As an undergraduate English major, dedicated to early twentieth century British literature, I read all the great: Hardy, Conrad, Lawrence, Forster, Joyce, Woolf, Beckett. And quite a few of the minor leaguers as well.
In the decades since then, I have returned to all of these authors, but none so frequently as Virginia Woolf. I’ve always said that if I could have only one book on that desert isle, it would be Mrs Dalloway. But lately, as I’m rereading To the Lighthouse for the second time this year, I may be changing that selection. What once seemed the most impenetrable prose now feels that the easy and familiar conversation of an old friend, although one of special wit.
I’m sure that the difficulty I encountered the first time I read the novel was the manner in which Woolf almost blithely shifts from the mind of one character to another. In the opening paragraphs Mrs Ramsay speaks to her youngest son James, and we are suddenly seeing through his eyes, even as an omniscient narrator adds external detail to the scene.
Then the boy’s contrarian father intrudes: “‘But,’ said his father, stopping in front of the drawing-room window, ‘it won’t be fine.’” And thence perspective flits from James, to omniscience, and finally to his mother again. This collision of perspectives on a simple scene in a drawing room establishes both narrative method and structure. As characters multiply across the pages, I found that the challenge of understanding whose perspective was being presented was daunting. But it was also the key to understanding the novel, for the effect of each character upon the others is at its heart.
How strange, then, that the most lyrical, intense, and moving section of the novel for me was the brief intermezzo called “Time Passes.” Describing a period of ten years in which the summer house that forms the setting for the first and third sections of the novel stands empty, it is a strange kind of pastoral: bleak but still beautiful. We learn of great changes, including the deaths of Mrs Ramsay, her eldest daughter Prue in childbirth, and eldest son Andrew in the Great War. But these momentous human transitions occur, quite literally, parenthetically, passed on in a sentence of two. It is almost as if, for the few pages of “Time Passes” we enter into the consciousness of the house itself, mediated perhaps by a caretaker or two.
What makes the entire book so glorious, of course, are Woolf’s words, her ability to compress an idea into a tightly crafted image. Going back to the novel again with its story and shape in my mind, I can lose myself to a sentence unfolding a complicated syntax, waiting to be decoded; and then an abstraction, an emotion, suddenly takes on a shape in a brilliant image: the eye sees what the mind comprehends. Early in the novel, Mrs Ramsay thinks about one of the maids at the house, Marie, a Swiss girl, far from home:
Her father was dying there, Mrs Ramsay knew. He was leaving them fatherless. Scolding and demonstrating (how to make a bed, how to open a window, with hands that shut and spread like a Frenchwoman’s) all had folded itself quietly about her, when the girl spoke, as, after a flight through the sunshine the wings of a bird fold themselves quietly and the blue of its plumage changes from bright steel to soft purple. She had stood there silent for there was nothing to be said.
Here is Mrs Ramsay in full flight herself: mistress of the house, showing her servants how to properly attend to its family, when she is brought up short by a recognition of mortality. Motion ceases; stillness holds. The details of domestic life transform into the the bird settling itself, tucking its wings in, exchanging the flash of reflected light for the gentle color of mourning. What extraordinary prose Woolf writes.
Given the beauty of the language, how strange and difficult it should be to transmute this story into a film, and yet the BBC adaption, produced in 1983, succeeds surprisingly well. (I can’t imagine what watching it would be like if one weren’t already familiar with the novel.) And I’m sure that some Woolf devotees are scandalized by the very notion of filming her books. But when we watched it last night, I was not disappointed.
True, there are moments of clumsiness. Occasional brief monologues try to capture some of the stream of consciousness that flows through the book. The music swells to announce portentous moments. A few equally portentous shots of the distant lighthouse hammer the point home at other times. But by and large the film proceeds by means of a series of brief, intimate moments, understated and evocative.
Rosemary Harris as Mrs Ramsay deserves much of the credit for the film’s success. Quietly beautiful, as Woolf describes Mrs Ramsay, she comes off as loving and sympathetic, wise to the emotions of those around her, knitting together her family and friends in kindness and understanding. Her body is as expressive as her face and voice, on occasion languid, at times protectively encircling a child, standing stalwart by her husband, or grubbing assiduously in a garden patch. The film’s characterization of Mrs Ramsay is less nuanced that Woolf’s: as wife and mother she is loyal and affectionate always. The admission of egoism, of her role as busybody and arranger, is downplayed.
Suzanne Bertish as Lily Briscoe, the solitary artist and friend of the family, has a harder go of it. In the novel her character is as prismatic as Mrs Ramsay’s, and she is often Woolf’s foil for the mother-figure. If the novel is in part Woolf’s attempt to reflect on the grief she felt at the death of her own mother, it is through the character of Lily that she explores her feelings of equal closeness and alienation; Lily also gives voice to the artist’s struggle with her materials. In the final section of the film, after Mrs Ramsay’s death, she emerges as the central consciousness, connecting sleepy Mr Carmichael on the lawn of the house to her long-delayed completion of the portrait of Mrs Ramsay and young James on its porch, and to the equally long-delayed sailing trip to the lighthouse. Mr Ramsay at last takes James and his sister Cam out to sea, an homage to his wife and family, and perhaps as a sort of penance, as Lily watches from the shore.
Kenneth Branagh, in one of his first on-screen appearances, plays Mr Ramsay’s young acolyte, Charles Tansley. Only 22 years old at the time, Branagh is still quite wonderful, even in a role that allows him little emotional expression other than frustration and petulance. Like Harris, he can do wonders with his body language, speeding stiffly across the lawn, utterly furious and ridiculously priggish at the same time. The DVD packaging gives him star billing, naturally, but his role falls into the second tier of characters and he appears only in the first of the story’s three sections.
The middle section I spoke of earlier, “Time Passes,” is nearly as finely executed in the film as it is in the novel: perhaps the exteriority of description in this section of the book is easier to translate to the screen. Nonetheless, I was delighted with the production’s faithful transcription and the willingness to give the house and its depredations the lead role for five or six minutes. It’s beautifully photographed; and the music, although still a bit overbearing, provides an emotional continuity through the changes wrought by time and the war.
As a closing aside, before I sat down to write these reflections, I set out to search the net for a few images to include in the post. There is the dust-jacket of the first edition, designed by Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell, the slipcase for the DVD (released in 2004) and the cover of the paperback edition that I bought in 1971. But I also stumbled across the original review of the novel published in the New York Times. (The online version is dated May 8, 1925, mysteriously almost two years to the day before the novel was actually published on May 5, 1927—perhaps there’s more to this notion of haunting than I surmised at first!) It’s well worth reading before undertaking the novel or the film; the contrasts it draws with Woolf’s previous novel, Mrs Dalloway, are wonderful and illuminating. But it recognizes a “portrayal of life that is less orderly, more complex and so much doomed to frustration” that makes To the Lighthouse a grander and a more ambitious work, the peak achievement of Woolf’s prose to date.