Blog #216: Sunken Words and “Ozymandias”


I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of sone
Stand in the desert…Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away”

Over eight years now since I sensed “Ozymandias” lying in the shadows of To the Lighthouse (Blog # 60), and only now am I shown what I sensed. “In reading we have to allow the sunken meanings to remain sunken” said Virginia in “Craftsmanship”, her 1937 radio talk, and I certainly have done that, though not at all consciously. For all my interest in Egypt and in Shelley I failed to see what should have been so obvious: I failed to see the words of Shelley’s poem lying openly about. Now, thanks to Heidi Stalla’s 2008 article, “William Bankes: Echoes of Egypt in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse”, the words are excavated for me in all their suggestiveness. With attention drawn to Mr. Ramsay’s boots, “sculptured; colossal”, and Mr. Ramsay “looking like some old stone lying on the sand,” “Ozymandias” is made visible.

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Blog #215: the Curious, Concealed Case of the Hindhead Proposal

 The clues are: 
Conan Doyle               
Minta Doyle               
John Tyndall               
Lord Raleigh               
Paul Rayley               
Stella Duckworth                
Jack Hills 

Ponder and follow them for yourself, then read the following account of how my Watsonian fumblings eventually cracked the case. 

Once again the game’s afoot.  Maggie Humm’s Snapshots of Bloomsbury: The Private Lives of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell has handed me an important clue connecting Virginia to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and thereby has strengthened my wild surmise  (Blog #203: Elementary My Dear Woolf ) that Minta Doyle might owe  her surname to Sir Arthur.   

In Snapshots Maggie includes a photograph of Thoby Stephen and Conan Doyle. The photograph is dated 1896, and it was taken when the Stephen family were holidaying at Hindhead the year after Julia’s death.  Labelled “Kodaking Dr. Conan Doyle,” the photograph shows Thoby, a black mourning armband clearly visible, photographing Conan Doyle from behind.  It is a playful photograph of a photographer (Thoby) caught in the act of stalking and photographing a keen amateur photographer (Doyle) unawares.  Though the photograph is in Vanessa’s album, Maggie Humm thinks the photograph was taken by Stella.  Stella or Vanessa, the photograph is proof that the Stephen children met Doyle and that he made an impression on them.   

To find such a strong piece of evidence connecting Conan Doyle and Virginia was most exciting, so exciting, in fact, that at first I failed to see another major clue in the photograph.  I was blind to the Hindhead location and it’s import.  The significance of this location eluded me until a couple of months later when, in a reference to Vanessa Curtis’ The Hidden Houses of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, I discovered that in Hindhead the Stephen family had been staying at the house of John Tyndall as guests of Tyndall’s widow. 

With the Tyndall name a light went on!  What a discovery!  I almost swallowed an imaginary pipe in my excitement, and had I been wearing a deerstalker cap I would have tossed it high in the air.  Tyndall, Hindhead and Doyle…of course!  Minta’s surname now made geographical sense, as did, with a slight mental leap, Paul Rayley’s.  Tyndall, after all, was more than a close acquaintance of Leslie Stephen, a fellow alpinist with whom he had had a rivalry of sorts and an occasionally prickly relationship.  No, far more than that, Tyndall was a major scientist and educator who, among much else, was among the first to discover and explain the workings of the greenhouse effect.   

The Tyndall name and scientific connection provides another plausible reason for Paul Rayley’s surname.  For Virginia, the name had associations with Tyndall, as well as with Lord Rayleigh (Blog #137).  In 1869 Tyndall was the first to suggest that light scattering off nanoparticles gave the sky its blue colour, and two years later Lord Rayleigh published papers which helped to prove and confirm Tyndall’s conjecture. The work of the two men in this area overlapped to such an extent that two terms still in use today, Tyndall scattering and Rayleigh scattering, are near synonymous and sometimes cause confusion.  Elementary, my dear Andre.  Sherlock would have had no difficulty in establishing a Tyndall, Rayleigh Rayley connection.  

To see a link between Paul and Minta’s surnames and two important historical figures associated with the Stephen family stay at Hindhead in 1986 is to essentially solve the case.  Behind Paul and Minta stand Jack Waller Hills and Stella Duckworth.  For Virginia, the Doyle and Rayley names were private, playful signposts to a time, place and event which so seared her that she would return to it again and again over the years.  Consider the following passages, the first taken from the 1907 memoir which is titled “Reminiscences” in Schulkind’s Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings:    

We had been lent a house at Hindhead, and one afternoon at the end of August , Jack came there, bicycling to some place in the neighbourhood.  His visits were so often forced in this way that we suspected nothing more than the usual amount of restraint from his explosive ways, and much information about dogs and bicycles.  His opinion on these matters stood very high with us.  He stayed to dinner, and that also was characteristic of his method; but after dinner a strange lapse occurred in the usual etiquette. Stella left the room with him, to show him the garden or the moon, and decisively shut the door behind her.  We had our business to attend to also, and followed them soon with a lantern, for we were then in the habit of catching moths after dinner.  Once or twice we saw them, always hasting round a corner; once or twice we heard her skirts brushing, and once a sound of whispering.  But the moon was very bright, and there were no moths; Stella and Jack had gone in, it seemed, and we returned to the drawing room.                                

Moments of Being, 49 

The second passage is from Virginia’s diary in 1922, at a time when she was struggling with Mrs. Dalloway: 

On this day, I don’t know how many years ago, 1897 [Virginia was out by a year] to be precise, Jack came to Hindhead & was accepted by Stella in the moonlit garden.  We wandered about the house till she came in & told us.  Thoby thought they were tramps.  I tried to describe the little trees in the moonlight.  Jack was accepted in Tyndall’s little study on that bare heath twenty five years ago.  As she died so soon after, somehow it still seems to me like a real thing, unsmothered by succeeding years.                                

Tuesday, 22 August, 1922 

Again, writing in 1940, in the manuscript now known as “A Sketch of the Past,” she reverts to Hindhead House and to what took place there: 

The next thing I remember is the night at Hindhead (August 22nd, 1896)—the black and silver night of mysterious voices,the night when father packed us off to bed early; and we heard voices in the garden; and saw Stella and Jack passing; and disappearing; and the tramp came; and Thoby countered him; and Nessa and I sat up in our bedroom waiting; and Stella never came; and at last in the early morning she came and told us she was engaged; and I whispered, “Did mother know?” and she murmured, Yes”.                        

Moments of Being, 100-101


Later in the manuscript, still writing about Jack and Stella’s engagement, she records the following:   

And it was through that engagement that I had my first vision—so intense, so exciting, so rapturous was it that the word vision applies—my first vision then of love between man and woman.  It was to me like a ruby; the love I detected that winter of their engagement, glowing, red, clear intense.  It gave me a conception of love; a standard of love; a sense that nothing in the whole world is so lyrical, so musical, as a young man and a young woman in their first love for each other.  I connect it with respectable engagements;unofficial love never gives me the same feeling.  “My Love’s like a red, red rose, that’s newly sprung in June’—that was the feeling they gave; the feeling that has always come back, when I hear of ‘an engagement’; not when I hear of an ‘affair’.  It derives from Stella and Jack. 

Moments of Being, 105

Compare that last passage to this one from To the Lighthouse

Such was the complexity of things.  For what happened to her, especially staying with the Ramsays, was to be made to feel violently two opposite things at the same time; that’s what you feel, was one; that’s what I feel was the other, and then they fought together in her mind, as now. It is so beautiful, so exciting, this love, that I tremble on the verge of it, and offer, quite out of my own habit, to look for a brooch on a beach; also it is the stupidest, the most barbaric of human passions, and turns a nice young man with a profile like a gem’s (Paul’s was exquisite) into a bully with a crowbar (he was swaggering, he was insolent) on the Miles End Road.  Yet, she said to herself, from the dawn of time odes have been sung to love; wreaths heaped and roses; and if you asked nine people out of ten they would say they wanted nothing but this—love; while the women, judging from her experience, would all the time be feeling, This is not what we want; there is nothing more tedious, puerile, and inhumane than this; yet it is also beautiful and necessary.   

To the Lighthouse

Knowledge of Hindhead deepens our understanding of To the Lighthouse. The proposal which took place there is another of the biographical points to which Virginia attached the web of her fiction.  The real-life courtship, supported and encouraged by Julia Stephen, was an important model for the novel’s.  Of course, blue-eyed Stella is no more brown-eyed Minta than brown-eyed Jack is blue-eyed Paul, yet by their surnames Virginia evoked for herself that long ago summer and deepened the reality of what she was writing.  To think about Hindhead and the people there is to increase our understanding of the characters in the novel, the emotions at play, and the primal power of the biological and cultural forces  channeled and controlled by courtship rituals. 

One last Holmesian observation, not profound, yet pleasurably plausible.  Accept Minta Doyle’s surname  as a reference to Conan Doyle, and you have an explanation for why Mrs.Ramsay is twice glimpsed–once by Lily Briscoe and once by William Bankes–wearing a deer-stalker hat.  In William’s memory,she might almost be Sherlock in action: “She clapped a deer-stalker’s hat on her head; she ran across the lawn in galoshes to snatch a child from mischief.”  Reach back to Doyle and Hindhead through the deer-stalker and there may be a further associative fillip in thinking about how Hindhead once meant “a hill frequented by deer.”  Small wonder the Ramsay children disappear from the dinner table as “stealthily as stags”.

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Blog #214: Strengthening the Finlay Macbeth Connection in To the Lighthouse

Naturally, one had asked her to lunch, tea, dinner, finally to stay with them up at Finlay, which had resulted in some friction with the Owl, her mother, and more calling, and more conversation, and more sand, and really at the end of it, she had told enough lies about parrots to last her a lifetime (so she had said to her husband that night, coming back from the party).

