Review; To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

Because I keep going on about it, you will all know that I’m studying Woolf for my dissertation, in particular, To the Lighthouse, and, having done all my secondary reading first (rather backwards of me), I’ve FINALLY read my primary text, To the Lighthouse. 

The plot follows the Ramsay family and their holiday home in the Hebrides, Scotland. Mr and Mrs Ramsay have eight, yes EIGHT, children, though they are not that well off. Across th59716e bay from their house is a large lighthouse, that captivates the attention of their youngest son, James, who is six years old. He is promised a trip to the lighthouse by his mother, Mrs Ramsay, but his father shoots down his dreams, claiming the weather is not fine enough. Mrs Ramsay is beautiful and beguiling, similar to Virginia’s own mother, Julia. She defines the role of wife and mother to everybody that stays in their guesthouse. The guests include Lily Briscoe, a young, aspiring painter, Minta and Paul, two young lovers, and student Charles Tansley who bores everyone with his talk of dissertations, writing and politics.

The book is very autobiographical. The Ramsay’s are a mirror image of Woolf’s own parents, Leslie and Julia Stephen, and it is supposed that Lily is a reflection of Virginia. Although the novel is set in Scotland, in the Hebrides, it is an identical image to Talland House in Cornwall, the holiday home Virginia went to for three months of every year for thirteen years. From Talland House, Virginia had an excellent view of Godrevy lighthouse, where she got the inspiration for the novel in the first place.


The view of Godrevy lighthouse from Talland House, Cornwall.

From 1894 onwards, the Stephens didn’t visit Talland House again, after a hotel was built in the front of it. In 1895, Virginia Woolf, then Stephen, lost her mother. She plucked up the courage to return to Talland House ten years later with her brothers and sisters, similarly to the Ramsay’s in To the Lighthouse. Mrs Ramsay dies halfway through the novel, in the same way Virginia’s mother did, and Mr Ramsay returns to Skye, where the weeds are growing and the clothes in the wardrobes are damp and decayed from the moths. Virginia always remembers her return to Talland House, and her disappointment at how derelict it had become.

I found this novel rather difficult to read. Woolf changes narrators very quickly, with almost no warning when it’s going to happen: “When he stood beside her now in his judicial way…she just stood there. He just stood there. Her shoes were excellent. This passage is about the artist, Lily Briscoe and her friend, William Bankes. The narrative begins from Lily’s point of view, as William moves to stand beside her. However, by the time the sentence is talking about her shoes, the narrative has switched to William. It almost sounds like she is complimenting her own taste in shows until you suddenly realise the narrative has snapped so quickly to William. It happens throughout the novel, and I found myself having to flick back a page or so to determine where the switch was made and who was speaking. What makes this even more confusing is the rare use of dialogue. Woolf uses paragraphs of speech, and stream of consciousness instead of passages of dialogue: “That was the view, she said, stopping, growing greyer-eyed, that he husband loved”. Woolf does this A LOT across all of her novels, and eventually, you get used to it, but at first it’s a bit disconcerting.

Overall rating – 4/5


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