Reading To the Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf wrote To the Lighthouse in 1925-26 and published it in 1927. For many people, it is one of her finest achievements and a major landmark in the history of the novel. Woolf drew upon poetry, painting, and music, as well as her own formidable knowledge of the history of literature, to do new things with the form of the novel.

We were delighted to focus on To the Lighthouse in the first of our Stapleford Study days, Saturday 17 September. The day started with a lecture by Gillian Beer, who explored the different kinds of story and story-telling at work in the novel, and reflected upon the active role of the reader as Woolf conceived it. Stories allude to the past, and lean towards the future. In this book characters have a rich inner life of story that they do not share with others. Woolf drew upon aspects of her own life story, but also transformed it. Gillian Beer discussed the teller of To the Lighthouse, and the degree to which everything we are told is filtered through more than one mind in the book. This is true even of Grimm's folk tale of 'The Fisherman's Wife' whose text is imported from Woolf's own childhood reading. She thought about Woolf's compression and dilation of time, so important in the telling of stories. Woolf's novels cover decades (as in The Years) or centuries (Orlando) or a single day (Mrs Dalloway, Between the Acts). To the Lighthouse varies temporal process between a single day (the longest section), ten years (the shortest), and a morning. Always in the background is the a-temporal motion of the waves.

Trudi Tate discussed Woolf's thinking about the Victorian mother, and the complexities of mourning her loss. Trudi read this in relation to Freud's essay 'Mourning and Melancholia' (published in German in 1917, and in English in 1925). She also looked ahead to the work of Winnicott, arguing that Woolf was, in certain ways, looking at similar ideas of mothering and the needs of children. We are familiar with Woolf's distrust of the 'Angel in the House', yet at the same time, Woolf recognised the tremendous value of the Victorian mother that her own mother had been – compassionate, empathetic, and tactful with her young children, giving them space just to be themselves. What happens when such nurturing disappears; what will take its place? Many people were asking such questions in the 1920s, after the devastation of the First World War, and looking for a more generous spirit in education and child care.

Frances Spalding drew attention to the habit of Woolf scholars automatically to associate To the Lighthouse with Cornwall, even though it is set on the Isle of Skye. Is Jane Goldman right to complain that the Hebridean setting has been almost entirely overlooked and reduced to a Cornish cypher by generations of readers? While acknowledging Goldman's point of view, Frances sided with the Cornwallites and then, with the help of an aerial view of St Ives, gave her reasons why. She also mentioned that artists had initially arrived in this town in the wake of the railway, while a decline in the fishing industry created empty fishlofts which made excellent studios. Interestingly, by the time Woolf was writing and publishing her landmark novel, a small group of English artists around Ben Nicholson made an equivalent breakthrough in their art, and both camps owed much to St Ives, for it was there, in 1928, that Nicholson and Christopher Wood, searching for a fresher and more direct approach to representation in art, found ratification for their ideas in the work of the 'primitive' painter and former fisherman, Alfred Wallis. Frances went on to discuss Roger Fry's influence on Woolf's thinking about the aesthetic of the novel, owing to his questions, one of which was about the role of texture and structure in her work. Frances ended by showing two quotations. They demonstrated the close similarities of thought in Fry's Hogarth Press book on Cézanne and in Lily Briscoe's statement of her ambitions for her painting. Lily's repeated critique of her own painting, in the course of To the Lighthouse, echoes and mimics Woolf's self-questioning as she wrote this book.

The audience listened to all the arguments with close interest, and lively discussions followed each lecture. Warm thanks to our speakers, and to our audience, who had come from near and far for the course: from various parts of Britain, as well as Barcelona, Denmark, and Japan.

We have a number of Study Days coming up in 2017, beginning with Alice in Space on 25 February, and Tragedy: Past and Present on 18 March.


About the lecturers

Professor Dame Gillian Beer is retired Edward VII Professor of English Literature at the University of Cambridge, and former President of Clare Hall, Cambridge. Her books include: Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground; Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction; Arguing with Past: Essays in Narrative from Woolf to Sidney; and Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter. Her most recent book, Alice in Space: The Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll, is published by Chicago University Press late 2016 in the US and early 2017 in the UK. Further information about Alice in Space here.

Professor Frances Spalding CBE is a Fellow of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge. She was previously Professor of Art History at the University of Newcastle, and has edited the Burlington Magazine. Her books include: Roger Fry: Art and Life; Vanessa Bell; John Minton: Dance till the Stars Come Down; Duncan Grant: A Biography; Stevie Smith: A Biography; and Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family and Affections. In 2014 she published Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision which complements the Woolf exhibition she curated at the National Portrait Gallery (assisted by Claudia Tobin). Frances Spalding's website is here.

Dr Trudi Tate is a Fellow, Tutor and Praelector of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, where she teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature. She also works on literature and the history of psychoanalysis with an interest in Freud, Klein, Bion, Bowlby, Winnicott, and she has published a number of books and articles on literature and warfare. Her books include: Women, Men and the Great War; Women's Fiction and the Great War; Modernism, History and the First World War; The Silent Morning: Culture and Memory after the Armistice; and The Listening Watch: Memories of Viet Nam. She is currently completing A Short History of the Crimean War. Webpage here.

Banner image at top: Alfred Wallis painting.

Banner image at top: Alfred Wallis painting.