To the Lighthouse

In an earlier blog, I raised the possibility that the Finlay name might be a subtle allusion to the deep importance which Macbeth has for Virginia in To the Lighthouse. Other than a host of other Macbeth references, and Virginia’s love of the playful and the cryptic, I had no evidence for such a claim. Now, though, thanks to an editor’s prodding , the link between Finlay and Macbeth is considerably stronger.

In the earlier blog, I had stated: “Apparently Finlay was the name of Macbeth’s father.” Quite rightly, the editor’s response was to ask me to back up that claim, as nowhere in Macbeth is there any mention of any Finlay. Indeed, the Macbeth Finlay connection is so recondite that I am sure that many, if not most, Shakespeare scholars do not know of it. Certainly, without some obsessive internet noodling, I would not have known this small piece of genealogical trivia, and consequently I was very cautious about ascribing knowledge of it to Virginia.

Now, though, thanks to my editor, I decided to dig a little deeper. Footnotes to my three editions of Macbeth yielded nothing, and even if they had none of the editions were earlier than the mid 60s, and therefore they would not have been accessible to Virginia. Holinshed’s Chronicles, though, were another matter, but sadly a search of Holinshed failed to find Finlay. Findlay or Findláech is mentioned the Annals of Ulster and the Book of Leinster, yet Virginia is not known to have read either of those two sources.

Frustrated in my sleuthing, I finally did what I should have done at the outset: I turned to Virginia’s library. Almost instantly, gold! Washington State’s Short-Title Catalogue for The Library of Leonard and Virginia Woolf listed Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeth, as Presented by Edwin Booth. Ed. by W. Winter (1878). With the help of, I easily located a Winter edition of Macbeth, and there in the appendix was sweet proof that Virginia would have known about Macbeth’s paternity:

“Macbeth, or Macbeathad MacFinlegh, as he is called in contempo-
rary chronicles, was a king of Scotland. From his father, Finlegh, the
son of Ruadhri, he inherited the rule of the province of Moray, and he
became allied with the royal line by his marriage with Gruoch Mac-
Boedhe, the granddaughter of King Kenneth MacDuff. In the year
1039 he headed an attack upon King Duncan MacCrinan at a place
called Bothgouanan (the Smith’s Bothy), where the King was mortally
wounded, but survived to be carried to Elgin, in Moray. Macbeth now
ascended the throne, and his reign of seventeen years is commemorated
in the chronicles as a time of plenty. He made grants to the Culdees
of Loch Leven, and in the year 1050 went in pilgrimage to Rome.
Malcolm MacDuncan, or Ceanmore, the eldest son of King Duncan
MacCrinan, had fled to England on his father’s death ; and in the sum-
mer of 1054, his kinsman, Siward, Earl of Northumberland, led an
English army into Scotland against Macbeth. That King was defeated
with great slaughter, but escaped from the field, and still kept the
throne. Four years afterwards he was again defeated by Malcolm Mac-
Duncan, and, fleeing northwards across the mountain-range, since called
the Grampians, he was slain at Lumphanan, in Aberdeenshire, on the
5th of December, 1056. His followers were able to place his nephew,
or step-son, Lulach, on the throne ; and his defeat and death at Essie,
in Strathbogie, on the 3d of April, 1057, opened the succession to Mal-
colm, who, three weeks afterwards, was crowned at Scone. This is all
that is certainly known of the history of Macbeth. The fables which
gradually accumulated round his name were systematized in the begin-
ning of the fifteenth century by the historian Hector Boece, from whose
pages they were transferred to the chronicle of Holinshed, where they
met the eye of Shakespeare. Nearly half a century before his great
play was written, Buchanan had remarked how well the legend of
Macbeth was fitted for the stage.” CHAMBERS’S ENCYCLOPAEDIA,
vol. vi., p. 237.

List of Matremoirs

List of Patremoirs

Children of Writers

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Blog #213: Cardinal Manning, Leslie Stephen and the Metaphysical Society

For the last few weeks I have been hard at work editing my blogs and trying to shape them into a coherent whole. Today’s entry is a by-product of my editing efforts, even if instead of editing I’ve been researching again. Avoidance behaviour, yet also productive. Thoughts about Blog #204 and Cardinal Manning caused me to check to see if he was ever married. It turns out that he was, though his marriage, sadly, was relatively brief. Quick and scruffy Wiki research reveals that:

Manning married Caroline, John Sargent’s daughter,[5] on 7 November 1833, in a ceremony performed by the bride’s brother-in-law, the Revd Samuel Wilberforce, later Bishop of Oxford and Winchester. Manning’s marriage did not last long: his young and beautiful wife came of a consumptive family and died childless on 24 July 1837. When Manning died many years later, for decades a celibate Roman Catholic cleric, a locket containing his wife’s picture was found on a chain around his neck.

Did Virginia think about this history when she added an s to the Manning name and evoked a marriage? I think it likely she did.

Much more significant than the marriage, and perhaps more central to at least one of Virginia’s To the Lighthouse themes, is Cardinal Mannings’ relationship to Leslie Stephen. Both Manning and Stephen belonged to the Metaphysical Society, and according to Joseph Gasquet, an early Manning biographer, on at least one occasion they engaged in “a lively controversy” as to the reality of Berkeley’s scepticism. The Metaphysical Society, which met monthly from 1869 to 1880, was intended to foster exactly such lively controversies. Its avowed purpose was to discuss metaphysical and theological questions “after the manner and with the freedom of an ordinary scientific society”, and with that purpose in mind, as well as Leslie Stephen and Cardinal Manning, among its members it included such luminaries as Dean Stanley, Dean Alford, Archbishop Manning, the Rev. James Martineau, the Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, Professor Huxley, Professor Tyndall, Mr Froude, Mr Walter Bagehot, Sir John Lubbock, Ruskin, and the ever forceful James Stephen.

R. H. Huttons’ “Reminiscence”
, published in The Nineteenth Century ,1885, gives a vivid impression of how open and lively the discussions of the Metaphysical Society could be. It strikes me that echoes of those or similar discussions are discernable in To the Lighthouse. Certainly, knowledge of Cardinal Manning’s interactions with Leslie Stephen adds a lot to my appreciation of the novel.

There is no end to To the Lighthouse tunnels and treasures.

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Blog #212: A Katherine Pedigree for Virginia’s Manx Cat

If by good luck there had been an ash-tray handy, if one had not knocked the ash out of the window in default, if things had been a little different from what they were, one would not have seen, presumably, a cat without a tail. The sight of that abrupt and truncated animal padding softly across the quadrangle changed by some fluke of the subconscious intelligence the emotional light for me. It was as if someone had let fall a shade. Perhaps the excellent hock was relinquishing its hold. Certainly, as I watched the Manx cat pause in the middle of the lawn as if it too questioned the universe, something seemed lacking, something seemed different. But what was lacking, what was different, I asked myself, listening to the talk?


There was something so ludicrous in thinking of people humming such things even under their breath at luncheon parties before the war that I burst out laughing, and had to explain my laughter by pointing at the Manx cat, who did look a little absurd, poor beast, without a tail, in the middle of the lawn. Was he really born so, or had he lost his tail in an accident? The tailless cat, though some are said to exist in the Isle of Man, is rarer than one thinks. It is a queer animal, quaint rather than beautiful. It is strange what a difference a tail makes—you know the sort of things one says as a lunch party breaks up and people are finding their coats and hats.

A Room of One’s Own

The following speculation is not directly connected to To the Lighthouse, yet it bears witness to the richness and depth of Virginia’s associative mind. Virginia’s playfulness continues to delight. As well as leaving traces in Mrs. Dalloway and in To the Lighthouse, the shade of Katherine Mansfield also lingers in A Room of One’s Own.

By way of trying to establish a Mansfield connection, let me start by asserting that the “Man” in Mansfield suggests the “Man” in Manx. Preposterous? Perhaps…yet all the same I think a case can be made. Is it coincidence that both cat and writer hail from exotic islands, and both could accurately be described as “quaint rather than beautiful.”? But, rather than focus on the tail end of the cat, I’ll examine other pieces of evidence.

One indirect piece of evidence lies in the starting point of A Room of One’s Own. It is by thinking about “women and fiction” that Virginia comes to the conclusion that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Given the importance of Katherine to Virginia, her status as someone who produced “the only writing I have ever been jealous of”, it would have been almost impossible for Virginia not to think about Katherine while writing her talks or essay. The closeness between cat and narrator, “as if it too questioned the universe”, suggests a Mansfield parallel. Virginia repeatedly thought of Katherine as a kindred spirit, as someone who, like her, had “a terribly sensitive mind’ and was “a writer, a born writer.” [E4, 446]

Stronger evidence, even if still circumstantial, lies in the fact that Virginia strongly associated Katherine with cats. Cat is sometimes a nickname for Katherine, and perhaps that played a part in Virginia’s repeatedly thinking of Katherine as catlike. Early in their relationship (October 112th, 1917), Virginia wrote the following impression in her diary:

We could both wish that ones first impression of K. M. was not that she stinks like a–well civet cat that had taken to street walking. In truth, I’m a little shocked by her commonness at first sight; lines so hard & cheap. However when this diminishes, she is so intelligent & inscrutable that she repays friendship. [D1, 58]

Some two and a half years later, Virginia, though less cattily, again thought of cats when describing Catherine:

” It struck me that she is of the cat kind: alien, composed, always solitary and observant. And then we talked about solitude, & I found her expressing my feelings, as I never heard them expressed.” [D2, 44]

Enough teasing. Time to present my strongest evidence, the link which led me to scratch up the foregoing, indirect, possible cat associations. This evidence, evidence which to me seems conclusive, lurks once again in “Bliss.” In Mansfield’s story there are to be found not one but two cats, cats which like Virginia’s Manx are overtly symbolic. Looking out the window just before she gives her dinner party, Bertha sees a grey cat followed by a black one creep across the lawn, and again at the end of the story, as the dinner party breaks up, the two cats are alluded to. Dinner party, window, lawn, cats, overt symbolism and Virginia’s strong and complex reaction to “Bliss” are all the proof of pedigree I need.

