Last week, I realized I was way ahead of where I was supposed to be with The Odyssey readalong, so I switched over and listened to To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf instead. I’ve only read Mrs. Dalloway by Woolf so far, and I’ve always meant to get to some of her others.
About the Book:
To the Lighthouse is the most autobiographical of Woolf’s novels. Though Woolf took liberties with the details, the novel represents both her parents and the family’s summer home. It follows the daily life of an English family: a husband (Mr. Ramsay), his wife, their many children, and their many guests.
The novel is written in three parts. The first takes place on a rather ordinary evening, just before, during, and after dinner at the Ramsay house. The second marks the passage of time, and the third occurs ten years after the first, again over the course of just a few hours. All center around the Ramsay summer home on the Island of Skye and the surrounding areas.
I really liked Mrs. Dalloway, which I read for a class in college. It might have been partly because of its connection with The Hours by Michael Cunningham that I so loved Mrs. Dalloway. Whatever the reason, I was ready to be a budding fan of Woolf’s writing. And I think I still can be, even though my second Woolf novel didn’t impress me nearly as much.
To the Lighthouse flits from character to character, spending the most time with Mrs. Ramsay in the first part and Lily Briscoe, one of the Ramsays’ guests, in the third. We are privy to each character’s private thoughts about life, the situation at hand, and the other characters. I found these inner workings to be interesting in a sort of detached way, almost like I was reading a report of sorts. None of the characters managed to touch an emotional level; instead, I absorbed their musings purely intellectually. So while the writing was lovely, and the characters were deeply layered and complicated, it was hard for me to connect with the story, which I always find frustrating.
The writing, of course, is poetic and beautiful. I found that to be especially true of the second section, “Time Passes,” which forms the bridge between the first night we meet the Ramseys and the day ten years later when we encounter them again. Woolf really has managed to translate the passage of time into words:
“So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk, and a thin rain drumming on the roof a downpouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness which, creeping in at keyholes and crevices, stole round window blinds, came into bedrooms, swallowed up here a jug and basin, there a bowl of red and yellow dahlias, there the sharp edges and firm bulk of a chest of drawers. Not only was furniture confounded; there was scarcely anything left of body or mind by which one could say, ‘This is he’ or ‘This is she.'” (p. 189-190)
“But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf in the hollow of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen; they darken.” (p. 192)
The experience of listening to a Virginia Woolf novel on audio was phenomenal. It took a greater level of concentration than I’m used to devoting to audiobooks. This is due in part to the fact that Woolf doesn’t often repeat a character’s name, so that if you miss it in a moment of inattention, you’re not sure who the “she” being spoken of over and over is. Overall, though, I got through the novel much faster than I would’ve had I been reading it, and I think I understood more as well. Juliet Stevenson read the version I listened to, and her soft, gentle voice was absolutely perfect. For anyone who enjoys audiobooks and is intimidated by Virginia Woolf, I would definitely recommend listening to something by Woolf!
Do you have a favorite among Virginia Woolf’s novels? Have you ever read a book that you found to be intellectually interesting but emotionally dull?