Ordinary Mysteries

This is one of my favorite passages in Lighthouse. As a human, this has always been my goal, to pay attention to the ordinary moments of beauty and to elevate them.

At the funeral for my husband’s grandmother a few years ago, the minister came around beforehand and asked for memories to share. I was surprised at how many of them were mine that he mentioned during the service and how teary the family got as each was brought up. I was glad I spoke up.

What had I noticed?

Strawberry pie…the scent of apples stored in their breezeway…fresh apple cider…country magazines stacked neatly on the coffee table…ribbon salad…heaping bowls of mashed potatoes…rabbit show trophies…that and so much more signaled we were at the Drudges’.

My aim as a writer is to recall those average, everyday moments and hold them.

Recently I shared a photo with my daughter of a bottle of wine on our dining room table. “I can’t believe you still have that table,” she said. We’ve thought of replacing it, but there are paint and marker blotches on it from her and her brother. We studied and read there together. We played cards and ate how many meals at it?

The table is just a table, but it’s also a miracle, a memory.

I didn’t mean for this to turn into a Thanksgiving post, especially not so early, but then again, it’s fitting. I’m thankful for miracles of all sizes.

Do you have a favorite passage from this book? Almost finished reading it? I’m rounding the corner. For some reason I don’t remember the last bit being quite so long. Not that I want to leave Lily’s side any time soon.

A Character Map

Course Hero supplies this character map of To the Lighthouse. While I can’t say I agree with the description of the “main” character along with other “major” characters, it’s interesting to see them presented in this manner.

Found on Pinterest

True, I would say Mrs. Ramsay is indeed the primary main character (spoiler here — stop reading NOW if you haven’t finished the book) she is only physically present in the first section.

Where is nasty Charles Tansley? Where is the poet, Carmichael? Maybe they could be characterized as minor characters, but they’re so sewn into the story that it’s odd to imagine them demoted.

By contrast, Paul Rayley is unmemorable.

What do you think of this list? Are any of your favorites missing?

Would you argue, as I would, that Lily could be seen as the main character? She and Mrs. Ramsay are inextricably linked.

Mr. Bankes “Sees” Lily

See how Woolf slows the below passage with short sentences to show Lily Briscoe’s agony when Mr. Bankes looks at her painting, one she has been guarding from others:

He had put on his spectacles. He had stepped back. He had raised his hand. He had slighted narrowed his clear blue eyes, when Lily, rousing herself, saw what he was at, and winced like a dog who sees a hand raised to strike it. She would have snatched her picture off the easel, but she said to herself, One must. She braced herself to stand the awful trial of some one looking at her picture. One must, she said, one must. And if it must be seen, Mr. Bankes was less alarming than another. But that any other eyes should see the residue of her thirty-three years, the deposit of each day’s living mixed with something more secret than she had ever spoken or shown in the course of all those days was an agony. At the same time it was immensely exciting.  

The artwork Vanessa Bell created for Lighthouse

As a debut author, I relate so incredibly strongly to Lily Briscoe and her simultaneous reluctance and desire to have her artwork seen. I was already in grad school when my first fiction was published, and I cried and maybe had a few too many when asked if I would let it be published. I was a sellout, I thought. I wrote for me. I wrote to understand, not for filthy lucre; not so that others could read my writing. I was going to grad school to learn how to be a better writer, but I guess I hadn’t thought about the end game. (I had been publishing nonfiction all along, but that was different to me) I was both honored and horrified, to be honest, to be offered publication. After a night of many tears, phone calls, and emails, I said yes.

My only relief was that I wasn’t paid for it. I couldn’t have handled that at the time. (Of course I DID get an advance for my novel, thank you very much, and I was fine with that.) My attitude has changed now, of course. The laborer is worthy of her hire, to modernize a biblical reference.

