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.