Tailpiece: Out of puckishness I started this exploration by linking the “Man” in Manx and the “Man” in Mansfield. Continuing in a playful vein, I’ll conclude by shifting from a cat without a tail to a “Man without a T.” In the diary entry where Virginia reflects on Katherine as being “of the cat kind,” she goes on to give suggestive fragments of her conversation with Katherine. In one such fragment she refers to Mansfield’s short story “The Man Without a Temperament” as “Man without a T.” In Virginia’s ever so retentive and associative mind might the “Man without a T.” have contributed to the cat without a tail? Delightful to think of Virginia cutting men down to size so playfully.

The windows of the drawing-room opened on to a balcony overlooking the garden. At the far end, against the wall, there was a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though becalmed against the jade-green sky. Bertha couldn’t help feeling, even from this distance, that it had not a single bud or a faded petal. Down below, in the garden beds, the red and yellow tulips, heavy with flowers, seemed to lean upon the dusk. A grey cat, dragging its belly, crept across the lawn, and a black one, its shadow, trailed after. The sight of them, so intent and so quick, gave Bertha a curious shiver.
“What creepy things cats are!” she stammered, and she turned away from the window and began walking up and down. . . .


“Good-bye,” said Bertha.
Miss Fulton held her hand a moment longer.
“Your lovely pear tree!” she murmured.
And then she was gone, with Eddie following, like the black cat following the grey cat.
“I’ll shut up shop,” said Harry, extravagantly cool and collected.
“Your lovely pear tree–pear tree—pear tree!”
Bertha simply ran over to the long windows.
“Oh, what is going to happen now?” she cried.
But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.

“Bliss”, 1918

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Blog #211: Strange ghosts, [A Secret Sisterhood], and Lighthouse Bliss

(But while I try to write, I am making up “To the Lighthouse”—the sea is to be heard all through it. I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant “novel”. A new—by Virginia Woolf. But what? Elegy?)

Saturday 27 June 1925

Katherine Mansfield. Katherine Mansfield. At long last, Katherine Mansfield.

I’ve always known I should come to her eventually, yet up until now I’ve run shy of her, fearing not to find overt traces of her in To the Lighthouse or, even worse, fearing that there was nothing new to say. After all, at least four books (see note below) and dozens of articles have been written about Virginia and Katherine. There should be nothing new left to say. Wrong, wrong, wrong! So much remains to be said, as proved by the following.

It was curiosity rather than courage which nudged me to begin. Rereading To The Lighthouse for perhaps the 100th time—not hyperbole—the phrase “heavenly bliss” went strangely radioactive. My inner Geiger started clicking. Yes, a young boy might endow a picture of a refrigerator with heavenly bliss, might find the picture fringed with joy, yet somehow “bliss” glowed bright with deeper meaning. Sunken meanings smouldered.

A quick “control f” search of the lovely Adelaide ebook edition of To The Lighthouse found more than “heavenly bliss”. “Bliss” appears a second time in the novel when Lily tries to find the sympathy which Mr. Ramsay seems to demand from her. In order to do so, she works to recollect the “glow, the rhapsody, the self-surrender” which she had seen on so many women’s faces when they blazed up into a “rapture of sympathy” which “evidently conferred on them the most supreme bliss of which human nature was capable.” “Bliss” here is directly linked with the female providing sympathy to the male. The word becomes loaded with irony. The bliss with which James endowed the refrigerator is now conferred by self-surrender to the neediness and exactions of men.

The third and final appearance of “bliss” occurs when Lily reflects upon Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s relationship, realizing that “[i]t was no monotony of bliss.” Domestic bliss in the Ramsay household is not a given; it is something to be fought for, to be negotiated, something to be strenuously pursued by means of silence, words and attitudes. Lily’s insight comes immediately upon the realization that in the Ramsay household “one had constantly a sense of repetition — of one thing falling where another had fallen, and so setting up an echo which chimed in the air and made it full of vibrations.” “Bliss” is carved out, in part by “long rigid silences”, from the day to day of repeated marital tension.

Mindful of “Craftmanship,” of how “words belong to each other,” of how “words suggest the writer,” I started to look for associations “bliss” might have had for Virginia. Though I hadn’t read Katherine Mansfield for some years, it wasn’t long before the obvious became obvious to me. “Bliss” was its own “incarnadine,” and a sunken meaning of bliss was Katherine’s “Bliss.”

One diary entry and one letter provide strong evidence of how strongly “Bliss” infected Virginia. On August 7th, 1918, Virginia recorded the following in her diary:

I threw down Bliss with the exclamation, “She’s done for!” Indeed I dont see how much faith in her as woman or writer can survive that sort of story. I shall have to accept the fact, I’m afraid, that her mind is a very thin soil, laid an inch or two deep upon very barren rock. For Bliss is long enough to give her a chance of going deeper. Instead she is content with superficial smartness; & the whole conception is poor, cheap, not the vision, however imperfect, of an interesting mind. She writes badly too. And the effect was as I say, to give me an impression of her callousness & hardness as a human being. I shall read it again; but I don’t suppose I shall change. She’ll go on doing this sort of thing, perfectly to her & Murry’s satisfaction Or is it absurd to read all this criticism of her personally into a story?

(D 1: 179)

Three and a half years later, in a March 20th, 1922, letter to Janet Case, Virginia wrote:

I’ve not read K. Mansfield [The Garden Party], and don’t mean to. I read Bliss; and it was so brilliant,-so hard, and so shallow, and so sentimental that I had to rush to the bookcase for something to drink. Shakespeare, Conrad, even Virginia Woolf. But she takes in all the reviewers, and I daresay I’m wrong (don’t be taken in by that display of modesty.) Middleton Murry is a posturing Byronic little man; pale; penetrating: with bad teeth; histrionic; an egoist; not, I think, very honest; but a good journalist, and works like a horse, and writes the poetry a very old hack might write—but this is spiteful. Do not let my views reach the public. People say we writers are jealous.

(L 2: 514–15)

“Bliss” had clearly registered strongly. Even if her comments were strongly negative, the deep impact of “Bliss” upon Virginia is “plain as a pikestaff.”

Once launched, I found tangential confirmation of this impact in one of the aforementioned four books written about Virginia and Katherine, Patricia Moran’s rich and stimulating Word of Mouth: Body Language in Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf. Moran devotes an entire chapter to the way in which Katherine and “Bliss” captured Virginia’s imagination and influenced elements in Mrs. Dalloway. Her argument is that “despite Woolf’s repudiation of Mansfield’s story, “Bliss” echoes throughout Mrs. Dalloway. Even a cursory reading of the two works turns up an astonishing number of resemblances.” It is my contention that the same can be said of “Bliss” and To the Lighthouse.

Consider. Both works feature a dinner party with many details in common, both have highly symbolic pear trees, both draw attention to elaborate fruit displays, and both feature deep, silent communion between two characters. Nor are these commonalities superficial. Virginia thought long and hard about Katherine’s writing and shaped aspects of her own in response. Teasing out similarities and analyzing the interplay enriches understanding both of “Bliss” and of To the Lighthouse.

Perhaps the most striking similarity between the two dinner parties is that they both feature French dishes for which the hostess receives high praise, praise which is more properly due to the family cook who prepared either the soufflée or the boeuf en daube. In the case of Bertha the praise draws attention to her childishness, whereas in the case of Mrs. Ramsay it helps emphasize her competence and complexity. The same is true of the deep pleasure which Bertha and Mrs. Ramsay take in the success of their respective dinner parties. Bertha, despite thinking of her event as like a Tchekof play, is naïve and childlike in her response, whereas Mrs. Ramsay is regal. She is not diminished by her limited knowledge of Tolstoi.

Two more elements worth comparing are anxiety over late guests and the behaviour of the husbands. In “Bliss” the late guest is Pearl Fulton, the woman to whom Bertha is so strongly attracted. Also late is Harry, Bertha’s husband, and there is a strong possibility that there is a link between his tardiness and Pearl’s. Though they arrive separately, they may well have had an assignation prior to the dinner party. Perhaps Virginia was playing with this possibility when she makes her newly engaged lovers the late arrivals at Mrs. Ramsay’s party. Since Harry is mockingly referred to as a biblical bridegroom, replacing him with a real bridegroom would be a natural and subversive thing to do. Paul and Minta may well be intended as a playful recasting of Pearl and Harry.

Similarly, Mr Ramsay’s angry response to Mr. Carmichael’s soup eating and Mrs. Ramsay’s concern that “everybody could see” may be a reworking of Harry’s caustic comments about Pearl, and about Bertha’s ensuing concern that Pearl has felt his rudeness. The difference is that Mrs. Ramsay’s primary concern is for her husband, for the way in which he might be publicly betraying himself, whereas Bertha is worried on behalf of her guest. Mrs. Ramsay’s worries are all too real, but Bertha’s worries are misplaced, since Harry makes his comments to hide his liaison with Pearl.

Inevitably there are commonalities between all dinner parties—hard, for instance, not to have a dinner party without guests and food—and it is likely that Virginia did not intend all the parallels between Mrs. Ramsay’s and Bertha’s to be intentional. In fact, she may have deliberately shaded some of her details and descriptions so as to avoid overt comparisons and to keep Katherine’s words and ideas from bleeding into hers. For instance, important as the soup is in To the Lighthouse it is never identified, never seen as “beautiful red soup” or “eternal” tomato soup. Also, the details and symbolic force of Mrs. Ramsay dressing for the party and putting on jewellery differ markedly from Bertha doing the same thing. Katherine deliberately calls attention to the way in which Bertha’s jade necklace and white dress evoke the pear tree. Virginia, on the other hand, never tells us the colour of Mrs. Ramsay’s dress, nor do we ever find out if Rose picks the gold, opal or amethyst necklace out for her. Virginia’s symbolism here, if symbolism it is, is much more covert and lies much more with Rose than with Mrs. Ramsay.

