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Virginia Woolf: I finally get to the Lighthouse

I must have started and re-started To the Lighthouse three or four times in my life.

I’ve always thought that I should love this book. It’s a modernist classic. A female author who lived just down the road from me here in East Sussex. It features the sea. And a lighthouse. And I’ve always loved lighthouses.

However, Virginia Woolf is an acquired taste. There is an quivering almost neurotic quality to her prose that really requires complete surrender. Something I’ve never quite managed to do.

Also her deification of certain strata of Edwardian English society – particularly women - is fascinating but leaves an unpleasant classist taste in the mouth. A lot of maundering about the “servants” and fliberty-jibbet streams of rarified consciousness that are hard to really empathise with. Ulysses it is not.

That said: I did finish it and feel like I should read it again straight away.

Without giving things away (is it possible to have spoilers in a novel that has been in print for more than 60 years?) There is the most incredible structural twist midway through the book that makes the first half’s Woolfean excesses suddenly brilliant.

And, whilst she is not Leopold Bloom, Mrs. Ramsay as one of the landmark figures in 20th century English writing.

You could quite easily quote huge tracts of the book. This one, from the mind of Lily Briscoe, an unmarried woman artist, guest to the Ramsays up in Skye, struck me as particularly Woolf.

What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead they were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. This, that, and the other; herself and Charles Tansley and the breaking wave; Mrs Ramsay bringing them together; Mrs Ramsay saying "Life stand still here"; Mrs Ramsay making of the moment something permanent – this was of the nature of a revelation.
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Alistair Appleton
Alistair Appleton
08 de mai. de 2022

Thank you Susan, lots to digest in your wonderful post. Especially that striking picture. Would you call that beautiful? It seems handsome but maybe not beautiful in my eyes. It certainly isn’t my image of Mrs Ramsey. I agree with you that Woolf is definitely writing from her time and trying to stretch beyond it. I’m not entirely sure she succeeds always. But there are structural things in the novel thatt really surprise and boggle the modern mind. And for that I’m really grateful. I didn’t really see the book as about art – although making art, especially Lily’s art, is a big motif. Rather I felt it was about mothers, family versus career, self and other, and of course place. Sense of…


First, I send hearty congratulations for you rowing/trudging/sailing through To the Lighthouse. It's not for the uninitiated and presents a different kind of word music than we're used to - even for those who loved Ulysses. In a way, they are mid century cousins (don't bristle please) - a kind of conversational dialectic about mind and time.

What I believe she's trying to do - and this is where you might empathize and fold into her work - is design and explore the actual workings of the mind with its jittery then smooth, then in and out of timeness qualities. The waves and tides and poetry, sometimes in cacophony, is the currency she uses.

Yes, there are elements of classism…

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