Wiser ones helped me understand that writing is a loop: author, story, reader. And that it’s not really a story until you communicate with your reader. I wasn’t sure I wanted to communicate with others or that I had anything original to say. How wonderful to discover what a gift it is to talk about your words with others. I’ve enjoyed so much speaking on TV, on podcasts, to reporters, to classes and groups. My unending passion to share Victorine’s story has allowed me to ease past my mixed feelings. (For those who have read my book, Victorine insists on being called by her last name, Meurent. I like to imagine I know her well enough to call her by her first name.)

Seeing Victorine published has given me unexpected gifts: those who love Victorine LOVE her. I’m so proud to have been a part of that process. (I adore her, too!) I’m proud that I put her self-portrait on the back of my book for the world to see for the first time in over a hundred years, the inaugural publishing of the painting, we believe. Her newly rediscovered paintings were shared on my PBS interview, the first time most anyone has seen them in the same amount of time. Those are huge wins and worth the initial discomfort of sharing my words.  

In my second novel-to-come, just as fast paced as my first, Briscoe Chambers (named after Lily, naturally) struggles with life’s larger issues as well. She’s not a painter — her struggle is how and if to salvage a marriage broken into shards. She asks if her role as a facilitator of art (in this case, the art of music) is more important than a traditional marriage. Can she endure what she must (more on that later) for the result which she is convinced will add to the country music canon in a significant way? Should she?

There’s a twist to the book that I won’t talk much about yet. Let’s just say she discovers an art of her own and realizes that it’s herself she needs to see.

How have you been seen? How do you desire or want to be seen or by whom? What does it even mean to be seen? (Many popular books come out and mention seeing and being seen; perhaps Woolf was one of the first to imply the importance of it, to articulate it, to suggest that art is how we share our souls.)

And that Lighthouse passage above – Ah, am I right?

Saying Farewell to Mrs. Dalloway

Before we say goodbye to Mrs. Dalloway, I want to tell you something fun I did: I had a strand in the very front of my hair on both sides colored red a couple of days ago. For Victorine. I don’t want to let her slip away from me as I journey into other worlds. I want to keep her close.

Privileging the inner person, the interior self, Mrs. Dalloway reminds us that what is within is more important and richer than the outer manifestation. What we see is mere set dressing in comparison to our inner life, even from those who, upon first glance, seem the most surface of people. A woman might be mending a dress wishing she could mend a heart.

Thoughts stream into more thoughts. Images bring to mind events from the past, or people long absent.

We see the interconnectedness of everyone, and how our casual observations can be woefully incorrect: a man and woman arguing could be not a harmless disagreement, but a woman trying to pull her husband back from the brink of crippling PTSD.

Those are the overarching themes, swiftly shifting POV’s which lends even more to the sense of one person being all people, all of a piece. And yet also not.

As much as it pains me to say this, I think having read Lighthouse first has forever spoiled me. I enjoyed and greatly admired Mrs. Dalloway, but it’s not Lighthouse. That’s up next. Soon, in the next few days. Read it with me?

In the meantime, here’s a piece I wrote for a creative writing class years ago. It was published by Woolf Zine, which I now believe to be sadly defunct. If you see references to both Mrs. Dalloway and Lighthouse in it, you’re correct, so it ends up being a bit of a bridge between the two novels.

                                                                     “Looking for Virginia”

                “What are you looking for?”

I tip the bookshelf, leaking words onto the puddle of papers, papers, papers that are all that hold me in this house.  Answers, answers he will never understand tinge my tongue.  “Virginia.”

                Now he will dig and delve into the hallowed dalloways of my mind and. He cannot. He crabs my hands with his frigid old man no sympathy hands, hairs on their sides like my stepbrother’s. Stepbrothers. Men with minds to hurt and hands to halt the galloping growth of might haves.

                “Leonard, don’t touch me.” The icicle of me uvulas in the word winds. Doctors voodoo a nothing for me.

They loose the mother inside me, the sanity scrap bag; knitting a shawl of should haves I cover the mirror of beauty which is reality but not truth, opened the door that ate my muse. 

Mrs. Ramsey will not take it — she dies for beauty. Scarcely is she adjusted…Leonard…did I write that?  No? 

                Words, my waifish children, load empty hobo sacks onto heavy burdened backs and don’t wave. I sing them a lullaby of the crawdad, cavefish, cravefish.  Gravefish.

