To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Penguin, Reprint of 1964 edition, 237 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

To The Lighthouse cover

Quite why this is on any list of Scottish books is something of a mystery. Yes, the nominal setting is somewhere in the Western Isles but it could really be anywhere. There is nothing intrinsically Scottish about the subject matter nor the characters and certainly not their speech patterns. I always suspected that Scottishness would be a false premise under which to read the book. Granted, there are references to the Waverley novels, but that is not enough to make a book Scottish. Neither are there sufficient descriptions of the landscape to bring it under the umbrella.

I understand Woolf is revered by some (a cover quote from Jeanette Winterson says, “Woolf is Modern. She feels close to us. With Joyce and Eliot she has shaped a literary century.”) Yet I found this novel to be …. odd.

To The Lighthouse is structured in three sections, The Window, Time Passes and The Lighthouse, of which the first is the longest and the second not much more than a placeholder but mercifully more cogent than the other two. We begin eavesdropping on the Ramsay family and their acquaintances as they contemplate a visit to the titular lighthouse the next day. There is little conflict between the characters (except in their unspoken thoughts) – certainly none that is dramatized, only Mr Ramsay saying he doubts they will be able to make the trip. Not a lot happens. Arguably the most important event in the book occurs offstage in Time Passes and is only reported – but people reflect on the little that does happen either at length or a tangent.

I have no problem with stream of consciousness as a technique – Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon uses it well – but without a focus it can reel off into irrelevance. The narrative viewpoint here can flit from mind to mind within the same paragraph (sometimes it felt like the same sentence.) As a result any insight into the human condition ends up drowned in the deluge. Any wood here is difficult to distinguish amongst all the trees. The copy I read was the good lady’s and she has told me she didn’t take to the book either.

I note from the entry on Woolf in The Oxford Companion to English Literature that she co-founded Hogarth Press – the original publishers of To The Lighthouse and others of her works: this is surely tantamount to self-publishing – and from her Wikipedia entry that her first novel was published by her half-brother’s company; which smacks of nepotism to me.

It’s the first of her works I have read and maybe I ought to sample more but I’d be delighted if someone could tell me just why Woolf is supposed to be good. On this evidence, and as that advert used to have it, her writing is dull, dull, dull.

Pedant’s corner:- galoshes (galoshes,) stood (x2, standing,) trapesing (I had not previously come across this alternative spelling of traipsing,) a comma at the end of one paragraph, shrunk (shrank,) waterily (what an ugly word; “like water” would have conveyed the sense,) sunk (sank.)

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  1. Michael Brierley

    Please could you tell me the best way of getting in touch with Jack Deighton?

  2. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf – A Son of the Rock -- Jack Deighton

    […] I know Woolf has received praise for her writing and was an early user of stream of consciousness (a pioneer, indeed) but there is something detached about her style which I find difficult to engage with. My reaction to this book is the same as it was with To The Lighthouse. […]

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