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April 18, 2007

To the Lighthouse: II

One of my favorite lines in To the Lighthouse appears on page 17 of my edition (which appears to be printed from old plates).

It seemed to her such nonsense - inventing differences, when people, heaven knows, were different enough without that. The real differences, she thought, standing by the drawing-room window, are quite enough.


What I want to note, though, is the easy way in which Woolf shifts points of view. These shifts are a cardinal element in her artistic achievement. Woolf called consciousness "life," and in that she marked a huge departure from earlier novelists, who largely regarded life as character and agenda. Trollope could not be interested, for example, in the incidental thoughts of his characters. Everything is, to modulate a current phrase, on plot. In To the Lighthouse, there is a story, but no plot, because the characters, principally Mrs Ramsay and Lily Briscoe, are always forgetting the story. In his essay, "Virgirnia Woolf's Mysticism," James Wood says that Mrs Ramsay's moment of self-forgetfulness -

Only Lily Briscoe, she was glad to find; and that did not matter. But the sight of the girl standing on the edge of the lawn painting reminded her; she was supposed to be keeping her head as much in the same position as possible for Lily's picture. Lily's picture! Mrs Ramsay smiled. With her little Chinese eyes and her puckered-up face, she would never marry; one could not take her painting very seriously; she was an independent little creature, and Mrs Ramsay liked it for it; so, remembering her promise, she bent her head.

"And then," Mr Wood writes, "a gigantic new climate beings in English fiction."

The passage that I want to point to occurs a few pages earlier, when Mrs Ramsay enlists Charles Tansley to accompany her on a walk into the village. The point of view is hers at first.

Insoluble questions they were, it seemed to her, standing there, holding James by the hand. He had followed her into the drawing room, that young man they laughed at; he was tanding by the table, fidgeting with something, awkwardly, feeling himself out of things, as she knew without looking round.

She announces her "dull errand" and he agrees to accompany her. They set forth, but at the tennis court they encounter the recumbent figure of Augustus Carmichael (a Stracheyish sort of fellow), and he is asked if he needs anything in the way of postage stamps or tobacco. The following paragraph continues the omniscient third-person observer: "He should have been a great philosopher, said Mrs Ramsay, as they went down the road to the fishing village, but he had made an unfortunate marriage." The following paragraph begins,

It flattered him; snubbed as he had been, it soothed him that Mrs Ramsay should tell him this. Charles Tansley revived. Insinuating, too, as she did the greatness of man's intellect, even in its decay, the subjection of all wives - not that she blamed the girl, and the marriage had been happy enough, she believed - to their husband's labours, she made him feel better pleased with himself that he had done yet, aznd he would have liked, had they taken a cab, for example, to have paid for it.

Thus Woolf skewers Tansley from the inside. For Tansley's awkwardness owes entirely to his feeling that he is not welcome at the Ramsay's home. He's right: he isn't. But it's because he acts accordingly, that's why he doesn't fit in. Woolf doesn't linger with him; after his self-conscious pronouncement about going to the circus, she scurries back to her heroine, who winces.

From a traditional standpoint, Woolf's attention is astonishingly promiscuous. And we mustn't overlook that Tansley is twice introduced as an ambiguous pronoun. In the first instance, he might be James; in the second, Carmichael. It takes a few words to clarify the identity.

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April 10, 2007

To the Lighthouse: I

Why does it seem fitting that I begin this group read a day later than announced, having forgot all about it in the haze of Easter dinner before and after, getting out the best china and crystal, later washing it by hand and putting it away in remote cupboards?

"But it may be fine - I expect it will be fine," said Mrs Ramsay, making some little twist of the reddish brown stocking she was knitting, impatiently. If she finished it tonight, if they did go to the Lighthouse after all, it was to be given to the Lighthouse keeper for his little boy, who was threatened with a tuberculous hip, together with a pile of old magazines, and some tobacco, indeed, whatever she could find lying about, not really wanted, but only littering the room, to give those poor fellows, who must be bored to death sitting all day with nothing to do but polish the lamp and trim the wick and rake about on their scrap of garden, something to amuse them. For how would you like to be shut up for a whole month at a time, and possibly more in stormy weather, upon a rock the size of a tennis lawn? she would ask; and to have no letters or newspapers, and to see nobody; if you married, not to see your wife, not to know how your children were, - if they were ill, if they had fallen down and broken their legs and arms; to see the same dreary waves breaking week after week, and then a dreadful storm coming, and the windows covered with spray, and birds dashed against the lamp, and the whole place rocking, and not be able to put your nose out of doors for fear of being swept into the sea? How would you like that? she asked, addressing herself particularly to her daughters. So she added, rather differently, one must take them whatever comforts one can.

How would you like to have to write a novel? How would you like to be shut up for several years, not wanting to see anybody, past caring about children and their bones, hoping that tremendous storms might keep everyone at bay? It is very tempting to transpose this passage into the key of Stephen, with Vanessa Bell as Mrs Ramsay, clucking and mothering, and Virginia Woolf as the Lighthouse keeper, stoic in creative isolation.

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April 03, 2007

The Great Book Group Read of 2007

I've started group reads in the past, but without success, becaue I've asked too much of readers. A format in which I don't speak up until someone else has done so first was probably doomed to fail, at least as a start-up.

The real object of my latest experiment is to plow through some classic books that I haven't read. Better late than never! I'm beginning, however, with one that I have read, To the Lighthouse, simply because of its vernal atmosphere. I hope that someone who hasn't read it will join in, and make a wonderful discovery. I'm looking forward, though, to stumbling through books that I've heard about but never opened. There are two titles that strike fear into me: Don Quixote (because it rambles) and Moby-Dick (because it's thorny).

I have no idea how long it's going to take to get through any given book, so I've haven't devised a schedule. I would recommend acquiring each book when the previous book first comes under discussion. I don't know how often I'll post, either. More than once a week to be sure. As always, your comments will be most welcome.

The first entry will be posted on 9 April 2007.

The Great Books Group Read 0f 2007

To the Lighthouse

Don Quixote

Orley Farm

The American

War and Peace

The Sound and the Fury

The Decameron

Madame Bovary



The Mill on the Floss

Fathers and Sons

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