                I wanted something once, didn’t I, Leonard? Leonard?

                I suck the soul from my sister and knit it to my own, but it always goes home, unknotted by her own lazy susan heart that twirls in the direction of the man with the predilection… 

I children my pockets with stones, write my memories goodbye and

Leonard?  Leonard?


                Just swim. Go.

Thanks again for joining me on this journey into Mrs. Dalloway! Happy Reading Lighthouse.

The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman

Our “Dallodays” are almost over, alas, How’d the month go so fast? I simply cannot let it go by without pointing you to yet another book of my heart whose structure borrows bits beautifully (while also remaining entirely original) from Mrs. Dalloway.

This book is engrossingly and beautifully written!

The Fountain of St. James Court or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman deserves all of the love and affection I am about to heap on it. However, I feel the need to be transparent and also tell you that I know and adore its author, Sena Jeter Naslund. It was in her novel writing workshop that I first dared present an early draft of Victorine.

Her double novel, the story of writer Kathryn Callaghan who has recently completed a draft of a novel about artist Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, is not only doubled in the sense that it tells the stories of both women, but it also “doubles” in showing how two incredibly gifted women overcome major life change and challenges. That doesn’t really have anything to do with Woolf, but I think it’s cleverly done.

While I have read the book numerous times, I don’t trust that I will be able to count all of the ways Mrs. D. permeates the book, so forgive me in advance. This is only a sampling.

I don’t use it to be pretentious, but here’s a literary term that fits perfectly: intertextuality. In short, that’s when one book “speaks” to another. (Here’s a secret: my novel Victorine is in a one-sided constant chatter with Naslund’s books, plural. I am either highlighting a concept she has already shared, am exploring a differing viewpoint to see what I think of it or am celebrating her work in various ways.)

Don’t be shocked – all of literature is in conversation with the rest of it, whether writers have read others’ works or not, because any work that has been read and digested by any author makes its way into the literary stream and when we drink of one, we drink of the one before.

Purposeful echoes or discussions or unconscious connections happen all the time.

Okay, that out of the way, let’s get into it.

Fountain certainly is in dialogue with Woolf in terms of style and structure. Not only does the author in the novel, Callaghan, acknowledge that Woolf and Joyce are influences (a subtle, welcome nod from the author of the actual novel), but others (and I agree) have compared Naslund’s writing to Woolf’s with its emphasis on inner character, on elevating daily life, not to mention its lyrical quality.

Here’s her marvelous opening line. I don’t need to tell you what it echoes: “No matter it was almost midnight, she would deliver her manuscript herself. (A lopsided moon hunched high overhead.)”

One thing this line, stacked with all of the other first (and alternative) first lines I have mentioned in previous posts convinces me of: Woolf wasn’t focused on the flowers. It was the agency of Clarissa, her ability and will, after her illness, to go fetch them herself. Clearly she had servants who were more than willing to get them, but she refused. Later, remember, Richard, her husband, brings her some. But no, she wants to be out and about in the world, if even for just a few minutes. (Reminds me of writers, too. Callaghan probably spends tons of time indoors and is likely pleased to be out in the night air. If the weather were nicer today, I’d be outdoors right now.)

In tone, in cadence, this book also reminds of Dalloway. Woolf’s pacing is both casual and unspooling at once. It’s intertwined with the book’s meaning. Same here.

We are given a walking tour of Callaghan’s neighborhood reminiscent of Clarissa’s walk. In fact, Dalloway is referenced directly, as is a day being a metaphor.

Hints of Woolf, heavy doses of Naslund’s artfully crafted historical fiction, exquisite insights into the human condition, and art! So much wonderful art! Even if I didn’t know Naslund (my novel is dedicated to her), I would have read it for the Woolf aspects and the art alone.

Do yourself a favor and read this book. It pairs perfectly with Mrs. Dalloway.

Next up: our very last (for now!) Mrs. Dalloway post.

