Surrendering to the stream of consciousness
In my teens and twenties I loved Virginia Woolf’s writing, both fiction and factual, and books about the Bloomsbury set. Orlando, the first Woolf I read, and To The Lighthouse, were particular favourites, and I read both across the years several times. So it was with a feeling of pleasure that HeavenAli’s ‘Woolfalong’ beckoned, and January/February Ali invited us to read Mrs Dalloway or To The Lighthouse. So, as the bookshelves contained To The Lighthouse, in a copy I see I bought in 1994, at a time when I was travelling a fair amount, and used to record where/when I bought a book, it was with even more pleasure that I opened a book I haven’t read in twenty years, and found, used as a bookmark, a ticket for Charleston Farmhouse ‘the former home of the Bloomsbury Artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’ which I visited. I was looking forward to re-acquainting myself with a familiar friend……………………
And, I have to say, the intervening years have been truthful and kind to how well I remember this book, and to how strongly Woolf’s vision resonated. It is a most potent book. The craft of her writing is stunning. What struck me this time is how very much her writing is almost crossing art forms. To The Lighthouse is both astonishingly painterly and astonishingly musical. She uses arresting images, both images ‘in real’ which people observe, and images rising up out of emotion, to convey telling information. For example, a repeating image detailing one of the central themes – the portrait of a particular marriage – there is the suffering, succouring, Mrs Ramsay, holding it seems the world of nurturing wifehood and motherhood together, expanding into a kind of rapturous bliss of givingness, struck, again and again by the extraordinary image of a brass-beaked scimitar, as her husband, Mr Ramsay, demanded, and got, sympathy, importance, validity
Mrs Ramsay , who had been sitting loosely, holding her son in her arm, braced herself, and half turning, seemed to raise herself with an effort, and at once to pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating (quietly though she sat, taking up her stocking again), and into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare.
We know that Woolf suffered mental illness, that she took her life, that she was subject to swings of mood of at times unbearable intensity, and that this informed her curious vision, her own swings between visionary rapture and meaning, and dark pain and terror – the moments, both of rapture and of bleakness remind me of the equally blazing intensity of Blake’s paintings and poetry.
The central ‘happenings’ in the narrative structure of this three section book, seem small – the outside centre stage story is thus :
The Ramsays, an upper middle class Victorian couple he an academic, she ‘artistic’ are on a family holiday in Skye, with their eight children. They open their holiday home to a group of academic and artistic friends. Part One, ‘The Window’ consists of one day. The youngest child, James who adores his mother and hates his father has been half-promised a trip to the Lighthouse on the following day. Mr Ramsay, and another of the guests contemptuously and realistically state that the weather will be poor, and they will be unable to go. Mrs Ramsay cannot bear her child to suffer the pain of disappointment and tries to hold out hope
In Part Two, Time Passes, a scant twenty pages, the most dramatic personal and world stage events are recounted, almost as an aside – the First World War, as a couple of local women are engaged in beating and brushing and dusting the holiday home, which some of the Ramsay Family, and some of the guests from last time, will return to, for the first time for ten years.
In Part Three, The Lighthouse, which also takes place over one day, the two youngest children, James, now in his teens and the youngest daughter, Cam, also in her teens, make that promised trip to the lighthouse with their father.
Was there no safety? No learning by heart of the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle, and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air? Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life? – startling, unexpected, unknown?
Some story, you might think, with all the major, events of world and family dramas happening off stage, in twenty pages. What Woolf is interested in is the inner life of character, the ceaseless running commentary inside our heads, which no one hears, no one sees. This is the hidden part of life. At the time I was ferociously first reading Woolf I was also as ferociously reading another writer, Doris Lessing, one who in some ways wrote the politics meets the personal history of twentieth century philosophising. In the first novel of Lessing’s 5 volume ‘Children of Violence’ series, Martha Quest, set in what was Rhodesia, Lessing tells us that if you asked Martha’s mother to describe her day, she would have talked about the activities she engaged in, the undramatic part of daily life. But, as Lessing reminds us what is really going on is the seething inner dialogue, the clash between hidden thoughts, unconscious and conscious feeling, the stray images, words, familiar phrases which pop-up out of unconsciousness, the threads of memory which suddenly bob up, carried along on that conscious stream of inner babble, before sinking down again. THIS, Lessing suggests is as much (if not more) of a life as that in which we ‘do’ in the world, and the world sees
This is what Woolf is exploring.
