“What is the meaning of life? That was all- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”
To the Lighthouse is the kind of novel that you need to read in as few gulps as possible; why do I say that? It`s that old stream of consciousness thing which Virginia is so rightly famous for. The structure ( for what it`s worth) is in the mazy route of thought, which flows like a knotted stream of intellectual liquid, over and round the rocks and obstructions in the mind; it flits through the various character`s heads, a crazy paving of words constantly delving, seeking, swirling, elusive and inconclusive as song blown away on a mistral wind.
It`s about insecurities, patterns, artistry and prophecy: Mr Ramsay`s Tennyson quotation, an old Testament Prophet foreshadowing the First World War. The person painting and the one writing being the same. “Women can`t write, women can`t paint.” Lily`s picture of Mrs Ramsay, like the woman herself, doomed to be incomplete, unfulfilled, insufficient, destined to be placed in the attic – both actual and metaphorical.
It`s a book in three parts, in three movements, at the Ramsay summer house in the Hebrides. The first: occupying an afternoon and evening. The second: constituting an interlude of ten years of the house being unoccupied. The third: an afternoon at the close of those ten years. We begin the book with the middle aged Ramsays, a couple with eight children ( very fertile has been Mr Ramsay`s attentions) at their summer residence with about half a dozen friends. There is beauty, charm, intelligence, arrogance and emotional insecurity; all moving within and around Mrs Ramsay`s spellbinding beauty, like satellites in orbit around a flesh and blood super nova.
“Beauty was not everything. Beauty had this penalty – it came too readily, came too completely. It stilled life – froze it.”
Mrs Ramsay is trapped by her own beauty and responsibility to husband and family – she cannot grasp the chance to live her own inner life; she must always subsume herself to the demands of others. Sometimes a book has to wait for your full attention, to really understand what it`s inner mechanics are saying to you. So much in reading is about the luck of hitting upon the right book at the right time. When I was younger, I tried to read Virginia Woolf, and had to place her to one side; my mind was not properly organised and formed to understand her language. Picking her up at a later date allowed me the maturity to put on my old floppy hat, go out into the garden and potter about in the shrubbery of Virginia`s invention, pick up my paint brushes, stand at the easel…………And understand what a great artist of words and emotion she really was.