Like Katherine, however, Woolf deliberately calls attention to the symbolic force of the pear tree. When Lily, by a painful effort of concentration, lodges the scrubbed kitchen table in the branches of the pear tree, she sees the table as a “symbol of her profound respect for Mr. Ramsay’s mind.” For the reader, this is also a direct invitation to consider the pear tree as symbol. The masculine force of the table enhances the feminine force of the pear tree. Lily and the tree are united in holding and sustaining the table. Men depend upon women to sustain them. Lily’s pear tree is another manifestation of the fountain of female sympathy which Mr. Ramsay needs and demands to make fertile his barrenness. In Word of Mouth, Patricia Moran gives a detailed reading of the gendered use which Katherine makes of the pear tree, and many of her insights could equally apply to To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Ramsay. Even on a simple descriptive level, Katherine and Virginia’s pear trees are extremely close in appearance, with Mansfield’s tree being “silvery as Miss Fulton,” and the bark of Virginia’s described as “silver-bossed.”

The most striking similarity between “Bliss” and To the Lighthouse lies in the fruit bowl centre pieces. In “Bliss” Bertha artistically arranges “pyramids” of pears, apples, nectarines and grapes in a glass dish and a purple bowl. She has even bought the grapes to “tone in with the new dining room carpet,” and her arranging efforts are so successful that “the dark table seemed to melt into the dusky light and the glass dish and the blue bowl to float in the air.” In To the Lighthouse, Rose is the artist, and her festive arrangement makes use of grapes, pears, bananas, and a sea shell. She uses only one dish—not identified—and the arrangement, despite all the Egyptian references in the novel, is not described as pyramidal. The effect is Greek rather than Egyptian. As with the soup, an easy deliberate parallel is eschewed.

The importance of the centre pieces in “Bliss” and To the Lighthouse goes beyond their appearance and description. In both works, the taking of fruit is marked as important. In “Bliss”, Bertha experiences an apparent moment of silent communion with Miss Fulton when the latter takes a tangerine from the display. In To the Lighthouse, Mrs Ramsay and Augustus Carmichael are united in feasting their eyes on the fruit and in looking together. Their silent interaction differs from Pearl and Bertha’s in that there is no sexual undercurrent between Mrs. Ramsay and Augustus, and significantly neither touches the fruit. Later, though, Mrs. Ramsay is upset when an anonymous hand reaches out and takes a pear. Very possibly the anonymous hand is a male one, belonging perhaps to Jasper or Charles Tansley .

If, as I obviously do, one accepts the “Bliss” echoes in To the Lighthouse as deliberate, two major insights are generated by contrasting the ways in which Virginia and Katherine describe the taking of the fruit. The first insight is that in “Bliss” taking a tangerine rather than a pear is foreshadowing of sorts. Pearl’s choice of the tangerine is the true “sign” in the story, not her later question about the garden. Pearl’s not choosing the pear, the female fruit, subliminally prepares the reader for her not choosing Bertha, even if Bertha misses the significance of the choice. Virginia’s rewriting of the choice shines a strong light on Katherine’s fruit symbolism, even if, in Virginia’s version, the taking of the pear is an act of despoliation, a kind of rape which ravishes Rose’s work of art and upsets Mrs. Ramsay.

Second, Virginia is interested in the idea of silent communion and wanted to establish an equivalence between Bertha and Pearl and Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Carmichael. The way in which Bertha guesses Pearl’s mood “so exactly and so instantly” as Pearl holds the nectarine is reworked in the description of Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Carmichael feasting their eyes on the fruit and the way “looking together united them.” This communion between Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Carmichael is revisited later in the novel when this time it is Lily and Mr. Carmichael who share a silent moment. The parallel to the earlier scene is established by the way in which Mr. Carmichael’s pagan sea god appearance reminds the reader of how “Rose’s arrangement of the grapes and pears, of the horny pink-lined shell, of the bananas”, made Mrs. Ramsay “think of a trophy fetched from the bottom of the sea, of Neptune’s banquet”.

Silent or wordless communications in Virginia’s novels in general, and in To the Lighthouse in particular, has been noted and commented upon by various critics and thinkers. In Fiction and Repetition J Hillis Miller, focusing primarily on Mrs Dalloway, discusses how characters “may have some kind of intimate knowledge of one another”, “partly because they share the same memories and so respond in the same way to the same cues, each knowing what the other must be thinking, but it seems also to be an unreflective openness of one mind to another, a kind of telepathic insight.” Similarly, in her brilliant “The Window: Knowledge of Other Minds in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse”, Martha Nussbaum does a wonderful job of analyzing how Virginia explores “the problem of access to the other”, given that language is “a very imperfect instrument of understanding”. In her analysis, Nussbaum focuses on the silent communication between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, on their accomplishments “as fine readers of one another’s words, gestures, and actions,” Parsing this silent communication and the resulting accomplishments, Nussbaum concludes that To the Lighthouse demonstrates how “by working patiently to defeat shame, selfish anxiety, and the desire for power, it is sometimes possible for some people to get knowledge of one thing or another thing about some other people; and they can sometimes allow one thing or another thing about themselves to be known.”

In their explorations of silent communication, neither Miller nor Nussbaum look at the silent communication which Mr. Carmichael and Mrs Ramsay establish while looking at the fruit, or the silent echo (what other kind of echo could silent communication have?) of that communication between Mr. Carmichael and Lily at the end of the novel. Patricia Laurence in The Reading of Silence: Virginia Woolf in the English Tradition and Angela Hague in Fiction, Intuition, & Creativity: Studies in Brontë, James, Woolf, and Lessing are similarly silent about the communication found between Mr. Carmichael and Mrs. Ramsay or Mr. Carmichael and Lily, this despite the fact that these moments of communication, coming as they do between strangers, and with the second deliberately echoing the first, are far more mysterious and impressive than those which the Ramsays achieve. As Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Carmichael feast their eyes on the plate of fruit, Mrs. Ramsay recognizes that his way of looking is different from hers, yet “looking together united them.” It is at this moment that the party coalesces and gels, and an oasis of order is established. Similarly, Lily has her vision and triumphs over the blur of the canvas just after her insight that she and Mr. Carmichael “had not needed to speak. They had been thinking the same things and he had answered her without her asking him anything.”

It seems to me that these two scenes in To the Lighthouse may find part of their inspiration in “Bliss” and also in the relationship between Katherine and Virginia. On the one hand, they are a retelling of the soup, fruit bowl, pear tree moments between Bertha and Pearl, even if those moments later become charged with the irony of likely misinterpretation and miscommunication; Bertha’s “bliss”, after all, is born of ignorance. On the other hand, the scenes and the ideas which they contain may also owe a lot to the intense, natural sympathy which Virginia, at times, seemed to feel between Katherine and herself. Some of Virginia’s ideas about silent communication may well been incubated by thoughts about how on talking about solitude she found Katherine “expressing my feelings, as I never heard them expressed” (D2, 44), how she felt that “to no one else can I talk in the same disembodied way about writing: without altering my thought more than I alter it in writing here. (I except L. from this.)” (D2, 45), or how “[s]ometimes we looked very steadfastly at each other, as though we had reached some durable relationship, independent of the changes of the body, through the eyes.” Strong personal feelings might lie behind Virginia’s negative reaction to “Bliss”, and To the Lighthouse, ending as it does with silent understanding between poet and artist is a rewriting of “Bliss” and a memorial and testament to some of what Virginia felt that she and Katherine shared.

[Virginia used square brackets to insert past moments into the present. I have need of square brackets to insert a future moment into the past. The future self typing these words into a previously posted blog is feeling rather smug. The insight about “strong personal feelings” has just found corroboration in Emily Midorakawa and Emma Claire Sweeney’s A Secret Sisterhood. Discussing “Bliss”, they write:

Virginia had yet to acknowledge what she would come to call her “Saphic” desires, but “Bliss” had clearly touched a raw nerve, vivifying something she could not yet name. It was hardly surprising that she should take the story personally since the character of Pearl Fulton shared some of her own most prominent qualities.

Back when Katherine had first shared a draft of the story with Murry, she’d admitted to basing some of the characters on people they both knew, warning him that he would recognize them as “fish out of the Garsington pond.” She had insisted, however, perhaps protesting too much, that Pearl Fulton was her “own invention”. And yet Pearl and Virginia were, in fact, strikingly similar, sharing the quality of icy aloofness. Like Pearl, Virginia was one of those pale, slender, beautiful women who had something strange about them,” capable “up to a certain point” of rare and wonderful candour, though “the certain point was there, and beyond that she would not go.” Even Pearl’s way of smiling and holding her head “a little on one side” is reminiscent of Katherine’s earlier depiction of Virginia in one of her letters to her friend, her head “a little on one side, smiling as though you knew some enchanting secret.”

Thank you Emily and Emma…and now I think I will let my past self continue on without further insertions]

I want to conclude by playing with one last possible Mansfield presence in To the Lighthouse. My contention is that this deep, powerful bond between Virginia and Katherine is referenced in the “Lighthouse” section of To the Lighthouse when Lily, mourning Mrs. Ramsay, thinks of her “raising to her forehead a wreath of white flowers; and then again, thinking how “[f]or days after she had heard of her death she had seen her thus, putting her wreath to her forehead and going unquestioningly with her companion, a shade across the fields.” The key word here is the word wreath. Words, remember, have a “suggestive power”, a strange “diabolic power” “to suggest the writer; his character, his appearance, his wife, his family, his house — even the cat on the hearthrug.” For Virginia, “wreath” carried a powerful association to Katherine’s “strange ghost.” In her diary entry for January 16th, 1923, writing a week after Katherine’s death, Virginia recorded a lengthy entry about Katherine, an entry which includes the following words:

“Then, as usual with me, visual impressions kept coming & coming before me—always of Katherine putting on a white wreath, & leaving us, called away; made dignified, chosen. And then one pitied her. And one felt her reluctant to wear that wreath, which was an ice cold one. And she was only 33.”

