There are novels which have an almost uncanny power to renew themselves in the reader’s imagination. Each time I return to To the Lighthouse I’m struck by something that I haven’t noticed before: a flash of description, a moment of double-edged intimacy between two characters, a touch of sensory experience so immediate that it brings a shiver. More and more, as we grow older, these great novels declare their authority. They will certainly outlive us, like sea or rock or sand. We can inhabit their world for a while, and be changed by it, but they are forever moving beyond us to the next generation. It’s like visiting the same beach every summer, first as a child, then as a teenager, then as a parent surrounded by shivering children just out of the sea. Time passes. Those children are teenagers in wetsuits or bikinis, then suddenly adults lugging the paraphernalia of parenthood themselves. The present does not obliterate the past, but cohabits with it so that sometimes one is visible and sometimes the other. Any number of lifetimes on the beaches of St Ives may be no longer than a summer’s day.

Porthminster Beach still holds the memory of the steam trains that came in round Hawke’s Point to the old St Ives station, in the glory years of the railways. In 1882, one of those trains brought the Stephen family from London. Virginia Stephen, then a few months old, was about to spend her first summer in St Ives. Her father, the alpinist, philosopher and man of letters Leslie Stephen, had bought the lease of Talland House in order to provide a summer home in Cornwall for his growing family of step-children and children. Until Virginia Stephen was thirteen, she spent every summer at Talland House, but the lease was given up soon after her mother’s sudden death in 1895. Leslie Stephen could not endure revisiting the scene of past happiness, and seems not to have considered that a more gentle weaning might have been easier for his children than a sudden rupture of their passionate attachment to the place.

These long summers sent deep roots into Virginia Woolf’s imagination, and became the temps perdu from which she was estranged and with which she would engage all her life long. Talland House sums up both the privilege and the losses of Woolf’s life. She was born into a family which had the money to maintain a large house in a fishing town hundreds of miles from its London home. The Stephen family was clear that it did not merely holiday in St Ives; it settled there for months at a time, and the annual shift from Kensington to Talland House was a substantial, laborious affair. Books, servants, children, cricket bats, photography equipment, bedding and clothes were all brought down by train. Despite its ‘crazy ghosts of chairs’ and rent of ‘precisely twopence halfpenny’, the house was (and is) one of the largest in the town, and the Stephens took their leading place in the local hierarchies. Leslie Stephen was an important figure in the Arts Club, while Julia Stephen put into practice her deep interest in nursing and public hygiene. Her work in St Ives was commemorated after her death by the founding of the Julia Prinsep Stephen Nursing Association of St Ives.

The Stephens entertained local friends and invited endless visitors, who stayed in the house or were boarded out in the town when the bedrooms overflowed. But while the adults talked with Julia in the garden, or accompanied Leslie Stephen on heroic Victorian tramps which took them fifteen or twenty miles over the landscape of West Penwith, the children went everywhere, as quick and subtle as a school of little fish. St Ives gave them a freedom they could not experience in Kensington, where stiff social conventions extended to the youngest members of the upper-middle classes. They fished, swam, hunted for moths at night, collected crabs, gazed for hours into rock-pools, scrambled and splashed to shore as the tide came in, slung sandy towels over railings and hung up seaweed to forecast the weather. As dusk fell they watched the beam from Godrevy lighthouse sweep the sea, darken, and sweep again.

These things were never forgotten by Virginia Woolf. They were planted in the deepest texture of her experience and woven into the most primitive as well as the most complex fabric of her imagination. In To the Lighthouse she draws deeply on that sensory knowledge of place which can perhaps only be acquired by a child who lies for hours listening to the tap of a blind-cord, or the swash and backwash of waves; who is thrown naked into the sea on Porthminster Beach as an infant, or plays cricket each evening until the light is gone, or vanishes upstairs to the attics with brothers and sisters to escape the adults’ dinner conversations; or longs with furious passion, as James Ramsay longs, to reach the lighthouse.

The loss of Talland House was a permanent bereavement to Woolf. It became entwined with the loss of her mother and elder half-sister Stella, and with her father’s oppressive grief. But these losses also sealed away her first thirteen summers. If they were inaccessible they were also, in a sense, inviolable. They were not idyllic years, and To the Lighthouse is not an idyllic novel. Seeds of destruction were sown in the sexual abuse by her half-brother Gerald, which Woolf describes in her memoir A Sketch of the Past: ‘I can remember the feel of his hands going under my clothes; going firmly and steadily lower and lower, I remember how I hoped that he would stop; how I stiffened and wriggled as his hand approached my private parts. But he did not stop.’ This happened at Talland House, but it was not until after her mother’s death that Woolf first suffered a breakdown and the beginning of a lifelong battle with depression and the fear of mental disintegration.

