To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf has long been recognised as a seminal text in the modernist canon. Using her distinctive stream-of-consciousness technique, Woolf explores the inner lives of her characters and depicts a rapidly changing society. The novel explores themes of marriage, perception, memory and the passing of time.

Woolf spent the first 13 summer holidays of her life with her family at Talland House, St Ives, Cornwall. On the 5 May 1895, her mother died; her half-sister followed in 1897, her father in 1904, and her brother in 1906. In a diary entry of 22 March 1921, she looked back and asked:

Why am I so incredibly and incurably romantic about Cornwall? One’s past, I suppose; I see children running in the garden … The sound of the sea at night … almost forty years of life, all built on that, permeated by that: so much I could never explain.

Woolf published To the Lighthouse in Britain and America in 1927, on the 32nd anniversary of her mother’s death. In a diary entry of 28 November 1928, she wrote: ‘I used to think of [father] and mother daily; but writing the Lighthouse laid them in my mind. … writing of them was a necessary act’.

The family in the book is called Ramsay, and rather than Cornwall, the holiday resort is the Hebridean Island of Skye. In a triadic structure which Woolf once described as ‘two blocks joined by a corridor’, Part One, ‘The Window’ is linked via Part Two, ‘Time Passes’, to Part Three, ‘The Lighthouse’. The family journey to the lighthouse is proposed at the beginning of the novel, but deferred; the brief second section devastatingly describes the deaths of Mrs Ramsay, her son Andrew in the First World War, and her daughter Prue in childbirth. The journey is mirrored by the slow progress Lily Briscoe – a guest of the Ramsays – makes on a painting which she brings to completion in the novel’s final lines. Woolf’s exploration of perception and memory recalls Marcel Proust’s novel À la recherche du temps perdu (1913–27).

Shortly after To the Lighthouse’s publication, Woolf wrote to her friend, the artist and critic Roger Fry, to explain that the lighthouse itself gave her ‘a central line down the middle of a book to hold the design together … directly I’m told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me’. (27 May 1927)

The book was a critical success, winning the 1928 Prix Femina – Vie Heureuse, and allowing Woolf and her husband Leonard to buy their first car.

Virginia Woolf

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