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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.

Posted by pourover at April 10, 2007 10:43 PM

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Your opening salvo suggests that I should keep my copy of Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf close at hand. If we are transposing into the key of Stephen, who, I wonder, might Mr. Ramsay be, "lean as a knife, narrow as the blade of one, grinning sarcastically, not only with the pleasure of disillusioning his son and casting ridicule upon his wife,...but also with some secret conceit at his own accuracy of judgement." Leslie Stephen, perhaps?

Posted by: jkm [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 15, 2007 04:33 PM

I had printed some pages of a downloaded e-book of "To the Lighthouse" from Gutenberg. You probably know as well as anyone that I hate reading books from a monitor; thus I had downloaded the first five chapters and decided these as part of the traditional 'summer reading'.

Though I have yet to read any Woolf (haven't started on the ones you gave me) and though I refuse, before I finish Part One, to surf the Internet for any kind of study whatsoever of To the Lighthouse, and thus have no knowledge of the story's context, I recognize early on that Woolf's prose on this one is just the kind I admire. The metaphors ("lean and narrow as the blade of a knife") are startlingly vivid; the narration flows freely like a stream. Woolf's constant usage of the semi-colon reminds me of certain passages I read in "What Maise Knew". Long sentences, long phrases and adjectives - I'm bound often to be lost as to which main verb I am actually at.

Only having gone as far as the beginnings of Chapter Three, I'd imagined the Ramsey's dinner table as perhaps potentially as stifling as the atmosphere at the lighthouse.

"...their fastness in a house where there was no privacy to debate anything, everything; Tansley's tie; the passing of the Reform Bill; sea birds and butterflies; people; while the sun poured into those attics, which a plank alone separated from each other so that every footstep could be plainly heard and the Swiss girl sobbing for her father who was dying of cancer in a valley of the Grisons, and lit up bats, flannels, straw hats, ink-pots, paint-pots, beetles, and the skulls of small birds, while it drew from the long frilled strips of seaweed pinned to the wall a smell of salt and weeds, which was in the towels too, gritty with sand from bathing."

In such a home, how can one possibly amuse himself without the freedom to disagree, much less have an opinion of something? Observations, however keenly made, are unhealthy if kept from activity - intellectual, creative, whatever.

If I'm a writer I'd like to be able to write about the things I see or hear, and not be constricted by the threat of being disagreed with. If I'm a taxpayer and voter, I'd like to be entitled to act on behalf of a people, howsoever I see fit, even if it shall be in the most minute way, if I see that the country "had fallen down and broken (its) legs or arms"; "to see the same dreary" line-up of corrupt politicians and dumb celebrities running every election season", and then a dreadful storm coming.

Posted by: witness lane [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 17, 2007 12:55 AM

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