Later in the entry, Virginia again refers to the wreath and to the pity which she felt toward Katherine: “I no longer keep seeing her with her wreath. I don’t pity her so much. Yet I have the feeling that I shall think of her at intervals all through life. Probably we had something in common which I will never find in anyone else” (D2, 227). This last thought was again echoed in a March 2nd, 1923,sympathy letter sent to Dorothy Brett: “She gave me something no one else can.”

Remembering how Lily, remembering Mrs Ramsay, muses about the dead, how “one pitied them, one brushed them aside, one had even a little contempt for them,” and remembering too that in the penultimate paragraph of the novel Lily imagines Mr. Carmichael—a Pearl or Katherine figure to Lily’s Bertha or Virginia figure—letting fall “a wreath of violets and asphodels” I find it impossible not to read To the Lighthouse, in part at least, as one final tribute to Katherine Mansfield.

Layers upon layers. My thought of Mr. Carmichael as a Pearl or Katherine figure to Lily’s Bertha or Virginia figure is deepened by remembering that for Virginia Mr. Carmichael was also a Meredith figure (See blog #210). Thinking of her friendship and rivalry with Katherine, Virginia would also have been thinking of her father and George Meredith.



1) Word of Mouth: Body Language in Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf (1996), Patricia Moran
2) Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf: A Personal and Professional Bond (1996), Nora Sellei
3) Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf: A Public of Two (1999), by Angela Smith
4) Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf (2018), edited by Kimber, Martin and Froula

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Blog #210 Meredith Housekeeping

I’ve just realized that I never posted a full blog version of the Meredith talk which I gave last year at the International Virginia Woolf Conference in Reading. Two slightly different expanded versions of that talk can be found at the following sites:

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Blog #209: The Lighthouses of Charles Baudelaire and Virginia Woolf

Les Phares

Rubens, fleuve d’oubli, jardin de la paresse,
Oreiller de chair fraîche où l’on ne peut aimer,
Mais où la vie afflue et s’agite sans cesse,
Comme l’air dans le ciel et la mer dans la mer;

Léonard de Vinci, miroir profond et sombre,
Où des anges charmants, avec un doux souris
Tout chargé de mystère, apparaissent à l’ombre
Des glaciers et des pins qui ferment leur pays;

Rembrandt, triste hôpital tout rempli de murmures,
Et d’un grand crucifix décoré seulement,
Où la prière en pleurs s’exhale des ordures,
Et d’un rayon d’hiver traversé brusquement;

Michel-Ange, lieu vague où l’on voit des Hercules
Se mêler à des Christs, et se lever tout droits
Des fantômes puissants qui dans les crépuscules
Déchirent leur suaire en étirant leurs doigts;

Colères de boxeur, impudences de faune,
Toi qui sus ramasser la beauté des goujats,
Grand coeur gonflé d’orgueil, homme débile et jaune,
Puget, mélancolique empereur des forçats;

Watteau, ce carnaval où bien des coeurs illustres,
Comme des papillons, errent en flamboyant,
Décors frais et légers éclairés par des lustres
Qui versent la folie à ce bal tournoyant;

Goya, cauchemar plein de choses inconnues,
De foetus qu’on fait cuire au milieu des sabbats,
De vieilles au miroir et d’enfants toutes nues,
Pour tenter les démons ajustant bien leurs bas;

Delacroix, lac de sang hanté des mauvais anges,
Ombragé par un bois de sapins toujours vert,
Où, sous un ciel chagrin, des fanfares étranges
Passent, comme un soupir étouffé de Weber;

Ces malédictions, ces blasphèmes, ces plaintes,
Ces extases, ces cris, ces pleurs, ces Te Deum,
Sont un écho redit par mille labyrinthes;
C’est pour les coeurs mortels un divin opium!

C’est un cri répété par mille sentinelles,
Un ordre renvoyé par mille porte-voix;
C’est un phare allumé sur mille citadelles,
Un appel de chasseurs perdus dans les grands bois!

Car c’est vraiment, Seigneur, le meilleur témoignage
Que nous puissions donner de notre dignité
Que cet ardent sanglot qui roule d’âge en âge
Et vient mourir au bord de votre éternité!

— Charles Baudelaire

Previous blogs have connected Virginia’s lighthouse to lighthouses owned or described by Stopford Brooke, E. M. Forster, Christina Rosetti, Sir Walter Scott, and Marie Carmichael Stopes, to name only some. Today’s blog adds Baudelaire to Virginia’s list of lighthouse prototype contributors.

Scholars such as Janet Wolff and Lauren Elkin have on occasion referred to Virginia Woolf as a flaneuse or female flaneur. Do Baudelaire’s lighthouses flash somewhere behind Virginia’s? Concrete proof is lacking. In none of her known letters or diaries is Baudelaire mentioned. None of the novels or essays contain overt references to him.

All the same indirect evidence is strong. In the Pullman Washington Woolf Library collection is an 1890 Calmann Levy edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, with an L W inscription. There is also a copy of a translation of René Laforgue’s The Defeat of Baudelaire: A Psycho-analytical Study of the Neuroses of Charles Baudelaire published by the Hogarth Press in 1932. Even if Virginia Woolf read neither of these books, with her omniverous reading habits and her strong interest in French literature she could not not have known about Baudelaire. She would also have encountered direct traces of him in works such as Hope Mirlees’ “Paris” and T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” Conversation, too, would likely have led to Baudelaire. Eliot wrote at least two essays about Baudelaire, one in 1991 and the other in 1931, saying, among much else, that “Baudelaire is indeed the greatest exemplar in modern poetry in any language, for his verse and language is the nearest thing to a complete renovation that we have experienced.” Given his admiration for Baudelaire and Virginia’s constant curiosity it is hard to imagine Thomas Stearnes Eliot and Virginia not talking about Baudelaire.

An even likelier partner in Baudelaire conversation would have been Roger Fry. For one thing, it was to Fry, on May 27th, 1927, that Virginia wrote:

I meant nothing by The Lighthouse. One has to have a central line down the middle of the book to hold the design together. I saw that all sorts of feelings would accrue to this, but I refused to think them out, and trusted that people would make it the deposit for their own emotions—which they have done, one thinking it means one thing another another. I can’t manage Symbolism except in this vague, generalised way. Whether its right or wrong I don’t know, but directly I’m told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me. (L3:385)

Interestingly, Symbolism is capitalized, which may mean that Baudelaire and the Symbolists were on her mind. In the same letter, Virginia told Fry that she had originally intended to dedicate To the Lighthouse to him, but that modesty, awe and reticence had held her back. She had felt To the Lighthouse to be too bad a book to dedicate to someone as great as Fry. He was, however, the one who “more than anyone” had kept her “on the right path, so far as writing goes.” He was, as it were, one of her lighthouses.

In her letter, Virginia was presumably responding to a letter from Roger, but Roger’s letter has not survived. What has survived, however, is Roger’s Transformations, a collection of essays which, like To the Lighthouse, was published in 1927. One of the essays in that collection, an essay titled “Fra Bartolommeo” begins with a reference to Baudelaire’s poem:

Baudelaire compared the great names in art to lighthouses posted along the track of historic time. The simile, as he used it, seizes the imagination and represents a great truth, but it allows of an interpretation which the limits of a sonnet form forbade him to develop. He takes the lights of his beacons as much for granted as the sailor does the lights of real lighthouses. But the lighthouses of art do not burn with so fixed and unvarying a lustre. The light they give is always changing insensibly with each generation, now brighter, now dimmer, and often enough growing bright once more. But we sometimes forget that the lights have to be tended or they grow faint and may expire altogether. For them to burn brightly, they must be fed by the devotion of some few spirits in each generation. If that fails for a long period they go out and become one of those dead, ineffectual names which still linger on, obstructions rather than aids to the historical voyager.

This opening paragraph goes a long way to explaining why Fry would have been so interested in what Virginia meant by her lighthouse. He, almost certainly, have interpreted her lighthouse in Baudelairean terms.

Searching for traces of Baudelaire’s lighthouses inside of Virginia’s has made me realize how often Virginia thought of lighthouses. Not only are there lighthouses in all four of the novels which precede To the Lighthouse, lighthouses are also visible in The Common Reader, in Orlando and even in The Waves. Not surprisingly, these various lighthouses vary considerably in impact and meaning.

In The Voyage Out, the lighthouse reference is brief and fleeting. The narrator reflects on a golden October so peaceful and calm that lovers have no need to murmur “Think of the ships to-night,” or “Thank Heaven, I’m not the man in the lighthouse!” The lighthouse here is presented as a place of danger, rather than as a protective beacon. From a To the Lighthouse perspective the passage is interesting because it implies empathy and concern for the lighthouse keeper, an important and sometimes overlooked element in the later novel.

In Night and Day, there are two lighthouse references, both more substantial than the one in The Voyage Out. The first occurs at the beginning of Chapter III, when the narrator, speculating about heredity and the intellectual brilliance of the Alardyces and the Hilberrys, muses:

They had sailed with Sir John Franklin to the North Pole, and ridden with Havelock to the Relief of Lucknow, and when they were not lighthouses firmly based on rock for the guidance of their generation, they were steady, serviceable candles, illuminating the ordinary chambers of daily life. Whatever profession you looked at, there was a Warburton or an Alardyce, a Millington or a Hilberry somewhere in authority and prominence.

Here the image, despite its ironic stance vis a vis the Hilberrys and the Alardyces, presents lighthouses in a positive light as sources of guidance and illumination.