First Second Impressions

Here are my murky first “second” impressions of Mrs. Dalloway. I was taught by a wise professor to read a novel for the story first, and then go back and really read for the nuances, the language, etc. That method changed my reading forever!

These thoughts are on my first re-reading. I’m doing this because maybe you have a similar process, or maybe it would be helpful for you to realize I, too, see through a glass darkly before the Windex of re-reading. 😊 Nevertheless, I think that first looks can be informative. Consider the first glance to be the drawing beneath the paint.

If I were reading this for the first time ever, I would say:

Here’s a society woman, Clarissa Dalloway, who has been sick but is now out and about, buying some flowers for her party, her return to society, if you will. Later, while she mends her dress for the party she will throw that evening, an old suitor returns from a stint in India, five years I think. Peter Walsh plays with his pocketknife, a habit he’s had since he was a youth. He bursts into tears at one point while talking to the preoccupied hostess-to-be, and one wonders if he has ever gotten over Clarissa, even though he confesses that he’s in love with a married woman who is about to get a divorce.

Out of sequence question: why do you suppose Woolf called the novel Mrs. Dalloway rather than Clarissa or Clarissa Dalloway? I have thoughts.

For one thing, Woolf was trying to show that any life circumstance, even that of a privileged woman with servants, was worthy of exploration. This is not a romance; this is a novel after marriage, delving into the everyday joys and challenges.

Also, the title underscores the name stripping of a woman. Not enough Clarissa “takes” her husband, Richard’s, name. By being called Mrs. Dalloway, she becomes a nondescript wife of him; her very “name” doesn’t belong to her but to him. She’s his property. (Argue if you like, but I see real tones of that here, even though I did opt to take my husband’s last name when we married. It makes a great author’s name I’ve been told more than once, so why wouldn’t I?)

Then again, in Lighthouse Mrs. Ramsay is given no first name and I think it’s brilliant because it makes her the universal spouse. Maybe there are shades of this here. I do think Woolf struggled with marriage and domesticity and its place in her own life, in the life of her peers from early on. (For god’s sake, she did write A Room of One’s Own, so there’s that.)

Anyway, why, Clarissa wonders, is her husband invited to Lady Bruton’s luncheon and she is not? I’d be pissed, so I get that. It’s rude and ungenerous, even if Clarissa had previously made some minor social blunder at Lady Bruton’s. (Actually, I have been excluded. A friend of mine invited my hubby out to dinner to “interview” him. But I had been through the same schooling as him, sooo??? I would have been pleased to sit alongside them and have a drink while they talked, just because I enjoyed my friend’s – and hubby’s—company, but I wasn’t asked along. Come to think of it, I’m not sure she ever did anything with that interview. Oh well. If memory serves, I dined with another friend a few restaurants down the street that evening, so there.)

Septimus, a veteran struggling with what we would now call PTSD and his wife, Lucrezia, are introduced in the novel, a contrast to the Dalloways. We pity the newly married pair.

Richard wants to buy his wife jewelry (suspiciously timed after he hears that her old beau is back in town) but suspects she doesn’t enjoy his taste as he had previously brought her a bracelet she doesn’t wear. Wanting to remind her of his love for her but not being one to say so, he brings her flowers. Flowers, flowers, everywhere! (And that not being able to confess love to someone, that is Mrs. Ramsay’s role in Lighthouse. Another of Woolf’s themes.)

And veils and gloves. Birds and flowers. But more on that another time.

So these are my quick, impressionistic thoughts. I really want to talk about the language itself, but that’s not the purpose of this post, so let’s hold off on that as well.

Thoughts? Rebuttals? Questions? Let’s get into it!

A Very Good Place to Start

So far I’ve danced around the edges of this novel, Mrs. Dalloway, because I like to warm up and I wanted to give you plenty of time to get started reading. I know even the best of intentions go sideways in the best of conditions, let alone right now. So if you haven’t begun, go ahead. Pick it up, read a few pages, and you will soon find yourself immersed.

