyage out to the lighthouse.  

There isn't much of a plot to this novel and there is very little dialogue.  Instead we are provided with a window into the internal monologues people have with themselves and it's done very well.  I wasn't bored by To the Lighthouse and a number of times I found myself putting the book down for a moment, marvelling at the quality of the writing.  As to what the novel is about I would need to read what the critics have to say but I know enough about Virginia Woolf's life to see autobiographical aspects in this novel.  Like Mrs. Ramsay for example, Virginia's mother died young  and like Mr. Ramsay, Virginia Woolf's father was a noted scholar with several books to his name.  I also sense the lighthouse itself is symbolic but of what?  So, I will be curious to learn more and then possibly a reread.  To the Lighthouse is not a very long book.  It held my interest and it is considered one of the greatest novels to have been written during the 20th century.  I am pleased to have read it.