The second lighthouse reference in Night and Day–much lengthier–is darker and more ambivalent. Late at night, Ralph, having confided his feelings of love for Katharine to Mary, walks the dark, stormy streets of London and has an unsatisfactory encounter with a unhappy, grievance-filled old man. Rather than being able to share his own turbulent feelings, he is forced instead to listen. The end of the encounter is described as follows:

The unhappy voice afflicted Ralph, but it also angered him. And when the elderly man refused to listen and mumbled on, an odd image came to his mind of a lighthouse besieged by the flying bodies of lost birds, who were dashed senseless, by the gale, against the glass. He had a strange sensation that he was both lighthouse and bird; he was steadfast and brilliant; and at the same time he was whirled, with all other things, senseless against the glass. He got up, left his tribute of silver, and pressed on, with the wind against him. The image of the lighthouse and the storm full of birds persisted, taking the place of more definite thoughts, as he walked past the Houses of Parliament and down Grosvenor Road, by the side of the river. In his state of physical fatigue, details merged themselves in the vaster prospect, of which the flying gloom and the intermittent lights of lamp-posts and private houses were the outward token, but he never lost his sense of walking in the direction of Katharine’s house. He took it for granted that something would then happen, and, as he walked on, his mind became more and more full of pleasure and expectancy. Within a certain radius of her house the streets came under the influence of her presence. Each house had an individuality known to Ralph, because of the tremendous individuality of the house in which she lived. For some yards before reaching the Hilberrys’ door he walked in a trance of pleasure, but when he reached it, and pushed the gate of the little garden open, he hesitated. He did not know what to do next. There was no hurry, however, for the outside of the house held pleasure enough to last him some time longer. He crossed the road, and leant against the balustrade of the Embankment, fixing his eyes upon the house.

Lights burnt in the three long windows of the drawing-room. The space of the room behind became, in Ralph’s vision, the center of the dark, flying wilderness of the world; the justification for the welter of confusion surrounding it; the steady light which cast its beams, like those of a lighthouse, with searching composure over the trackless waste. In this little sanctuary were gathered together several different people, but their identity was dissolved in a general glory of something that might, perhaps, be called civilization; at any rate, all dryness, all safety, all that stood up above the surge and preserved a consciousness of its own, was centered in the drawing-room of the Hilberrys. Its purpose was beneficent; and yet so far above his level as to have something austere about it, a light that cast itself out and yet kept itself aloof. Then he began, in his mind, to distinguish different individuals within, consciously refusing as yet to attack the figure of Katharine. His thoughts lingered over Mrs. Hilberry and Cassandra; and then he turned to Rodney and Mr. Hilberry. Physically, he saw them bathed in that steady flow of yellow light which filled the long oblongs of the windows; in their movements they were beautiful; and in their speech he figured a reserve of meaning, unspoken, but understood. At length, after all this half-conscious selection and arrangement, he allowed himself to approach the figure of Katharine herself; and instantly the scene was flooded with excitement. He did not see her in the body; he seemed curiously to see her as a shape of light, the light itself; he seemed, simplified and exhausted as he was, to be like one of those lost birds fascinated by the lighthouse and held to the glass by the splendor of the blaze.

The fascinating thing about this passage is its ambivalence. While the purpose of the lighthouse is beneficent, the lighthouse can also be a source of danger and death. For all their light–because of all their light–here is a dark and disturbing side to lighthouses, a siren side. Lighthouses, physical or metaphoric, can lure you into danger. Mr. Ramsay and the children must wait for safe conditions to make their journey; the shining example of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and many Victorian luminaries help light the way to WWI.

The Jacob’s Room lighthouse makes two spare and seemingly neutral appearances. There are, however, ominous undertones. It is first glimpsed through the tear filled eyes of Mrs. Flanders:

The entire bay quivered; the lighthouse wobbled; and she had the illusion that the mast of Mr. Connor’s little yacht was bending like a wax candle in the sun. She winked quickly. Accidents were awful things. She winked again. The mast was straight; the waves were regular; the lighthouse was upright; but the blot had spread.

The tears, the reference to an accident, and the way in which the ink blot seems to flow from the lighthouse all help make this first appearance of the lighthouse somewhat equivocal. The unease is further heightened when ” (the shadow of Archer, her eldest son, fell across the notepaper and looked blue on the sand, and she felt chilly—it was the third of September already).” From a To the Lighthouse perspective, this bracketed shadow is doubly interesting. First, the brackets stand as an early example of the unsettling, disjunctive technique which Virginia was to perfect in the “Time Passes” segment of To the Lighthouse. Secondly, Archer’s shadow on the page prefigures Mr. Carmichael’s shadow, that reminder of “the inadequacy of human relationships,” on the page of the book which Mrs. Ramsay is reading to James.

The lighthouse reappears again as Mrs. Flanders starts to drag the children away from the beach:

The wind was rising. The waves showed that uneasiness, like something alive, restive, expecting the whip, of waves before a storm. The fishing-boats were leaning to the water’s brim. A pale yellow light shot across the purple sea; and shut. The lighthouse was lit. “Come along,” said Betty Flanders. The sun blazed in their faces and gilded the great blackberries trembling out from the hedge which Archer tried to strip as they passed.

This passage, too, would not be tonally out of place in To the Lighthouse. The sea description seems to anticipate those connected to the Fisherman and his Wife. There is something ominous and troubling in the description of the waves as something alive, restive, uneasy. The sense of foreboding is augmented by the passage’s following upon the description of Jacob’s old sheep’s skull. You don’t have to be a zoologist to see Jacob’s lamb skull as a precursor of the To the Lighthouse ram’s skull which forms a bone of contention between Cam and Andrew.

In Mrs Dalloway there is only one lighthouse image, and that is a slightly gothic one, associated with Clarissa’s Aunt Helena Parry:

She was dead now. He had heard of her, from Clarissa, losing the sight of one eye. It seemed so fitting—one of nature’s masterpieces–that old Miss Parry should turn to glass. She would die like some bird in a frost gripping her perch. She belonged to a different age, but being so entire, so complete, would always stand up on the horizon, stone-white, eminent, like a lighthouse marking some past stage on this adventurous, long, long voyage, this interminable (he felt for a copper to buy a paper and read about Surrey and Yorkshire–he had held out that copper millions of times. Surrey was all out once more.)—this interminable life.

Though Peter thinks of Aunt Helena as dead, she is still very much alive and late in the novel, glass eye and all, will talk to Peter about her book on the orchids of Burma. Her life really does appear to be interminable, and this curious pseudo-resurrection as a still living published author makes her earlier association with a lighthouse all the more playful and whimsical. When I reach back and bring Aunt Helena’s lighthouse aspect forward into the future of To the Lighthouse, whimsy and playfulness linger, along with a strong dose of irony. Very possibly Virginia was thinking about Aunt Helena when she had James think of the old ladies. Aunt Helena is no Mrs. Beckwith, and her glassy, eminent ghost flashes sharply against James’s crystallizing masculine certainties.

After Aunt Helena, the next lighthouse image to appear in Virginia’s writings occurs in her 1923 Nation & Athenaeum essay, “Laetitia Pilkington,” an essay which, very slightly revised, was later bundled up with “Taylors and Edgeworths” and “Miss Ormerod” to make up “The Lives of the Obscure” tryptich in The Common Reader (1925). The Common Reader passage reads as follows:

But memories of great men are no infallible specific. They fall upon the race of life like beams from a lighthouse. They flash, they shock, they reveal, they vanish. To remember Swift was of little avail to Laetitia when the troubles of life came thick about her.

Again, as in Mrs. Dalloway, lighthouses are associated with people, though here rather than someone like the relatively obscure Aunt Helena the people referred to are eminent ones. Interestingly, too, the passage goes on to make the point that lighthouses do not necessarily offer protection against the hardships and difficulties of life. Laetitia’s memories of her friend and patron the great Dean Swift do not save her from a squalid end.

Lighthouses appear in two more books written after To the Lighthouse: Orlando and The Waves. In Orlando, there is the following lighthouse passage:

Rather it resembles the lighthouse in its working, which sends one ray and then no more for a time; save that genius is much more capricious in its manifestations and may flash six or seven beams in quick succession (as Mr Pope did that night) and then lapse into darkness for a year or for ever. To steer by its beams is therefore impossible, and when the dark spell is on them men of genius are, it is said, much like other people.

Again, lighthouse are associate with eminent men, and again the intermittent light given off by those eminent men offers no lasting protection against danger.

Finally, in The Waves there is the following passage:

I will plant a lighthouse here, a head of Sweet Alice. And I will now rock the brown basin from side to side so that my ships may ride the waves. Some will founder. Some will dash themselves against the cliffs. One sails alone. That is my ship.

Here lighthouses no longer link to genius of to great men. Rather the emphasis is on survival. Rhoda’s thoughts link lighthouse to Sweet Alice or Alyssum, a seaside plant renowned for its hardiness, and, given that it was once thought to cure rabies, perhaps for its sanity.

Baudelaire or not, even if Virginia” meant nothing by The Lighthouse” lighthouses meant many things to her.

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Blog #208: To the Lighthouse From An Island, Anny Thackeray’s Freshwater Lighthouse

A second Isle of Wight epiphany. This time not in Dimbola, but four hundred yards away in the picturesque, thatch roofed church of St. Agnes. On the east wall of the church is a simple plaque which reads: “In loving memory of ANNE ISABELLA RITCHIE, wife of SIR RICHMOND RITCHIE, K.C.B.I.S.O, DAUGHTER OF William Makepeace Thackeray. Her writing reveals the inheritance of genius. Her life the inspiration of loving kindness. Born June 9th 1837. Died February 26th 1919.” The plaque gives a joltingly concrete reality to a fact I may or may not have half known—Virginia’s Aunt Anny lived on the Isle of Wight.

