And now we start in on our third Woolf book, Orlando. We’re going to take this one slowly, so I will tease your appetite with just a few quotes from the novel.
Read on! Let me know if you find favorite passages as you read.
And now we start in on our third Woolf book, Orlando. We’re going to take this one slowly, so I will tease your appetite with just a few quotes from the novel.
Read on! Let me know if you find favorite passages as you read.
See, I ended up posting more about Lighthouse than I did Dalloway. That being said, I’ve finished re-reading it. You? 😊 So I’m going to go ahead and start re-reading Orlando so I can get a jump on it. We all know how holiday weekends end up. We’re staying home for Thanksgiving, to be safe, but I intend to make up for that by watching every single holiday movie on Netflix that I haven’t already watched. (Or as many as my sweetie will tolerate.) Reading and prepping posts early is a good idea, if you ask me.
Speaking of, have you watched the adorable Dash & Lily on Netflix? Oh my gosh, so cute.
Oh, and I’ve just started my third novel. I hadn’t meant to get serious about it, but I made out with it at the office Christmas party and now we’re dating. (JK, JK!) Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve already written 50 pages! (I wish I could say more, but you know how it is…I don’t want to introduce it to anyone until we’ve dated awhile.)
Now, how to wrap this Lighthouse study when there’s so much more to say? As I read, I had so many things to share, but each could fill pages.
Here are the story’s ending thoughts, our eyes on Lily as she finishes her painting: “Yes, she thought, laying down her brushes in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”
Sure, you can argue that Mrs. Ramsay is the book’s main character, but I would disagree. Lily is the one who notices, who watches, who paints observations of the main couple and their family, of all of those around her. She memorializes them in her painting with her acute scrutiny. I, for one, am grateful she did.
We could talk about Mr. Ramsay and his insistence that he and his youngest children go to the lighthouse. The two clearly don’t want to go. They decide they will fight tyranny to the death, meaning they won’t give their father the time of day. James never does capitulate, but Cam softens when their father asks her about the new puppy.
Most of the long trip, however (I’d like to know exactly how long, because they bring a meal and Mr. Ramsay brings a book), Mr. Ramsay spends his time reading. Is the actual visiting of the lighthouse the point, then, or is it the journey? It would seem the journey is not what he cares about. Much buried there.
Lily imagines the journey at the novel’s end. She thinks they must be there now. It’s then she can complete the novel, so she’s not the only one who has gotten stuck in this loop, this unfulfilled promise.
While I think it would be difficult to make a good film of this book because so much of the importance and beauty of it is in the prose, its structure would lend itself to that.
And that leads me to more thoughts, on and on. I want to mention other spoilers that I won’t, of Lily’s imagining of what happens to various members of the family’s circle, of actual facts versus her impression of them, impressions that change.
By the book’s end, her attitude towards even Charles Tansley softens. Art helps her “see” life.
I’m going to stop now because I don’t know where to stop. One line leads to another! And guess what? I didn’t even really touch what I covered in my master’s thesis, because I mined that for novel number two. (“Briscoe” is in its name, so…)
Remember: we start Orlando next! Have you read it before?
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.
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.
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.
Remember when I wrote a post on Robin Lippincott’s excellent Mr. Dalloway? He’s turned up again in connection with Woolf in this Lit Hub article on the art and the audience, but this time for his Blue Territory: A Meditation on the Life and Art of Joan Mitchell
(Tidal Press). Both his meditation and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (our Autumn of Woolf book of the moment!) are highlighted alongside three other books as wrestling beautifully with the artist’s process in this Literary Hub article by Scott O’Connor. I find this type of philosophical, deep, “thinky” books beautiful.
But I would add Of Human Bondage to the O’Connor’s list and dare I also nominate Victorine?
I hope you’re not tiring of my admiration for Robin’s writing, because it’s not going away any time soon. And I highly recommend you order his book.
Rather than recite the insightful list, as a takeoff on both Robin’s writing and a nod to the above piece, (merging both sentences here, my apologies),”“Oh, just look at the goddamn article!” 🙂
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.
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?
Am I the only one who gets stuck on a simple punctuation mark when reading? I want to understand everything Virginia Woolf writes, even down to her choice of punctuation, but while reading Lighthouse today, I came across a sentence with a comma in a place I would not have chosen. (If you’re reading the book for the first time, it’s good, really good, isn’t it?)
“Simple, obvious, commonplace, as it was, Mr. Bankes was interested.”
I don’t quite understand the placement of the comma after commonplace. I would have left it out. I feel that as it was is strongly connected to commonplace. Am I missing something here? Do let me know if there’s some grammatical rule or exception I’m overlooking.
Hubby says I should consult other editions and her original manuscript, and I would, except that involves walking upstairs and having internet that works and that’s a no right now – thanks, Mediacom, for sponsoring this outage. I’ve learned when to let good enough be good enough. Besides, I kinda like pondering.
