In 1995 I first discovered Virginia Woolf. A stay-at-home mother with an infant and toddler, exhaustion didn’t dampen my need for mind-expanding reading; it lit a fire. When I felt my intellect beginning to leak out my ears, I genuinely worried if it wasn’t used it would begin to atrophy.
Once my son and daughter were old enough to throw in a stroller and transport to the library, I was ready to pick up a book with actual words for myself, not just cartoon animals with simple rhymes. Because my kids and their patience were short, that first venture into the adult fiction area was a calculated short dash. I grabbed To the Lighthouse knowing it was a classic but lacking much knowledge about the novel and Woolf in general, beyond a vague understanding of her place in the literary canon. I knew enough to believe I should read her, that not having done so was a gap in my education. And when I put my kids down for their nap, I opened the cover and devoured.
I didn’t own a lot of books in those years – mostly college textbooks with a few stray novels peppering the shelves. My then-husband gave me a very hard time when I bought books, much less took time from the demands of motherhood to read. Picking books up for free at the library was moderately better, still not encouraged. Current-day me is shocked I tolerated such a lack of respect and empathy. I absolutely wouldn’t now. Still, for too many years I placed sole responsibility for my perceived lack of power on him. From the distance of decades, it’s easy to see should haves and could haves. I just don’t have the energy for grudges anymore. Plus, things worked themselves out. I’m now divorced and autonomous – and I own hundreds of lovely books.
Reading well is the best revenge.
Fast-forward nearly 30 years and I’m re-reading To the Lighthouse for the first time. I’ve read Mrs Dalloway at least three times and many of her other works once or twice though, but I’d never made it back to TTL until my Facebook book group chose it as one of our December 2022 reads. Five chapters in, I find myself agreeing with me from 30 years ago: To the Lighthouse is a masterpiece.
To the Lighthouse is not a difficult novel. Woolf has a reputation for impenetrable prose that’s overblown because her trademark style was stream of consciousness, honestly no more difficult to understand than the average person’s monkey mind. It’s just that you’re listening to someone else’s monkey mind. Seriously, sit down and listen to your brain. Really pay attention, especially when attempting to meditate. The brain rebels when it feels restricted. Never do we sound more outright crazy than when we are attempting to repress thoughts:
Empty your mind.
“I need to pick up milk my ass itches is it hot in here or is it me who is that guy my god he breathes so loudly I want to slap him oh dammit I forgot to empty my mind my toe itches I wonder what John meant the other day when he said oh crap I’m thinking again and I’m thinking about the fact I’m thinking what time is it anyway how much did I pay for this class I’m staying home next week.”
That text up there, does it sound familiar? Stream of consciouness wades into that crazy-wonderful mess, picks it up, and slaps it onto the page. Again, because it’s not your mess, it takes a minute to get the rhythm. As the reader, you’re being dumped into as authentic a representation of the true functioning of the mind as it gets.
Woolf knew most – if not all – fiction is structured artificially and that life just doesn’t work like that. If real art imitates life, it follows that fiction should not be bound by these impossible rules. Life doesn’t pick up at Point A, move smoothly through Points B, C, D, then smoothly pull up at the station in time for Point Z. Neither do real people start out one thing, experience catharsis, then inevitably grow in a predictable way.
To the Lighthouse has a loosely-defined “plot” in that a family and its acquaintances are present in the beginning and some of them ultimately wind up at the end. In between, some people die, some go their own way, and a few make it to the final page. What does that sound like? Oh, I’ve got it: LIFE! If your story, or my story, anyone’s story were being told without benefit of a narrator voicing it over, this would be the sum of it: people randomly show up, time passes, things happen, some people are still there in a decade.
Woolf employs the device of starting the novel in medias res – in the middle – with no preamble. If you’ve read the Iliad or the Odyssey, you’ll recognize this as the method Homer employed. In all epics, there is a Hero, a Man on a Very Big and Important Adventure. He’s Brave and Strong and, again, Very Important. He goes through Trials, he is Tested. Ultimately, he reaches a Destination and does a Thing.
Virginia Woolf knew all about epic poetry, having at age 8 taught herself to read Homer in the original Greek (keep in mind her father was a famous scholar, thus she had advantages). She also lived on the cusp of the Victorian Era, bridging into the 20th Century. Her parents were Victorians, and, although quite artsy and educated, mirrored the expectation men and women had traditional roles. As her parents died and she became involved with the artists, writers, and philosophers known as the Bloomsbury Group, Woolf’s circle shifted to the constant presence of Bohemian libertine/socialists. Several of them were bi-sexual – some swapping partners and/or having open affairs – all of them valuing the life of the mind over mundane responsibility.
Of course, when you have money you can afford to thumb your nose at society, and they pretty much all did.
Even with all her privilege, intelligence and education, Woolf nevertheless knew she was still bound by certain societal expectations. Women were becoming more accepted in the literary world but the fact remained the history of literature – and the world – was written by men. Epic Heroes were exclusively men. So, in To the Lighthouse, she picked up the genre of the epic poem and plopped it down in the middle of the domestic lives of the Ramsay family. Instead of Odysseus, there’s Mrs Ramsay, perfect example of the Victorian era matriarch, as modeled by her own mother. Instead of an epic sea voyage to accomplish Very Great Things, there’s one family’s hope to take a short boat trip from their summer home on the Isle of Skye to a nearby lighthouse.
To the Lighthouse, on the grand literary scale, proves that life, as experienced by an average person, can have as much meaning and drama as all the voyages of Odysseus. Sometimes great hopes are symbolized by a not-so-simple day trip, and, sometimes, the great epic poet, the teller of tales, is a woman.
In a nutshell, this is why the book’s studied so widely. It’s a damn fine book, in some ways autobiographical, with a tremendous amount of beauty and relevance. The backstory, what makes it so autobiographical, is fascinating to Woolf scholars. I’ve started my deep reading of it, as well as some secondary sources. The book group’s pace will be breakneck, covering it in two weeks (frankly not a fan of that speed but okay). l’ve been to both the place Woolf chose to set it – Isle of Skye, Outer Hebrides, Scotland – and the area it’s actually based on – Cornwall.
I’m going to be reading like a mutherfugger over the next two weeks to keep up. I hope I don’t drop the ball for my part of the discussion. Now that I have the luxury of permission to read, there’s full-time work in place of a household filled with children. It’s always something but at least I’m the one rowing the boat.
Dame Laura Knight, The Dark Pool (1908–1918), Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle ©