Virginia Woolf here gives us possibly the best ever description of her own writing method, especially fitting for this novel and The Waves – “Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly’s wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron. It was to be a thing you could ruffle with your breath; and a thing you could not dislodge with a team of houses.”
Perhaps the first thing to say about To the Lighthouse is what an utterly brilliant depiction it is of a seaside holiday home, especially as experienced through the eyes of a child. It brought vividly to life so many of my own memories of sleeping in a room where the sound of the waves came in through the window at night and sand crunches underfoot everywhere. Every moment in To the Lighthouse is a defining moment, a moment in which identity is forged, memory is made, knowledge is gathered; every moment creates a ghost of itself which will survive the ravages of time. The seaside holiday home is among the most treasured historical sites for the archaeologist in us all, our Mycenae, our Troy, a place from which we can trace the rudiments of identity.
On the surface To the Lighthouse is about two trips to a lighthouse, one aborted, the other realised. In between the first world war happens and we pass from the Victorian age to the Edwardian. Lily Briscoe, a painter, is the novel’s principle touchstone. It’s she who the novel will liberate. Just as The Waves is a wholly original restructuring of the form of biography, To the Lighthouse is a wholly original restructuring of the form of autobiography. Though Virginia is absent in any literal sense from To the Lighthouse she pervades it. Mr and Mrs Ramsey are clearly portraits of her parents – and what fantastic living portraits they are. Lily Briscoe isn’t their daughter in the novel but essentially, through Lily, what we’re reading about is Virginia Woolf’s journey from stifled Victorian young girl to creative Edwardian woman. It’s probably the best book ever about women’s liberation.
A lot has been written about the significance of the Lighthouse. Basically, its light, seen from afar at night, is a magical presence; seen close up in the light of day it is a prosaic thing without wonder. In that sense it’s like Gatsby’s green light. But whereas Fitzgerald chose to depict this light as essentially illusory, albeit with a high inspirational charge, Woolf perhaps sees that light as a representation of those heightened moments of sensibility, or “moments of being” as she called them, when, for a fleeting moment, we carry a candle into the dark and catch sight of a vision informed by understanding, wholeness, an enduring significance.
As a footnote I have to comment on how comically inept the synopsis of this novel is. Lily spends the entire novel trying to work out the truth of who Mr and Mrs Ramsey are. The author of the synopsis has no such difficulty – they’re both nailed down with a two worded epithet – “tragic yet absurd” and “serene and maternal”. We’re then told “As time winds its way through their lives, the Ramsays face, alone and simultaneously, the greatest of human challenges and its greatest triumph–the human capacity for change.” Mrs Ramsey though is only alive for one day in this novel so I’m not sure how she faces any challenge of change and Mr Ramsey barely changes at all. Lily, the novel’s most important character, doesn’t even get a mention.