Strictly speaking, Aunt Anny was Virginia’s step-aunt and not her aunt. Not just the daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray, she was also the sister of Minnie Thackeray, Leslie Stephen’s first wife, and accordingly her life became deeply entwined with that of the Stephen family. Even after Minnie died, Aunt Anny, despite conflicts with Leslie, continued to maintain close contact with the family. Marriage to her much younger cousin, Richmond Ritchie, physically separated her from Leslie’s household, but throughout her life she remained an integral part of the Stephen family. When the grieving Stephen family spent August of 1895 in Freshwater, they likely did so with the encouragement and support of Anny. Anny had bought a Dimbola cottage, “the Porch,” when Julia Margaret Cameron had moved back to Sri Lanka in 1875, and she was always quick to share this with family and friends. Left to his own devices, Leslie likely would not have chosen Freshwater as a summer retreat. It was already a place which contained too many painful memories. As he wrote to his friend Charles Eliot Norton, “This place (Freshwater) is not very attractive to me, even apart from the circumstances, wh. make me feel just now as if I should look back to it with a shudder. I used to come here during my first marriage, when Mrs Cameron occupied the house.”

Anny herself had first formed her deep attachment to Freshwater shortly after the death of her father in 1863. On Thackeray’s death she and her sister went to stay there with Julia Margaret Cameron, and they quickly fell in love with this place where there was, as Anny wrote, “nothing but poets and painters everywhere and all gold and delicious over the hill.” It was on this healing visit to Freshwater that Anny deepened the family friendship with Tennyson and his family. The St. Agnes plaque bears testimony to the depth and longevity of the friendship, as it was commissioned and partly written by Hallam Tennyson, a man who, like Anny, knew what it was to have the responsibilities and burdens of having a literary giant as a father.

Anny and Minnie had had a Dickensian childhood, both metaphorically and literally. Because of mental illness, their mother was put into private care when Anny was only three (Anny would write to and regularly visit her mother until the latter’s death fifty four years later), and the children were raised by their father, with the help of family friends, governesses and also Thackeray’s mother who, with her second husband, lived in Paris. Included among the family friends were the Brownings, the Camerons, the Carlyles, the Tennyson’s and the Dickens family, and Anny was to built lifelong friendships with all of them. Central to her childhood, however, was her father, who took an intense delight in raising his daughters, frequently took them on his European travels and to plays and art galleries in London and Paris, and who, as Anny grew older, encouraged her reading and writing and made her a more than willing secretary and scribe. He provided loving, positive mentorship, and actively helped her to publish her first piece in Cornhill magazine.

It is hard to exaggerate Anny’s importance to Virginia, both as an aunt and as a writer. “Lovable, and even touching in her extreme good nature and erratic spontaneity,” as her eventual friend Henry James once described her, she provided an important family antidote to Leslie Stephen’s occasionally cross-grained and self-absorbed behaviour. Despite clashes with her, Leslie himself described her as “the most sympathetic person I ever knew…able to sympathize quickly with the feelings of all manner of people, to throw herself into their interests and thoughts and even for a time adopt their opinions.” Virginia said of her that “to embrace oddities and produce a charming, laughing harmony from incongruities was her genius in life and letters.” Loving, lively, caring, confident, and unconventional, Anny was the perfect aunt for Virginia, all the more so because both of them shared the early loss of a mother and both received the bulk of their early literary education from their fathers. Moreover, as a successful professional writer, Anny provided a powerful example and role model and example for Virginia.

Virginia’s awareness and acknowledgment of Anny’s influence took a variety of forms. In “Blackstick Papers” (1908), “Lady Ritchie” (1919) and “The Enchanted Organ” (1924), Virginia directly acknowledged and celebrated what she called her aunt’s “whimsical and capricious genius.” In Night and Day, she gave Anny a cameo role as Mrs. Hilberry, a character supposedly described by Katherine Mansfield as “that “charming amateur of every pleasant thing, with her amiability, her ineffective brilliance, her sweetness of soul”. According to Carol Hanbery Mackay (Creative Negativity: Four Victorian Exemplars of the Female Quest, 2001), Virginia also learned a lot from Anny’s biographical writings and she and Anny shared many of the same subjects, such as the Edgeworths, Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, Mary Russell Mitford, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Also, in Virginia Woolf’s Influential Forebears: Julia Margaret Cameron, Anny Thackeray Ritchie and Julia Prinsep Stephen (2015), Marion Dell suggests “Toilers and Spinsters”–an essay in which Anny uses a “playful, digressive narrative voice” to suggest that the real problem for spinsters is “a want of adequate means”–as a significant influence on A Room of One’s Own

Before looking at how Anny’s writing might have sparked elements of To the Lighthouse, I will mention one other Anny book which demonstrably influenced Virginia. In Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women by Julia Cameron (1926), a book compiled and published while Virginia was working on To the Lighthouse, she very closely followed the structure and format of Anny’s Alfred, Lord Tennyson and his friends : a series of 25 portraits … in photogravure from the negatives of Mrs. J. M. Cameron and H. H. H. Cameron, an 1893 book which contained reminiscences by Anny and a brief introduction by H. H. Hay Cameron, Julia’s son. The book compiled by Virginia and Roger Fry contains 24 photographs instead of the 25 in the one compiled by Anny and H H Cameron. Like Anny’s essay in Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Woolf’s essay in Victorian Photographs is biographical rather than technical or critical. The biggest difference between the two books is that the one which Anny helped publish contains about twice as many of H. H. Hay Cameron’s photographs than it does of his mother’s. Of the 25 photographs only 8 are by Julia Margaret Cameron. Additionally, only one of the 25 photographs has a woman as a subject, and that photograph, also by Julia, is of Anny Thackeray Ritchie. All of the photographs in Virginia’s book are by Mrs. Cameron, yet the Anny Thackeray Ritchie one is not included. On the other hand, ten of the photographs include women or girls, and two of those photographs are of Mrs. Leslie Stephen (Mrs. Herbert Duckworth), Virginia’s mother.

Finally, at this point I want to explore the notion that Virginia’s 1926 engagement with Aunt Anny also extended to using elements of the latter’s 1877 novel, From an Island, in To the Lighthouse. To the Lighthouse can be read as containing a veiled tribute to Anny, even if the uses made of From an Island are superficial. From an Island is not Anna Karenina, and consequently Virginia’s treatment Anny’s novel differs markedly from what she does with Tolstoy’s novel. From an Island is a novel of impressions, a novel primarily of gentle moods and moving sunsets. The plot is frail and flimsy and there is little intellectual depth. The possible death of young husband in Brazil, and an uncertain yet ultimately successful courtship seem to exist only for the purpose of displaying the beauty of the ordinary. What intrigues and delights is the lyrical sketching of weather, the play of sunlight and shadow on the landscape, and the lovely ordinariness of a small circle of family and friends enjoying the simple pleasures of daily life in their quiet country retreat.

Despite the relative simplicity of From an Island, there are an impressive number of similarities between it and To the Lighthouse. To the fact that both novels center on a domestic oasis, one can add that both novels have strong biographical elements. Just as the Ramsay household is rooted in the personalities of the Stephen family and friendship circle in St. Ives, so the St. Julian household mirrors the extended Cameron household in Freshwater. The St. Julians are mutations of the Camerons, Lord Ulleskelf is easily recognizable as Tennyson, and Queenie, the narrator, is a version of Anny. The situation and state of the St. Julian family is very like that of the Ramsay family, though sketched without the depth and thematic complexities which Virginia achieves in her portrayal of the latter.

One major element that both novels have in common is the presence of a strongly symbolic beacon or lighthouse (even if Virginia disingenuously denied meaning anything by her lighthouse), a major landmark which children are attracted to and to which, in both novels, visits are thwarted because of the weather. In From an Island we are told that the lives of the children “were one perpetual struggle to reach” the beacon, and still later a hoped for before-breakfast-visit fails because of rain. However, towards the end of the novel, a successful visit is made to the beacon when Emily, distraught at the likely death of her husband, flees to its bleak yet protective presence. Interestingly, just as Virginia’s lighthouse is modeled in part on Godrevy lighthouse of St. Ives, Anny’s lighthouse is modeled on the Nodes Beacon, a major landmark which in 1897, two years after the visit of the Stephen family to Freshwater, was replaced by the Tennyson Beacon, the 37 foot, Cornish granite, Ionian cross which marks Tennyson’s favourite spot on the Downs.

The From an Island beacon is given additional significance by being the subject of a vaguely ominous painting by St. Julian, a painting so disturbing to his wife and daughter that the picture is put away and for two years “lies forgotten in a closet.” The parallels between this picture and the one painted by Lily are heightened not just by Lily’s musings about her picture “rolled up and flung under a sofa” but also by the fact that both Lily’s and St. Julian’s picture are also mother and child paintings. St. Julian’s painting of his wife and daughter finds its counterpart in Lily’s painting of Mrs. Ramsay and her son. Even though Mrs Cameron was an extremely successful artistic photographer, Anny denied her Mrs. Cameron character any artistic capability, preferring to reassign her talents to St. Julian and to young Hexham, the photographer. Read against From an Island, Virginia’s assigning the role of artist to Lily redresses Anny’s authorial silencing of Mrs. Cameron’s pioneering accomplishments.

Many other elements in From an Island have counterparts in To the Lighthouse. The emphasis on windows, for instance. Just as with the Ramsays, the activities of the St. Julian family are repeatedly glimpsed through windows. “The Lodges,” as the narrator reports, “seem built for pretty live pictures; and the mistress’s room, most specially of all the rooms in the house, is a peep-show to see them from.” Also, there are strong correspondences between Mr. and Mrs. St. Julien and Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. Like Mr. Ramsay, St. Julien, “active and mighty in his kingdom,” can be irascible and “admirably” impatient with old acquaintances. Like Mrs. Ramsay, Mrs. St. Julian exhausts herself trying to meet her husband’s needs and those of the extended family, “doing too much for her own strength.” And, just as Lily, in the company of Mr. Bankes, glimpses Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay as a “symbolical” couple, so too does Hexham, in the company of the narrating housekeeper Mrs. Campbell, glimpse Mr. and Mrs. St. Julian arm in arm “standing at the threshold of their home,” and wish to make a photographic picture of them.

