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Saturday 29 November 2014

Reading Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse is a novel of perspectives, perspectives which revolve around the astonishingly vivid and attractive character of Mrs Ramsey. The story itself is quite simple: we follow the Ramseys on a day in their family holiday on the Isle of Skye. The youngest child, James, wants to go to the lighthouse the following day. Mrs Ramsey says he can, Mr Ramsey says the weather will be too bad. Thus the conflict, the tension, between Mr and Mrs Ramsey unfolds. Alongside Mr and Mrs Ramsey are a cast of wider characters: the Ramsey children (all eight of them), Lily Briscoe, Minta Doyle, Paul Rayley, Charles Tansey, William Bankes and Mr Carmichael. Through these characters (Carmichael aside, he is the one character Woolf does not allow us to understand) the conflict, the tension, the alliances between Mr and Mrs Ramsey unspool.

The book is split into three parts. We start with the day in which James wishes to go to the lighthouse. Then there is an intervening section which is, I think, quite famous and quite strangely stirring, in which the house decays as abandoned by the Ramseys due to war and indifference to their holiday home. In the third part those who are left return and embark upon the trip to the lighthouse. Does this resolve the original tension? I guess you have to read it to find out.

At its heart the story of To the Lighthouse is extremely simple. In fact there is little ‘story’ at all. We observe the family, we see the tension unfolding in its quiet way, we see its impact on the others. That the story revolves around the trip to the lighthouse is a superficial way of looking at it. The story revolves around Mrs Ramsey. It is Mrs Ramsey that is the genius in this book, Mrs Ramsey who is so vivid, so extraordinarily well drawn that she lights up every page she’s mentioned in. That Mrs Ramsey is an attractive character is explored through the perspectives of the others surrounding her, like Charles Tansey as detailed here:

“There he stood in the parlour of the poky little house where she had taken him, waiting for her, while she went upstairs a moment to see a woman. He heard her quick step above; heard her voice cheerful, then low; looked at the mats, tea-caddies, glass shades; waited quite impatiently; looked forward eagerly to the walk home, determined to carry her baf; then heard her come out; shut a door; say they must keep the windows open and the doors shut, ask at the house for anything they wanted (she must be talking to a child), when, suddenly, in she came, stood for a moment silent (as if she had been pretending up there, and for a moment let herself be now), stood quite motionless for a moment against a picture of Queen Victoria wearing the blue ribbon of the Garter; and all at once he realised that it was this: it was this:- she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.
With stars in her eyes and veils in her hair, with cyclamen and wild violets – what nonsense was he thinking? She was fifty at least; she had eight children. Stepping through fields of flower and taking breast buds that had broken and lambs that had fallen; with the stars in her eyes and the wind in her hair – He took her bag.”

Mrs Ramsey commands the loyalty of those around her, particularly James who, as a small child, resents the intrusion of his father and the way he demands Mrs Ramsey’s attention. Though there is significant loyalty towards Mrs Ramsey, there is, in some, an acknowledgement that though Mr Ramsey’s power is more forceful and direct, Mrs Ramsey too commands and demands that people comply with her scheme. Mrs Ramsey’s form of ‘tyranny’ is much harder to resist, but observed in the cooler characters like Lily Briscoe (a spinster; an amazing character, my favourite besides Mrs Ramsey), William Bankes (an old friend of Mr Ramsey’s) and Mr Carmichael. As Lily Briscoe observes:

“She had only escaped by the skin of her teeth, though, she thought. She had been looking at the table-cloth and it had flashed upon her that she would move the tree to the middle, and need never marry anybody, and she had felt an enormous exultation. She had felt, now she could stand up to Mrs Ramsey – a tribute to the astonishing power than Mrs Ramsey had over one. Do this, she said, and one did it. Even her shadow at the window was full of authority.”

The character of Mr Ramsey is much less sympathetic, and consequently much of the loyalty rests with Mrs Ramsey. In fact one suspects that Mr Ramsey wills it so, he submits to her power as she submits to his. It is a willing partnership. James in particular is abhorrent of Mr Ramsey, much of that abhorrence stemming from the day that Mr Ramsey quashed his dreams of going to the lighthouse (after Mrs Ramsey had built them up). We see this from small James’s perspective here:

“But his son hated him. He hated him for coming up to them, for stopping and looking down on them; he hated him for interrupting them; he hated him for the exaltation and sublimity of his gestures; for the magnificence of his head; for his exactingness and his egotism (for there he stood, commanding them to attend to him); but most of all he hated the twang and twitter of his father’s emotion which, vibrating round them, disturbed the perfect simplicity and good sense of his relations with his mother. By looking fixidly at the page, he hoped to make him move on; by pointing his finger at a word, he hoped to recall his mother’s attention, which, he knew angrily, wavered instantly his father stopped. But no. Nothing would make Mr Ramsey move on. There he stood, demanding sympathy.”

To the Lighthouse is a wonderfully written, extraordinarily perceptive book cataloguing the tensions and difficulties of family life, particularly where one or both parents are powerful people in their own rights, but approach that power in different ways. That there is tension and conflict between Mr and Mrs Ramsey is apparent, but it is how that conflict spirals out and affects those around them that the novel explores in great depth. Ultimately this is a novel of perspectives, as Lily Briscoe (the painter, whose painting, perhaps, also represents this conflict) observes:

“One wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with, she reflected. Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with, she thought. Among them, must be one that was stone blind to her beauty. One wanted most some secret sense, fine as air, with which to steal through keyholes and surround her where she sat knitting, talking, sitting silent in the window alone; which took to itself and treatured up like the air which held the smoke of the steamer, her thoughts, her imaginations, her desires.”

Woolf writes beautifully, and in To the Lighthouse she manages to balance the rush of thought against a quieter, more reflective approach. Consequently I think To the Lighthouse is the absolute best of Woolf’s novels (that I’ve read so far). Its balance is perfect, its story finely tuned and its delivery exceptional. It is a novel I could return to and return to: that dreadful dinner party with all its tensions, the pressure on poor Paul Rayley, the rejection of Charles Tansey, the decay and destruction of the house, the sudden, barely mentioned deaths, the return to the lighthouse. It is a story which follows its arc to the end, but never leads quite exactly where you expect.

To the Lighthouse receives a beaming 10 out of 10 Biis. 

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