In some part of her, Woolf was always in pursuit of the lost light of early summers and the lost rhythms of the sea, but she was far too great an artist to seek their recapture through any form of nostalgia. As a young adult Woolf may have returned with her siblings to peep longingly through the Escallonia hedge at the house which now belonged to the Millie Dow family, but as a mature writer she gained the power to reclaim what was her own. Like her character Lily Briscoe, Woolf ‘saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.’

In this audacious ending to her novel, Woolf makes it clear that she recognizes the power of what she has done, and yet emphasizes the constant flux of the artist’s material, and its vanishing from her grasp at the very moment of definition. Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell, herself a painter, was overwhelmed by emotion on reading To the Lighthouse. It seemed to her that their parents lived again in its pages, as if raised from the dead. But portraiture, as Woolf makes clear through the character of Lily Briscoe, is not all that this novel is after. Lily’s painting is suggestive rather than descriptive. When she shows her painting of Mrs Ramsay and James to Mr Bankes, he is interested because ‘Mother and child then – objects of universal veneration, and in this case the mother was famous for her beauty – might be reduced, he pondered, to a purple shadow without irreverence.’ Lily, however, refuses his interpretation, open-minded as William Bankes may be for his time in accepting the authenticity of abstraction. ‘But the picture was not of them, she said. Or, not in his sense.’

Everyone who opens To the Lighthouse is confronted by the same dilemma as Mr Bankes. How is the reader to interpret the forms of the novel? It is both true and untrue to say that Mrs Ramsay is, or represents, Julia Stephen. Leslie Stephen is present everywhere in the novel, comic, touching, absurd and often fearsome in his egotism and clumsy demands for the emotional attention of his entire world. But whatever Mr Ramsay represents, he is not purely and simply Virginia Woolf’s father, brought to uncanny second life. Everything in To the Lighthouse has the power to be intensely itself, but also to suggest a wealth of symbol and image. The lighthouse has been endlessly discussed and argued over. What does it mean? It may be a phallic symbol, cousin to the ‘beak of brass, barren and bare’ that Mr Ramsay plunges into his wife’s ‘delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life.’ But if it is, that takes a reader in only one of a hundred possible directions. The power of the lighthouse is that it is at once the heart’s desire of little James Ramsay, the cause of a seismic difference between his parents, the guardian of ships and symbol of man’s control over the dangers of his world, the source of steady, issuing light and the familiar home of men who live there cut off by storms, struggling to grow a few green things in salty earth. The lighthouse, in being all these things and more, comes to its equilibrium within the novel, and offers its illuminations to the reader just as it offers them to the ship scudding for safety in St Ives Bay. (And I turn to look out of my window as I write this, and there it is, Godrevy Light, still keeping ships from the Stones reef, still opening and closing its eye of light.)

I love the way that the family life described in To the Lighthouse has a raw, even primitive quality which protects the sophistication of Woolf’s analysis from any touch of coldness. Every member of the family is a physical, even animal presence, often seen in movement or flight. The child Cam rushes across a lawn, ‘like a bird, bullet, or arrow’, grazing the adult world but wanting no part of it. The eight Ramsay children disappear ‘as stealthily as stags from the dinner table directly the meal was over.’ Mr Ramsay is not even a mammal, but a bird: ‘It was his fate, his peculiarity, whether he wished it or not, to come out thus on a spit of land which the sea is slowly eating away, and there to stand, like a desolate sea-bird, alone.’

Each of these descriptions is shaded with comedy so that it becomes vivid, close, endearing. Mr Ramsay, with his self-pity and his histrionic gestures, Mr Ramsay, forever striding, barging, grimacing and breaking into the peace of others, is the same childlike and suddenly lovable man who will hold up his boots, ‘made of the finest leather in the world’, for Lily Briscoe’s admiration. But not for nothing are the Ramsay children compared to stags, which know how to melt into concealment, but must also learn to fight for territory and possession.

