To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Throughout 2016 Ali of Heavenali is hosting a #Woolfalong – a celebration of the work of Virginia Woolf. Every two months there’s a selection of books to choose from and the theme for January/February is ‘getting started with a famous Woolf novel – To the Lighthouse or Mrs Dalloway’. As I hadn’t read either of those books (my previous experience with Woolf has been limited to Orlando, which I enjoyed) I thought I would start with her 1927 novel, To the Lighthouse.

To the Lighthouse is divided into three parts. The first, The Window, introduces us to Mr and Mrs Ramsay, their children, and a group of friends who have all gathered for a holiday on the Isle of Skye. As the novel opens, young James Ramsay is looking forward to a journey to the nearby lighthouse the next day – but only if the weather is fine, which his father informs him is not likely to happen. We then get to know each of the other characters – including Lily Briscoe, an artist who is working on a painting of the Ramsays, and Charles Tansley, a philosophy student – and we follow them over the course of a single day.

The middle section, Time Passes, moves the story forward ten years and shows us what has happened to the Ramsay family during that period (a period which includes the First World War). The Ramsay’s summer house on the island has been standing empty and from the perspective of the housekeeper, Mrs McNab, we learn how things have changed over time. Eventually, in The Lighthouse, several of the people we met in the first section of the book decide to return to Skye and make that long-anticipated journey to the lighthouse.

This is a novel that I’m glad I’ve read, but not one that I particularly enjoyed reading. That doesn’t surprise me, though – not being a fan of the ‘stream of consciousness’ style of writing or of books with almost no plot, I knew before I started that this wouldn’t really be my kind of book, so I’m actually quite proud of myself for not only attempting to read it, but managing to finish it. There’s no doubt that it’s beautifully written (as Woolf herself is quoted as saying on the back cover of my edition, “I am making up To the Lighthouse – the sea is to be heard all through it”) but I sometimes struggled to concentrate and had to read the same page twice to be able to appreciate the beauty of the words.

I did like the way the passage of time was handled in the novel. The first and third sections are the longest; they each cover just one day (ten years apart) and the perspective constantly shifts from character to character, taking us through a stream of thoughts, emotions, memories and observations. The middle section is much shorter, forming a bridge between the two September days, and is a wonderfully poetic piece of writing.

Although I didn’t love To the Lighthouse, I did find a lot to admire. I don’t think Woolf will ever be a favourite author of mine, but I will probably dip into the #Woolfalong again later in the year, as I think I might be interested in reading Flush and A Room of One’s Own.

20 thoughts on “To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

  1. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    I felt the same way — I admired but didn’t love it. The constantly shifting perspectives left me without a foothold in any character, so they all felt quite remote to me (unlike in Mrs Dalloway, where I could connect more to the two main characters). I did feel I got more out of it than when I had to read it at age nineteen, so I was glad I gave it another chance.

    • Helen says:

      I wonder if Mrs Dalloway would have been a better choice for me, then. Being able to form some sort of connection with the main characters is very important to me.

  2. Elle says:

    Ooh, I LOVED To the Lighthouse! Especially because of the gender stuff in it; I thought it was fascinating reading through that, thinking about how Mrs Ramsay is an artist of people the way Lily is an artist of paint, although of course for a woman to be an artist of people is far more acceptable (arranging the match between Minta and Paul, for instance, even though it turns out badly). And the tyranny of Mr. Ramsay, even though his children love him; he can be harsh and scary but it doesn’t affect their respect for him, because they expect adult men to be harsh and scary. Shame that the stream-of-consciousness aspect didn’t do it for you (though I get what you mean about liking a bit of plot!) Do try A Room of One’s Own, but also try Orlando; there’s plenty of plot in that. Her first two novels (Night and Day, and The Voyage Out) are far more plot-driven and narratively conventional, as well.

    • Helen says:

      Orlando is actually the only other Virginia Woolf novel I’ve read; I remember really enjoying it and finding it surprisingly easy to read. Maybe I should try Night and Day and The Voyage Out, as they sound more to my taste than this book too. I’m glad you loved To the Lighthouse, though. I like the idea of being an artist of people rather than an artist of paint.

  3. A Great Book Study says:

    I felt this way about Mrs. Dalloway. Didn’t love it, but admired some things about it and remained curious enough to try another Woolf someday. Last year I really enjoyed The Voyage Out, which is more traditional and one of her earliest novels. This year I am going to try To the Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own, too. So we’ll see how that goes.

    • Helen says:

      I do like Woolf’s writing but I prefer more traditional novels, so I think I should probably try reading The Voyage Out. I hope you enjoy To the Lighthouse more than I did!

  4. piningforthewest says:

    This was my first Woolf read and I felt much the same as you do about it. I wasn’t too enamoured with Mrs Dalloway either, I just don’t like her style much. I have The Waves to read, but that may be my last one.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you have better luck with The Waves! I didn’t get on with the style of this particular book, but I did find Orlando very different and much more accessible, so I haven’t given up on Woolf yet. I want to try one or two more of her books before making up my mind.

  5. Anbolyn Potter (@anbolynp) says:

    I’m also joining in the #woolfalong and plan to start this very soon. I really liked and admired Mrs. Dalloway so I’m hoping I’ll feel the same way about To the Lighthouse. I find her writing to be challenging yet completely rewarding. Her letters and diaries are worth reading if you ever haven’t before – more penetrable yet still so beautiful and inventive.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you’re taking part in the #woolfalong too! I don’t know if I’ll be participating in all of it, but I definitely want to try at least one or two more Woolf books this year. I’ll have to think about reading the letters and diaries – you make them sound very intriguing!

  6. whatmeread says:

    Although I have occasionally loved a stream of consciousness novel, I did not like To the Lighthouse either. It was my first exposure to Woolf, back in college, and it made me not read anything by her again until I read Mrs. Dalloway a couple of years ago. I liked Mrs. Dalloway much better.

  7. J.E. Fountain says:

    You wrote: This is a novel that I’m glad I’ve read, but not one that I particularly enjoyed reading. That doesn’t surprise me, though – not being a fan of the ‘stream of consciousness

    Yep…my sentiments exactly. I did like Mrs. D more than To the Lighthouse though.

  8. heavenali says:

    Have arrived at your review very late Helen – sorry. stream of consciousness is not something everyonbe likes – in fact I generally think of myself as not liking it much. However I loved TLL more than Mrs Dalloway infact. So glad you will join us for more Woolf later in the year.

    • Helen says:

      I’ll definitely try to join in with some more Woolf later in the year. This particular book just wasn’t for me, but I did enjoy Orlando so hopefully I’ll like some of her others too.

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