Monday, August 23, 2010

Book Review: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf
211 pages
published 1927

Back in the winter months, a few of my favorite bloggers (Sarah (What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate), Emily (Evening All Afternoon), Frances (Nonsuch Book), and Claire (Kiss a Cloud) hosted a Woolf in Winter read-along.  To the Lighthouse was the second book in the read-along.  This is one of those reviews that have been lingering a little too long in my Drafts folder and since it's driving me a little nuts to have unreviewed books on my sidebar of the blog that I've read months ago, I thought I'd post this today ... especially since this week many bookish folks are preoccupied with a new release.  (That would be Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins.  Don't tell anyone, but I'm very much in the minority with this one and not planning to jump on the bandwagon and read this one.)

Anyway, back to To the Lighthouse.  At first, I had a difficult time with this one. It's not an easy read. From a quick glance at some other blogs participating in Woolf in Winter, I'm not completely alone in this thinking. While reading, I started questioning how much I'd actually absorbed and remembered of my English degree, because I just felt like I was missing something ... or a whole lot of something.

But as I read, I found myself adding Post-It tabs throughout the book to mark passages so beautifully written that I don't want to forget them. Like Mrs. Dalloway (the first Woolf in Winter book, and the only other one I read before this), To the Lighthouse is more about the characters and societal issues than plot. The more Woolf I read, the more this appears to be the case.

Let's deal with the plot first. There really isn't much of one, and it seems that's what is a big stumbling block for some people - admittedly, myself included. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey are on vacation on the Isle of Skye with their passel of children and several friends. There's the suggestion from one of the children, James, that they visit the lighthouse the next day. For weather-related reasons, the trip is postponed for another time.

The genius of Woolf is her ability to take one instance and make it into an entire novel, as well as being relevant so many years later.  Even in 2010, there are many women who can identify with Mrs. Ramsey - wishing for a time when her children are older and perhaps less demanding, but simultaneously wanting to keep hold of their fleeting childhood.

"She was often ashamed of her own shabbiness. Nor was she domineering, nor was she tyrannical. It was more true about hospitals and drains and the dairy. About things like that she did feel passionately, and would, if she had had the chance, have liked to take people by the scruff of their necks and make them see. No hospital on the whole island. It was a disgrace. Milk delivered at your door in London positively brown with dirt. It should be made illegal. A model dairy and a hospital up here  - those two things she would have liked to do, herself. But how? With all these children? When they were older, then perhaps she would have time; when they were all at school.

"Oh, but she never wanted James to grow a day older! or Cam either. Those two she would have liked to keep for ever just as they were, demons of wickedness, angels of delight, never to see them grow up into long-legged monsters. When she read just now to James, 'and there were numbers of soldiers with kettledrums and trumpets,' and his eyes darkened, she thought, why should they grow up and lose all that?" (pg. 61)

And this:

"They had all their little treasures .... And so she went down and said to her husband, Why must they grow up and lose it all? Never will they be so happy again. And he was angry. Why take such a gloomy view of life? he said. It was not sensible." (pg. 62)

These 211 pages took me nearly three weeks to read, much longer than I imagined, and I nearly abandoned it several times. I think To the Lighthouse, like other of Woolf's work, is a much better reading experience when it is able to be read in chunks of time. I didn't have that luxury while reading this, and by reading in snippets, I felt as if I was getting lost.  I'm going to keep that in mind while reading The Waves and Orlando, as well as other works by Woolf. 

A few other quotes that I loved:

"Books, she thought, grew of themselves. She never had time to read them." (pg. 30)

"there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glanced at the window with its ripple of reflected light) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures." (pg. 107)

The relationship between the Ramseys:

"Do say something, she thought, wishing to only hear his voice. For the shadow, the thing folding them in was beginning, she felt, to close round her again. Say anything, she begged, looking at him, as if for help. ... And what then? For she felt that he was still looking at her, but that his look had changed. He wanted something - wanted the thing she always found so difficult to give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him. And that, no, she could not do. He found talking so much easier than she did. He could say things - she never could. So naturally it was always he that said the things, and then for some reason he would mind this suddenly, and would reproach her. A heartless woman, he called her; she never told him that she loved him. But it was not so - it was not so. It was only that she never could say what she felt." (ppg. 124-125)

"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 indefatigible fingers .... The autumn trees gleam in the yellow moonlight, in the light of harvest moons, the light which mellows the energy of labour, and smooths the stubble and brings the wave lapping blue to the shore." (pg.131)

Although To the Lighthouse was a bit of a tough read for me, I'm not disappointed that I read it.  I loved these passages above, and many others. 

What Other Bloggers Thought:

Erin Reads

How about you?  Have you read To the Lighthouse?  How about other works by Virginia Woolf?

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


JoAnn said...

Beautiful review! Mrs. Dalloway was as far as I got with Woolf in Winter, but that was still a major victory for me. Hopefully, I'll do my own mini WiW again next year and read To the Lighthouse.

Trisha said...

I've only read A Room of One's Own by Woolf - I think... I may have read one of hers in high school, but it's been so long I don't remember. :) She is definitely hard to read, but (if my experience is any indication) well worth it in the end.