January 30, 2010

To The Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf


To The Lighthouse is the second Virginia Woolf book I have read as part of The Woolf in Winter Read Along (the discussion for this particular book being hosted by Emily) and it has created a little bit of a dilemma for me as I now don't know whether this one or Mrs Dalloway is my favourite! A nice dilemma to be in really!

I am actually a little blown away by how much I have enjoyed Woolf's writing - I can't get enough of it! A part of me is disappointed in myself that I have never tried to read any of her work before this, but another part of me thinks I have come across her books at just the right time in my reading life.

To The Lighthouse has been described as one of Woolf's most autobiographical novels - a homage to her deceased parents. In the introduction (which I read after reading the novel) to the edition of the book that I read Woolf is quoted as saying that;

I wrote the book very quickly; and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice, I do not see her. I suppose that I did for myself what psychoanalysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.

As a counsellor and mental health professional I found this very interesting and the writer of the introduction goes on to talk about the writing of the book as being a narrative kind of therapy for Woolf - which is exactly the type of therapy I use with my clients who are seeing me for issues relating to grief and loss. The creation of your own story, or narrative, is a way for people to recognise and validate the losses in their lives from their own perspective.

In To The Lighthouse Woolf has created the characters of Mrs and Mr Ramsey to correspond with her parents and through the novel we see how their partnership as husband and wife has developed and how they relate to each other and their children in the context of their summer house in Scotland and surrounded by various friends and acquaintances. The novel starts with Mrs and Mr Ramsey talking with their youngest child, James, about a possible trip out to the Island's lighthouse the next day;

'Yes, of course, if it's fine tomorrow,' said Mrs Ramsey. 'But you'll have to be up with the lark,' she added.

To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night's darkness and a day's sail, within touch.

I love this opening scene - I remember as a child looking forward to something so much and being told by my parents "we'll see" in response to whether it would happen or not - and to a child "we'll see" always seems to mean "yes"! Of course Mr Ramsey puts a darkness over the scene by declaring that it won't be fine tomorrow so don't get your hopes up -and in this simple scene we clearly see the personalities of each parent and how they are perceived by their child.

The most interesting parts of the novel for me were those that focused on relationships and connections between people and objects. The relationships between Mrs and Mr Ramsey and their children in explored in many different ways and across time - we see the relationships not necessarily change but be expressed from different perspectives.

The novel is told in three section and I found the middle section - Time Passes - extremely sad and mournful (as I am sure it is meant to be). Each section is clearly distinct from the other and yet they blend together wonderfully to create the whole story.

I know there is so much more I could be writing about and reflecting on but I feel as a new reader to Woolf I still have much to learn - not only about her writing but also about her life as I feel that will inform and accompany my reading of her work beautifully. So, with that said - does anyone have any good recommendations for further reading about Woolf herself?

Looking forward to our next Woolf read...

16 comments:

dolcebellezza said...

What is obvious to many, took me some thinking: to arrive at the conclusion that Virginia was writing of her loss. I'm glad that I finally got there, through some heady thinking of this book...I have to say that one of my favorite things about it is the cover on your edition. Woolf is not speaking to my heart, yet, although I do enjoy her writing ponderous as it may be.

Frances said...

Another yes to that gorgeous cover.

Appreciate your professional viewpoint here as well as your observations about the middle section of the book, Time Passes. Another reader commented that the sudden exit of Mrs. Ramsay came as a surprise. She so occupies the first section, and then haunts the following. And now you offer the possibility that this is how Woolf worked through her grief. Makes so much sense. Great post.

Becky said...

Your reviews of Virginia Woolf's books are really wonderful, I very much want to read some of Woolf's works.

Emily said...

Lovely review, Karen, and I second Frances on finding your professional perspective really interesting. And it's great that you're enjoying your process of Woolf-discovery so much! If you're ever in the mood to devote some serious reading time to learning more about her, I highly recommend Hermione Lee's biography (titled simply, Virginia Woolf). Lee is my absolute favorite biographer - very thorough but never boring, and extremely perceptive. Woolf had a full, fascinating life, and Lee handles it with aplomb. All that thoroughness means it's super-long, but it's totally worth it if you're interested. Cheers!

anothercookiecrumbles said...