I’m about 70 pages from the end of Mrs. Dalloway this round. Here’s where I like to start when I’m reading a book, which may seem elementary. I pay attention to the title, study it, and ask myself what I expect from the book based on it. (Titles are important! And when I’m reading a novel, I keep an eye out for the title within its pages or for the fitness of it if I don’t spot it.)

Of course I study the cover; that’s important to me. I want it to pair with the title and make me eager to read the book. It’s okay if the cover displays a painting that only nods at the era of the story. It isn’t designed to actually tell the story, but to give hints. I especially love novels that use paintings. If it draws my eye, it’s a winner.

For a classic, I don’t pay as much attention to the front of the book because it likely has had many covers and so none of them is directly connected with the original, not that every author has the luxury of being involved with cover design the way I was allowed to with Victorine.

I’m someone who reads the synopsis on the back of the book, as well as any blurbs. I read the forward, the dedication. Not that I always read these in that order. It just depends.

Do you read with a pen either in hand or nearby ? I do. I like taking notes in the margins, circling things, asking myself and the author questions. I write tidbits in the front of the book as well. Ever since I was a child I have written notes in books, particularly (you may gasp if you were brought up thinking this wasn’t okay) the Bible. I learned that writing was a two-way street way back then.

But let me turn to this novel. Why did I want to re-read it? To be honest, I read it hurriedly the first time (or two; I believe this is my third reading, but I can’t swear to that) and I thought I owed it better. Because it wasn’t the Woolf book I was most enthralled with (Lighthouse), I must admit to being a bit dismissive about it. Lighthouse was Sgt. Pepper’s; Dalloway was maybe Abbey Road. And yet without Dalloway, there would be no Lighthouse.

Then my writing mother mentioned she believes that Woolf was most successful with Dalloway, though she had long held my opinion of Lighthouse being superior; since obviously I respect her, I was (am) eager to read Dalloway once more to see if I can agree with her. (I’m still forming my opinion.)

Of course this novel was also the basis for a modern-day takeoff Michael Cunningham wrote called The Hours. If that also sounds like a movie title from 2002, you’re correct, it became that as well. The title comes from an alternate title for Mrs. Dalloway that Woolf considered for an awfully long time before using the current title.

While the novel doesn’t have chapters, it does have twelve slight breaks that function as such. (The Hours. Get it?) Anyway, that was another reason I read it to start with.

Why doesn’t Mrs. Dalloway have chapters, you ask?  Ah, my take on it is that she wants to highlight the unbroken nature of life, the interconnectedness: characters weave in and out of one another’s lives and consciousness. Not giving us chapters keeps the stream of consciousness flowing. After all, she is only depicting one day.

Let me share some first (again) impressions of the novel, my sketchy thoughts, and feelings. (Caveat: while I adore Woolf, I am an amateur reader of her work. I don’t know all there is to know about her. I don’t have every date related to her memorized. I may well be “wrong” about her intentions and what she’s done, but I am a passionate reader and I don’t care if I am wrong, because as an author I consider myself of her tribe and therefore qualified to discuss any damned thing I like about her work.)

I also don’t believe there are rights and wrongs when it comes to literature. It’s subjective.

So there. Insert an insolent tongue-sticking-out emoji here. The overly reverent, fearful approach commonly taken with Woolf is why more people don’t read her. But don’t forget that I am someone who wrote notes and questions to God in the margins of my Bible; I’m not likely to be afraid of Woolf. (No nod to Albee intended!)

I will say this: you don’t read her for the plot. Sure, her novels (mostly) have one, but that’s not why you’re there. You’re there to wander in her worlds and see how she’s created them and the immediacy with third person. How she doesn’t over rely on tradition. How she puts forth modern life, domestic life, as fitting subject matter. How she elasticizes language, how she makes writing impressionistic. How she makes a miracle of a meal. And for so much more.

Will you forgive me if I dive into Lighthouse for a moment here? “One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, it’s an ecstasy.” It’s a line the painter Lily Briscoe says, and I believe it speaks for itself. If you don’t think that’s a life-changing, gorgeous sentence in all senses, there’s nothing more I can do for you.

I could (and will, later) go on, but that quote has my heart full at the moment.