To the Lighthouse

Nine days after completing To the Lighthouse and the book continues to haunt me in idle moments, particularly when I lie sleepless at four in the morning. For some reason it is the recurrent motif of the boar’s skull, flinty and bleached, wrapped in the fleecy, green woollen shawl that persists.

‘Well then,’ said Mrs. Ramsay, ‘we will cover it up,’ and they all watched her go to the chest of drawers, and open the little drawers quickly one after another, and not seeing anything that would do, she quickly took her own shawl off and wound it round the skull, round and round and round, and then she came back to Cam and laid her head almost flat on the pillow beside Cam’s and said how lovely it looked now; how the fairies would love it; it was like a bird’s nest; it was like a beautiful mountain such as she had seen abroad, with valleys and flowers and bells ringing and birds singing and little goats and antelopes . . .

The cashmere shawl being used to enwrap the boar’s skull, constantly casting it’s shadow across the room, is at the heart of many of the themes of this extraordinary book: the power of childhood emotions, the problem of perception, masculinity vs. femininity, the shadows cast across everyone by the benign, soft influence of Mrs. Ramsay and the unyielding shadow of Mr. Ramsay.
To the Lighthouse is St. Ives and the lighthouse in the book is the Godrevy light which she saw night by night shine across the bay into the windows of Talland House. No casements are so magic, no faery lands so forlorn as those which all our lives we treasure in our memory of the summer holidays of our childhood.

Woolf writes in To the Lighthouse:

And touching his [James] hair with her lips, she thought, he will never be so happy again, but stopped herself, remembering how it angered her husband that she should say that. Still, it was true. They [the children] were happier now than they ever would be again.

Part of the power of this evocation of childhood and the picture Woolf builds up, layer by layer like Lily’s painting, of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay is our knowledge that this is a fictionalised memoir of sorts. In A Writer’s Diary Woolf writes:

I used to think about him [her father] and mother daily; but writing the Lighthouse laid them in my mind. And now he comes back sometimes, but differently. I believe this to be true-that I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act.)

At 36 years of age Woolf wrote:

If Virginia Woolf at the age of 50, when she sits down to build her memoirs out of these books [her diaries], is unable to make a phrase as it should be made, I can only condole with her and remind her of the existence of the fireplace, where she has my leave to burn these pages to so many black films with red eyes in them. But how I envy her the task I am preparing for her! There is none I should like better!

Thankfully she did not burn the diaries but Woolf never wrote her memoirs. In To the Lighthouse we get a glimpse of how her childhood and perhaps happiest years may have been remembered.

14 thoughts on “To the Lighthouse

  1. >I absolutely love that you bring up the boar's head and the cashmere shawl – one of my favorite images in To the Lighthouse…how Mrs. Ramsay is seen somehow making one object two different things to James and Cam, and how we then see that it may never have been two different things at all, as it gradually unwraps over time. Brilliant. Thanks for the beautiful post!

  2. >The skull! What a great plot point – I liked how it reappeared in the middle section to puzzle and frighten the cleaning ladies. I have a feeling that I'll be thinking about this book for awhile too.

  3. >continues to haunt me in idle moments, particularly when I lie sleepless at four in the morningThis has been happening to me too, I must admit. Thinking back on the scene with the skull, it seems to me Cam and James, as seen through their interactions with Mrs. Ramsay, already have the same fundamental qualities they will have in the final section on the boat with Mr. Ramsay. Cam is fidgety, nervous, and just wants to be comforted in a fairly superficial way (Mrs. Ramsay repeating nonsense, Mr. Ramsay bringing up the puppy), while James is already more aloof, particular, and of course strongly prefers his mother to his hated father.

  4. >Sarah – The whole section covering the house's decay is bordering on poetry. The rats in the attics. The banging doors. The toads. Poor old Mrs. McNab must have been scared witless.

  5. >Love that you pulled the quote with Mrs. Ramsay kissing James and observing upon their future happiness. Goes back to all the treatment of time. She knows that she cannot stop it. Also think that perhaps she is idealizing the children's happiness as she seeks to hold them here in time as her relation to them in childhood partially defines her. Great post!

  6. >Frances – That is a pivotal point isn't it. It is not just the idealisation of her children's happiness but how that defines her. Her death, the decay of the house etc juxtaposed with the loss of innocence of Cam and James.Of course, before and around the time of this novel Woolf and her contemporaries were reading (and publishing via Hogarth) a lot of Freud. You can see the side-effects.

  7. >Karen – It is a powerful image, as the house lies empty and decays, wind gets in and unravels the shawl from the skull. The existence of the skull, which scared Cam so much when she was young, is then revealed, mouldy. After the house is cleaned up I am not sure it is mentioned again?

  8. >Anthony, thanks for posting that last quote from her diaries. I am now so sad that she should have written her diaries in preparation for a possible memoir. I, too, days after reading TTL, am left still mulling over it. I think your comment to Emily above is too apt:"There is sufficient depth in To the Lighthouse for a lifetime of rereading."

  9. >Clare – As I read elsewhere Woolf's novels comprise a form of memoir, some consolation to readers, but not to the future selves Woolf continually addressed in her diaries, at least in the form I read in A Writer's Diary.

  10. >I just today finished this book and dreamt of it last night. Will have to wait and see if it influences thoughts in the future. Thank you for an insightful post.

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