I always took "We'll see" to mean "No," and would badger my parents incessantly till they provided me with a definite yes. I was stubborn like that.

This book sounds fantastic, and I really want to read it. Wish I'd joint you guys for the read-along. I'm reading all the reviews anyway, and I'm actually quite stunned at the number of subtleties that Woolf's writing provides, such that no two reviews read the same.

Thanks for your review - it makes me want to pick up the book *now*.

Anthony said...

I love this opening scene - I remember as a child looking forward to something so much and being told by my parents "we'll see" in response to whether it would happen or not - and to a child "we'll see" always seems to mean "yes"!

That is perfect, so true. Mr. Ramsay not only disappoints James but overrules Mrs. Ramsay's encouragement.

I second the recommendation of Hermione Lee's Woolf and also suggest A Writer's Diary or I am sure the unexpurgated diaries.

Molly said...

What a lovely review - and it causes me regret that I could not participate in the Woolf challenge this winter. Perhaps when life is a bit less hectic I will be able to organize my own challenge and enjoy her wonderful prose.

farmlanebooks said...

As you know, I wasn't a fan of Woolf. The individual sentences are fantastic, but it didn't work well as a novel for me. I think reading about Woolf herself might be more interesting to me - I'll keep an eye out for recommendations in your comments.

JoAnn said...

I love that cover, too! I seem to have stalled on Mrs. Dalloway - rereading The Hours and now Mrs. D, but will move on by the end of the week. Must decide between To the Lighthouse or catching up with the group for Orlando Excellent post, Karen.

Karen said...

Hi dolcebellezza - The cover of this edition is gorgeous isn't it? I know it shouldn't matter but the cover of a book is so important to me and after reading this one I thought this cover suited it perfectly.

Hi Frances - I try to keep my professional life away for my reading for joy and pleasure but given what I do it seems to creep in often!

Hi Becky - thanks! Given that I am only a very new Woolf reader I'm probably not the best person to give you recommendations on what to start off with but I think both Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse would be great.

Hi Emily - thanks for this wonderful recommendation - I will definitely seek out a copy of Lee's book.

Hi anothercookiecrumbles - I think my parents probably realised I would wear them down eventually so they just gave in easier! I hope you do pick up a Woolf book - and enjoy it as much as I have!

Hi Anthony - thanks so much for your comment and recommendation. I have a copy of The Writer's Diary which I bought after reading about it in Susan Hill's book "Howards End on the Landing"so I will have to get into it soon.

Hi Molly - I hope you do. I think Woolf is a writer that needs a certain amount of time and head space (or she does for me anyway!).

Hi Jackie - I think reading about her life will be extremely interesting - it looks like the Lee biography is a good way to go.

Hi JoAnn - decisions, decisions! I have The Hours waiting for me too...

Bybee said...

That cover is striking, but it's in slightly bad taste -- Woolf put stones in her pockets to weigh herself down when she committed suicide by drowning herself.

Nadia said...

Great review - I loved it! And I completely agree with you that perhaps now is the time for you to be reading Woolf. Enjoy the rest of the Woolf in Winter Challenge. Cheers!

stockdove said...

I loved this post, thank you for your insights!

Karen said...

Hi Bybee - I hadn't even thought about the cover in that context...

Hi Nadia - timing is everything with my reading I have discovered!

Hi stockdove - I'm glad you liked it!

claire said...

Karen.. I missed much of the discussion for TTL the other week, but here I am. :)

I too am so in love with Woolf's writing. With every book the feeling gets bigger and stronger. I just saw the many books you bought connected with Woolf, lol! I will definitely heed Emily's recommendation and get the Hermione Lee biography.

Time Passes was indeed mournful, and yet so beautiful. It was breathtaking, wasn't it?

I too was deeply moved by the relationships. It broke my heart thinking about the last day, with Mr R and James and Cam. I felt so much for Mr R.

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