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.