What do you think about the sentence? How do you read it?
I’m overly excited to talk about Lighthouse. It’s such an important novel to me. And yet since my second, about-to-go-on-submission, novel deals quite a bit with this book, I have to be careful. No spoilers!
Although here’s one tidbit: I turned the lighthouse into a forest fire lookout tower in my novel. One I know from my childhood.
Lighthouse and I had a rocky start: Here I was in Senior freakin’ Seminar as a non traditional student with all of these bright English majors and I’m panicking because it’s a beautiful book but I’m lost. I know I can’t just enjoy it. I have to understand it, and I don’t. Or didn’t. It feels like Woolf gives with one hand and snatches that “truth” back with the next. I was hella confused and frustrated, because her essays were so straightforward by comparison.
Enjoying and embracing ambiguity has come slowly to me.
I was reading Lighthouse in bed that first time (my favorite place to read) on a rare morning at home and just not understanding it at all. Then, out of nowhere, we had an earthquake! In Indiana! The bed rocked as if I were in our vacation rental boat. The quake must have jarred something in me or the universe loose because slowly after that, I finally understood it. (Well, it took six times all told of reading it to really feel I had grasped it, but that day opened me to it.) If I were more metaphysically inclined, I would say Woolf “zapped” me during that earthquake. Maybe I should say it anyway.
Not before I felt like a wretched, ignorant loser in class, a fake, a fraud, behind the rest did I get it, though. They were a great bunch, but come to find out, some of them found their “insight” online, something I could never imagine doing because I’m so stubborn.
So I read it again. And again. Then there was class discussion, and I was relieved to discover I was getting it. I had always been a fan of stream of consciousness, so that wasn’t throwing me. I really can’t say what was except for sure that cursed, hopeless, existential-crisis making middle section. I needed some plot back or at least hope and fast before I got stuck there. But then, ah, then, life returned. Lily Briscoe with her art returned. And I knew everything would be all right, even if it did feel icky to have such mixed feelings about the characters.
Nowadays I don’t so much try to understand it as reference it, even though I’m pretty confident that I do understand it. For me it’s like flipping through a book of poems by Neruda. Though my Spanish isn’t great, I just get something from his poetry, first in Spanish, then the translation.
With Lighthouse I get that gilded, heady glimpse first, you know, the surface shine that makes you happy. And then I take the words in, focus on the meaning. Damn, is there meaning. It’s Morse code about life. Do yourself a favor and open it up pretty much anywhere and sample it.
When it came time to choose a book to write my senior thesis on, did I play it safe? Did I choose Alice in Wonderland or even Cuckoo’s Nest? I had other choices, too, but I’m Kit in A League of Their Own: “I like the high ones.” (Wait, does that movie title have echoes of Woolf? A Room of One’s Own? I say yes!)
Not only did I write my thesis on it but I was told I was the only English senior that year to receive a high pass. Boom.
Then I was asked to read it at the Indiana College Education Association Conference. I did. Oh, and I won first place, even though I planned to leave before the awards were announced because I’d had such a good time talking about the book I didn’t even consider I might win. It barely registered to me that there was an awards ceremony. I laughed and laughed when I so unexpectedly won, and if memory serves I bought something pretty with the prize money. Boom again.
Naturally when it came time to do my grad school thesis I continued the trend and wrote on Lighthouse. It was such a luxury to write even more about the book. I wish there were some way to write observations page for page about a book, and a place to share it. I know that would take years and I’m not sure anyone would want to read it, but that’s just how much I still want to know about the novel, how much it affects and guides me. I’m sure there’s so much more to discover about it. (Ooh, maybe there’s a new podcast to start?!)
No wonder, then, that I turned to my love of this book when I began my second novel. It’s been a challenge but so meaningful to wade into that great pool of words and sift them between my fingers. To mull on phrases and mysteries. To ask what’s behind the behind.
How can a novel be simultaneously lovely, dark, and deep? That bird flight of a POV, the cadence, the intertextuality, the clever use of an artist observing a couple to speak of marriage. All of this while Woolf also memorializes her own mother and the family’s summer trips.
I have multiple copies of this book. Ironically, of all of my class texts for Senior Seminar I borrowed my copy from the library because money was tight. I could hardly bear to give the book back. I only did so when I was able to find an identical copy online. And dear librarian, if you see pencil markings in your copy, I’m sure it was some other patron who did that. (I don’t condone abusing library books but I may have forgotten a time or two it was a library book I was holding since it didn’t have a crinkly (cellophane?) cover.)
Maybe this book won’t do for you what it did for me, won’t cause you to scrutinize anything and everything you’ve ever believed, but then again, maybe it will. I’m excited to run through it yet again.
Have you read Lighthouse? What did you think of it?
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
Just swim. Go.
Thanks again for joining me on this journey into Mrs. Dalloway! Happy Reading Lighthouse.
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.
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.