I have been to and fro in my mind thinking whether to write about this book. I’m not sure I can do it, or my feelings about it justice. But I’m going to give it ago. Before I started To the Lighthouse this month I had read three of Woolf’s works before – Mrs Dalloway, Mrs Dalloway’s Party and A Room of One’s Own. All are now firmly on my re-read list as I realise I was far too young, or at least not in the right place, to appreciate them.
As a feminist, supporter of women’s writing and a literary nerd I felt like it was my duty to enjoy Virginia Woolf’s writing. And having finished To the Lighthouse I’m not totally sure I can say that I do. I found it very difficult to get into and to adjust to the writing style I felt that I almost had to give a part of me up to the narrative. And this wasn’t easy for me as usually I like to know where I stand! So enjoyment isn’t exactly the right word for my experience of this book. I felt enthralled by Mrs Ramsey, enthralled by the way Woolf can portray people but yet also disturbed as in some ways I saw a lot of myself and the world around me in the book in a way that made it difficult reading.
There’s not much in the way of spoilers to the plot as at least in the first half not much actually happens. We are with the Ramsey family and their guests on a holiday break and are basically taken into the minds and thought processes of these characters. The narrative flips between the perspective of Mrs Ramsey, Lily Briscoe and others, but it is these two ladies who really stuck with me. A delayed trip to the lighthouse of the title frames the narrative, but to me really just works as an excuse to get a window into these people’s minds.
And that is what I found most disturbingly brilliant about the book, the way these people think. One scene at the dinner table where we move between the thoughts of different characters made me feel both hope and despair at the idea that most groups of people, in similar situations, are probably thinking similar things. I know I do – how you can be holding a conversation with one person but totally aware of someone the other end of the table, or totally aware of how another person is forming an opinion based on what you are saying. If you haven’t read the book I’m afraid this won’t make much sense, in fact even if you have maybe it doesn’t as I do wonder if this is a book that everyone takes something different from?
I’m not a literary scholar and make no attempt to be one so I don’t claim to have any insight into this book other than how it made me feel. All I know is that the way she describes the minutiae of people’s thoughts, the visual imagery she uses to do so and the intense depths she goes to of these characters minds made this a fascinating but not totally enjoyable read for me. I often feel with books like this that you are supposed to ‘get’ them which puts pressure on the read. I certainly felt this in the first few chapters, but then I gave myself up to the writing style, as unique as it is, and felt like I had a very enriching reading experience.
I hope to pick up Susan Sellers’Vanessa and Virginia this month to continue exploring a bit more about Woolf and her life.
I’d love to hear some thoughts on Woolf below – what do you get from reading her books?