October 21, 2017
Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse
On this date in 1927 Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse was published by the Woolfs' Hogarth Press. Many of the earliest reviews were lukewarm, compared to the modern view that the novel is one of the century's best, or to this praise from Conrad Aiken in the summer of '27:
Nothing happens, in this houseful of odd nice people, and yet all of life happens. The tragic futility, the absurdity, the pathetic beauty, of life-we experience all of this in our sharing of seven hours of Mrs. Ramsay's wasted or not wasted existence. We have seen through her, the world.
Virginia Woolf's own attitude to her accomplishment was, as usual, jittery. During the writing the previous year, she had worked at a record pace and with full confidence: "Never never have I written so easily, imagined so profusely." While revising, she thought it "easily the best of my books," and during later proofreading she was still impressed: "Dear me, how lovely some parts of To Lighthouse are! Soft & pliable, & I think deep, & never a word wrong for a page at a time." Yet waiting for the reviews she feared that she would be judged "soft, shallow, insipid and sentimental"; and then when those early, mixed reviews appeared, she found herself vulnerable: "What's the use of saying one is indifferent to reviews when positive praise, though mingled with blame, gives one such a start on, that instead of feeling dried up, one feels...flooded with ideas?"
Much of the book is autobiographical. Sister Vanessa was moved deeply by "a portrait of mother which is more like her to me than anything I could ever have conceived possible. It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead." Later, Woolf wrote that the writing was a therapeutic act with an opposite effect upon her: " I ceased to be obsessed about my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her." From Part I, Chapter 11:
Always, Mrs Ramsay felt, one helped oneself out of solitude reluctantly by laying hold of some little odd and end, some sound, some sight. She listened, but it was all very still; cricket was over; the children were in their baths; there was only the sound of the sea. She stopped knitting; she held the long reddish-brown stocking dangling in her hands a moment. She saw the light again. With some irony in her interrogation, for when one woke at all, one's relations changed, she looked at the steady light, the pitiless, the remorseless, which was so much her, yet so little her, which had her at its beck and call (she woke in the night and saw it bent across their bed, stroking the floor), but for all that she thought, watching it with fascination, hypnotized, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!
In 1928 To the Lighthouse was awarded the Prix Femina as best foreign book, and Woolf agreed to attend the ceremony to accept what she later called her "dog show prize." It was "an affair of dull stupid horror," attended by "elderly fur bearing women," but Woolf woke up in the middle of the night afterwards, horrified at "having looked ugly in cheap black clothes." Vanessa giggled at the picture in the Times of Virginia accepting her award from Hugh Walpole, as conventional a storyteller as Woolf was not: "Do tell us how you behaved -- did your drawers drop off?"