I mentioned the book is painterly, that she paints shapes, colours, a canvas in her writing. Art, particularly painting, but creative endeavour, the purpose and drive of creativity, is another major theme of this book. The other central theme is the relationship between men’s worlds and women’s worlds, and the difficulties at that time for a female to have an identity outside the expected marriage and motherhood. This is illustrated by the specific examination of one particular family, Woolf’s own. Mr Ramsay, like her father, Sir Leslie Stephens, is an academic, doing important ‘work of the mind’ Mrs Ramsay, both in character, description, personality and ‘life events’ in the novel, mirrors Virginia’s mother Julia. There is another kind of female possibility for destiny explored in the novel – the woman with her own ‘vocation’ and place to make in the world, the woman who has her own place in history to carve, whose choice may be art, not marriage or motherhood. The first part of the book is held together by Mrs Ramsey, it is the creation of her charisma, the personification of the female role to nurture others. Lily Briscoe is an artist, Mrs Ramsay’s friend, pitied by her, for Lily is not beloved by men, Lily ‘with her little puckered face and her little Chinese eyes’. Lily Briscoe though has her own purpose. Lily paints her picture. Work gives meaning. Interestingly this dichotomy : Children and Art, givers of meaning was also explored in Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful Sunday In The Park With George, which also turned me back to thinking about Woolf’s exploration here
The musical structure of the novel struck me forcibly this time. Part of the ‘inner dialogue’ is the voice of remembered phrases, which might stick forcibly in the mind – words and phrases uttered by others, which stick in the mind. These may serve like a little musical coda, a recognisable theme, and just as in a classical symphony themes and variations on themes repeat, vanish, and teasingly surface again as part of the overall forward journey of a piece, so do words and phrases bob up in the minds of Woolf’s characters.
A chance comment by Charles Tansley, one of the guests in the first part, to Lily Briscoe:
Women can’t paint, women can’t write
is part of the ‘Lily motif’ , if this were a piece of music. But so is the resolution of that particular discordant melody –
I must move the tree to the middle
What I had forgotten, or perhaps not been aware of, last time I read this book, is that it is also funny – there is an kind of surprising humour, under the intensity. And, in this, there are connections to Chekhov’s plays, often performed with deep intensity, but also, like in life, the absurdity of it all, the little flashes of a sometimes spiteful amusement which also exist in our own hidden dialogues, as we observe those around us.
A short excerpt from a TV film of the book. I’m not convinced it would encourage me to read the book though.
In the end, it is going to be Woolf’s voice which works, or doesn’t, for the reader. The reading is certainly different – something she engages in is a kind of subterranean connection of flowing inner dialogues, so the ‘stream of consciousness – or perhaps, most correctly stream of consciousness and unconsciousness’ starts in one person’s mind and suddenly the thinking the feeling, the words and the images are in another person’s inner dialogue. It is the images, it is the phrases, repeated, which negotiate the reader so that it is clear who we are ‘inner with’
For me, I can only say that I surrender willingly to Woolf. This reading after twenty years has been incredibly potent, and thank you, HeavenAli, for your Woolfalong challenge! – just snuck in with this on the Jan/Feb suggested Woolf book!
I couldn’t resist this weird and, personally, not particularly meaningful ‘musical tribute’ to the book. I have no doubt that those who DON’T gel with Woolf might find their distaste for her reinforced. It made me giggle a bit though. Not the book I re-read so happily at all