Jamelah Reads the Classics: To the Lighthouse

I’ve been having a hard time starting this post because I’m not really sure what to write about this book. Not because I didn’t like it; on the contrary, I liked it quite a lot. Which is the problem. I liked it so much that I sort of feel that anything I write will be kind of pointless in comparison. But I’ll try anyway. So. To the Lighthouse is about the Ramsay family (and assorted friends, acquaintances and guests) staying at a summer home in Scotland. Premise-wise, it doesn’t sound very interesting, and on the surface, perhaps it isn’t. Among other things, they go for walks, eat dinner, chat, work on paintings, read to their children. But Virginia Woolf was a master of writing the internal worlds of her characters, and her stream-of-consciousness style is the perfect vehicle for their stories.

The truth is I kept being knocked out by Woolf’s prose. It happened for the first time with the following passage at the end of Chapter 1:

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 bag; 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; when all at once he realized 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. Stopping through fields of flowers and taking to her 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.

“Good-bye, Elsie,” she said, and they walked up the street, she holding her parasol erect and walking as if she expected to meet some one round the corner, while for the first time in his life Charles Tansley felt an extraordinary pride; a man digging in a drain stopped digging and looked at her, let his arm fall down and looked at her; for the first time in his life Charles Tansley felt an extraordinary pride; felt the wind and the cyclamen and the violets for he was walking with a beautiful woman. He had hold of her bag.

I like reading a lot of different things for a lot of different reasons, and I liked To the Lighthouse because it was just so beautifully written. Though in a lot of ways, it’s pretty dated, it manages to stay fresh because the words flow and flow — sometimes rapidly, sometimes in haphazard swirls, darting forward then curling back on themselves — and they never really stop. This occasionally made it difficult to follow, because I’m pretty used to mostly linear narratives (maybe reading this book will in some way serve as a preparation for Ulysses which comes next on my list, though I remember reading once that the Woolfs actually refused to publish Joyce’s novel, so maybe not), but it felt entirely worthwhile, and I looked forward to reading it at the end of the day. Which is the important thing.

6 Responses

  1. The Modernists irritate me;
    The Modernists irritate me; this idea of the prose being a reflection of the non-sensical world we live in- a poor excuse for being intentionally elusive.

  2. I think you’re
    I think you’re classics-stalking me.

    I always forget it takes place in Scotland.

  3. Hmm, I always thought ‘To the
    Hmm, I always thought ‘To the Lighthouse’ was what stream of consciousness was meant to be. I find it infintely more accessible than Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, though that perhaps reflects more my humble mental capacities than Joyce’s writing style. When all is said and done, I abandoned ‘Ulysses’ half way through, exhausted and unable to pick it back up, whilst with ‘To the Lighthouse’, I couldn’t put it down.

  4. I had John’s reaction, only
    I had John’s reaction, only the other way around. I don’t think it’s mental capacity, just the way you are prepared.

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