James, at six years old, hates his father as much as he loves his mother. Only a gash from a poker or a thrust from a knife into Mr Ramsay’s heart will ease James’ furious humiliation. James sustains his hatred for a decade, and, when the voyage to the lighthouse does at last take place, it seems that he will get his chance to lock antlers with his father. But it does not happen. James sees the lighthouse clear as it comes close – or so he thinks. It is not a place of magic, or a golden destination, but ‘a stark tower on a bare rock.’ Meanwhile his sister Cam, perhaps more observant, is discovering the sea-bird in her father. ‘Still her father read, and James looked at him and she looked at him, and they vowed that they would fight tyranny to the death, and he went on reading quite unconscious of what they thought. It was thus that he escaped, she thought. Yes, with his great forehead and his great nose, holding his little mottled book firmly in front of him, he escaped. You might try to lay hands on him, but then like a bird, he spread his wings, he floated off to settle out of your reach somewhere on a desolate stump.’ Cam also recognizes a fundamental compromise in her brother, who hates their father, but also longs to become him. She, however, cannot follow that model. Instead, her imagination fills with the litany bequeathed to her by her mother ten years earlier, when Mrs Ramsay soothed her children to sleep: ‘It was a hanging garden; it was a valley, full of birds, and flowers, and antelopes . . . She was falling asleep.’ In the face of parents so fascinating, beguiling and, at times, loathsome, what else can she do?

Despite the deep love and understanding Woolf shows towards the Ramsays, To the Lighthouse remains a violent novel, and an uncompromising one. The magical radiance of its language, like the blue haze around the lighthouse, is cast over a rock. The engagement between Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley is no romance but an exposure to the ‘fangs’ of sexual passion. Lily Briscoe, trying to become part of the lovers’ adventure, is ‘scorched’ by ‘the heat of love, its horror, its cruelty, its unscrupulosity’. Mrs Ramsay, who brings Paul and Minta together, may be a hostess trying to bring about a match between two young people of similar age and background, but she is also a ruthless, imperturbable goddess, a Demeter who will sacrifice everything to sexual union and fertility. The Rayley marriage will turn out unhappily. Mrs Ramsay’s daughter Prue, like Persephone, will go down into the darkness, and die soon after marriage in ‘some illness connected with childbirth’. Woolf’s own early intimacy with death saturates the central section of the novel, and her mastery in blending autobiographical material with fiction and myth is breathtaking. Mrs Ramsay vanishes like Eurydice, leaving her husband to ‘stretch out his arms in vain’. Andrew Ramsay is blown up in the trenches, his death allowing no hope except a faint one that he might have died instantly.

These tragedies happen offstage, reported in parentheses, and at the end of them the lighthouse is still there, with Mr Ramsay advancing towards it, accompanied only by his two youngest children. The creativity of the feminine, embodied in Mrs Ramsay, appears to have vanished, while Mr Ramsay remains, as spare and upright as ever. But of course things are much more complicated than this. At the moment when Mr Ramsay ‘sprang, lightly like a young man, holding his parcel, on to the rock’, Lily Briscoe finishes her painting. ‘She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre.’ The line may be the tree that Lily Briscoe has been waiting for ten years to place on her canvas; or it may be the lighthouse itself. If it is, then Lily’s triumph is even greater than it seems at first. She has had her vision, and she has also drawn into her landscape the upright line that has so tormented the novel and all its characters. At the same moment that Lily does this, the mysterious figure of the poet Mr Carmichael takes on something of Mrs Ramsay. He becomes ‘an old pagan God, shaggy, with weeds in his hair’ and lets fall ‘a wreath of violets and asphodel’.

Violets and asphodel have been Mrs Ramsay’s flowers. Mr Bankes, contemplating her beauty, considers that ‘The Graces assembling seemed to have joined hands in fields of asphodel to compose that face.’ To see these flowers become a wreath in Mr Carmichael’s hands is not only a shock but a revelation. Virginia Woolf knew her Greek mythology, and she associates Mrs Ramsay not with the Elysian Fields and the great, heroic men who go there after death, but with the Asphodel Meadows where Homer tells us that the souls of those whose work is done will find their rest. Mrs Ramsay has not only done her work, but has been exhausted by her life on earth; worn out, she dies suddenly at fifty.

In To the Lighthouse Woolf has returned again and again to the destructive power of the male upon the creativity of the female. ‘Women can’t paint, women can’t write,’ says Charles Tansley, and Lily Briscoe burns with the same rage and humiliation that James feels when told that he cannot go to the lighthouse. But Woolf seems to argue, at the end of the novel, that there is something beyond this agonizing fact of destruction, which is the saving androgyny of creation itself. By token of this androgyny, Lily may possess the lighthouse, and Mr Carmichael may make his wreath from Mrs Ramsay’s flowers. And Virginia Woolf will make one of the finest novels in the English language out of a ‘great plateful of blue water’ a ‘hoary lighthouse, distant, austere’ and a little group of people who quarrel, love, joke, suffer and triumph in the summer light before time and death dissolve them.


Photograph by Jim Champion

Night Thoughts