Forget about geology class.
I acquired Woolf’s novels from the Lodger, a grad student who held book sales in his efficiency apartment (his epithet was vaguely Dickensian, an inside joke about his digs). He had almost no furniture: just tall bookshelves running the length of his apartment with narrow aisles between them.
Reading Woolf’s books back-to-back left me with that kind of manicky feeling that can come when one reads too many beautiful books.
I reread To the Lighthouse a few weeks ago when I noticed allusions to it in Penelope Lively’s novel, Family Album. Although Lively’s character, Alison Harper, is a more annoying earth mother than Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay, the similarities are apparent.
In To the Lighthouse, Woolf writes in detail about two days, ten years apart, with an interlude between them, in the lives of the Ramsay family and their summer guests. She begins by exploring the consciousness of Mrs. Ramsay, a mother of eight children, and the wife of a famous writer now past his prime. The beautiful Mrs. Ramsay is at the center, but we also see her through the critical eyes of others. Not only does Mrs. Ramsay tend to the psychological needs of her family, she also attempts to control her guests through tactful shifts in conversation and matchmaking, since she can imagine no other way of life than the nuclear family.
In the passage below, we see her try to comfort her son James after Mr. Ramsay bluntly, hurtfully tells him that he won’t be able to go to the lighthouse the next day because of the weather; then their guest, the obnoxious working-class graduate student, Charles Tansley, echoes Mr. Ramsay’s assertion. The passage also illustrates Woolf’s lyrical prose, with its repetition, alliteration, and consonance.
“Perhaps you will wake up and find the sun shining,” she said, compassionately smoothing the little boy’s hair, for her husband, with his caustic saying that it would not be fine, had dashed his spirits she could see. This going to the Lighthouse was a passion of his, she saw, and then, as if her husband had not said enough, with his caustic saying that it would not be fine tomorrow, this odious little man went and rubbed it in all over again.
Mrs. Ramsay is loved by most, but she can also irritate. Lily Briscoe, an unmarried artist, tries to resist Mrs. Ramsay’s will. She does not, for instance, want to soothe Charles Tansley at the Ramsays’ dinner party, but finds herself playing the feminine role under the auspices of Mrs. Ramsay. And she is annoyed when Mrs. Ramsay tries to make a match her between her and William Bankes, a widower. Lily wants to paint, not to marry. (And Lily is obviously Virginia Woolf.)
Mrs. Ramsay knows she is criticized.
Wishing to dominate, wishing to interfere, making people do what she wished–that was the charge against her, and she thought it most unjust. How could she help being ‘like that’ to look at? No one could accuse her of taking pains to impress. She was often ashamed of her own shabbiness.”
The book is a portrait of Woolf’s parents, says Alexandra Harris in her very good short book Virginia Woolf. She quotes Woolf from Moments of Being: “I wrote the book very quickly and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.”
It fascinates me how many writers are drawn to rewrite Woolf. There’s Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, his reworking of Mrs. Dalloway. There is Robin Lincott’s 199 novella, Mr. Dalloway (which I haven’t read). And there is a newr recent reworking of Mrs. Dalloway, An Unexpected Guest by Anne Korkeavkivi.
One of these days, I’ll get around to the latter two.