One last parallel. Tansley’s attack on Walter Scott has a clear antecedent in From an Island. Late in Anny’s novel, there is a sharp clash between Hexham, the young photographer, and St. Julian, the pater-familias. After St. Julian reads part of Wordsworth’s “London, 1802” to the assembled family circle, Hexham–off balance because of his courtship difficulties and “possessed by what the French call l’esprit moqueur”–responds by saying “I hate Wordsworth. He is always preaching.” Upset, St. Julian dryly answers, “ I am sorry for you” and goes on to say “I have never been able to read this passage of Wordsworth without emotion since I was a boy, and first found it in my school-books.” The clash between the young man and his future father-in-law is a sharp one, yet there are no further repercussions.

When we refer the Tansley incident to the Hexham one, it is immediately evident that Virginia has moved the conflict from the personal to the philosophical. Hexham clashes with St. Julien largely because he is off balance because of his courtship difficulties. Virginia could have duplicated that motive by assigning the Hexham position to Paul Rayley, who like Hexham is an unsettled young suitor “subject to the most barbaric of human passions.” Instead, by using Tansley she puts the emphasis on the teacher student relationship and on cultural transmission–the theme implicit, yet unexplored, in Anny’s choice of Wordsworth’s Miltonic sonnet. Whereas the master disciple relationship is barely evident in the From an Island clash—even though earlier in the novel Hexham gives credit to St. Julian’s artistic influence for the striking success of his photograph—it is central to Virginia’s novel. Through Tansley, and particularly through his attack on Walter Scott, Virginia foregrounds the master disciple relationship and the way in which the past is altered and revalued as it is taken up by the future. To see Virginia as a Hexham to Anny’s St. Julian adds delightful layers of playfulness and complexity to the subject.

Closing thought: prepositions matter. Virginia’s “To” pushes against Anny’s “From”. Was Virginia aware of this when she settled on her title? While To the Lighthouse is every bit as much about “from” as From an Island—indeed, more so—it is also far more aspirational. Anny is content with the past and celebrates it. Virginia, too, celebrates it, yet she also interrogates it and battles against it and works to change it. “To” matters for her in a way in which it doesn’t for Anny. Anny was at peace with the past and did not need to come to terms with her father or with her country. Virginia did. Hers was no passive vision. She wanted to understand the past and to improve the future. Passive acceptance was not enough. “From” was a means by which to reach “to.”

They were all strolling along the cliffs towards the beacon. It stood upon the summit of High Down, a long way off as yet, though it seemed close at hand, so clearly did it stand out in the still atmosphere of the sunset. It stood there stiff and black upon its knoll, an old weather-beaten stick with a creaking coop for a crown, the pivot round which most of this little story turns. For when these holiday people travelled away out of its reach, they also passed out of my ken. We could see the beacon from most of our windows, through all the autumnal clematis and ivy sprays falling and drifting about. The children loved the beacon, and their little lives were one perpetual struggle to reach it, in despite of winds, of time of meals, of tutors and lessons. The elders, too, loved it after their fashion. Had they not come and established themselves under the shadow of High Down, where it had stood as long as the oldest inhabitant could remember! Lord Ulleskelf, in his yacht out at sea, was always glad to see the familiar old stubby finger rising up out of the mist. My cousin, St. Julian the R.A., had made a strange rough sketch of it, and of his wife and her eldest daughter sitting beneath it; and a sea, and a cloud horizon, grey, green, mysterious beyond. He had painted a drapery over their heads, and young Emilia’s arms round the stem. It was a terrible little picture Emilia the mother thought when she saw it, and she begged her husband to turn its face to the wall in his studio.

“Don’t you see how limpid the water is, and how the mist is transparent and drifting before the wind?” St. Julian said. “Why do you object, you perverse woman?”

The wife didn’t answer, but her soft cheeks flushed. Emilia the daughter spoke, a little frightened.

“They are like mourners,” papa, she whispered.

St. Julian shrugged his shoulders at them. “And this is a painter’s wife!” he cried; “and a painter’s daughter!” But he put the picture away, for he was too tender to pain them, and it lay now forgotten in a closet. This was two years ago, before Emilia was married, or had come home with her little son during her husband’s absence. She was carrying the child in her arms as she toiled up the hill in company with the others, a tender bright flush in her face. Her little Bevis thinks it is he who is carrying “Mozzer,” as he clutches her tight round the neck with his two little arms.

I suppose nobody ever reached the top of a high cliff without some momentary feeling of elation, so much left behind, so much achieved. There you stand at peace, glowing with exertion, raised far above the din of the world. They were gazing as they came along (for it is only of an island that I am writing) at the great sight of shining waters, of smiling fertile fields and country; and of distant waters again, that separated them from the pale glimmering coast of the mainland. The straits, which lie between the island and Broadshire, are not deserted as is the horizon on the other side (it lies calm, and tossing, and self-sufficing); but the straits are crowded and alive with boats and white sails: ships go sliding past, yachts drift, and great brigs slowly travel in tow of the tiny steamer that crosses and recrosses the water with letters and provisions, and comers and goers and guests to Ulles Hall and to the Lodges, where St. Julian and his family live all through the summer-time; and where some of us indeed remain the whole year round.

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Blog #207: Wight Skye: Seeing Isle to Isle in To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse
has changed yet again. Nothing is simply one thing. This time, travel, not reading, has re-visioned the book. A summer visit to the Isle of Wight has, breathtakingly, blindingly, opened new tunnels and reconfigured old ones. How to convey the excitement? How to share my wonder? Beneath the Isle of Skye, beneath St. Ives blazes the Isle of Wight. The suspicions raised by reading Lawrence’s The Trespasser harden into certainty. Virginia’s Isle of Skye encompasses the Isle of Wight, as well as St. Ives. Isle to Isle: the doors in my mind quiver and shiver, swing to and fro with excitement. Nothing is simply one thing.

In the entry room of the Dimbola Museum is a photograph which starkly brings to life the circumstances of Virginia’s first visit to Freshwater. The photograph is one of a young Vanessa wearing a mourning sash. Vanessa is absorbed in reading a book, a book whose title cannot be made out. Her lips are pursed, her brow is wide, and her face seems impassive. Did Virginia take the photograph, I wonder. Though the photograph is of Vanessa, everything about it speaks to me of Virginia. The photograph is a portal into the past. “Virginia!” I cry, “Virginia!”

When Julia Stephen died in May of 1895, Leslie Stephen could not face taking the family to Talland House in St. Ives, and instead he took his children to the Isle of Wight for part of the summer. The August beaches of Freshwater were where the thirteen year old Virginia mourned and sought comfort for the loss both of her mother and St. Ives. I see her, anguished, yet numbed. I see her mourning and playing. Thirteen years old. Mother dead, St. Ives lost. Yet the beauty of the beaches, the cliffs and the downs. Explorations. Excitement. Family. I see her binding past and present, reaching towards the future.

A blinding flash. To visit Dimbola and to see Vanessa’s photograph, a photograph possibly taken by Virginia, is to glimpse how likely it is that Freshwater Bay and surroundings melded with St. Ives landscape in Virginia Woolf’s imagination. Despite substantial differences between the Tennyson inspired resort town of Freshwater and what was then the fishing village of St. Ives, the underlying geography of the two localities was and is remarkably similar. To walk from Farringdon down Bedford Lane, past the Orchard Brother’s grocery store, still owned by descendants of Anny Thackeray Ritchie’s maid, past the Church of St. Agnes, past Dimbola, and then down the hill to Freshwater Bay is to experience a Mrs. Ramsay moment where you can not help exclaiming “Oh, how beautiful!” at the great plateful of blue water before you. The downs, sprawling beyond “with the wild flowing grasses on them,” do a good imitation of “moon country, uninhabited of men” and all that is missing is the Godrevy lighthouse.

There is no record in Virginia’s diaries, letters or essays of the family’s stay on the Isle of Wight. I’ve only been able to find one written trace of that painful, long ago summer, and that trace lies in the “Reminiscence” sketch published in Moments of Being. In the sketch Virginia writes:

“That summer, after some hot months in London, we spent in Freshwater; and the heat there in the low bay, brimming as it seemed with soft vapours and luxuriant with lush plants, mixes, like smoke, with other memories of hot rooms and silence, and an atmosphere all choked with too luxuriant feelings, so that one had at times a physical need of ruthless barbarism and fresh air. Stella herself looked like the white flower of some teeming hot-house, for a change had come over her that seemed terribly symbolical. Never did anyone look so pale. And yet unexpected as it might seem, but still was most natural, the first impulse to set us free came from your grandfather; it came and went again. On a walk perhaps he would suddenly brush aside all our curiously conventional relationships, and show us for a minute an inspiriting vision of free life, bathed in an impersonal light. There were numbers of things to be learnt, books to be read, and success and happiness were to be attained there without disloyalty. Indeed it seemed possible at these moments, to continue the old life but in a more significant way, using as he told us, our sorrow to quicken the feeling that remained. But such exaltations doubtless depended for their endurance upon a closer relationship than age made possible. We were too young, and for sympathy that required less effort, he had to turn to others, whose difference of blood and temperament, made it harder for them to recognize as we did—by glimpses—his most urgent need. Beautiful was he at such moments; simple and eager as a child; and exquisitely alive to all affection; exquisitely tender. We would have helped him then if we could, given him all we had, and felt it little beside his need—but the moment passed.”

Other than the “physical need of ruthless barbarism and fresh air”, there is little here of how much the bay, the sand, the rocks and the cliffs of Freshwater and Wight would have renewed and extended the memories of St. Ives and Cornwall. There is no sense of the strong geographic similarities between the two locations; nor is there a clear glimpse Virginia and her siblings swimming, clambering over rocks, or exploring tidal pools. What there is, however, is a sympathetic vision of Leslie Stephen looking remarkably like the Mr. Ramsay portrayed near the end of To the Lighthouse, with Cam and James thinking, “Ask us anything and we will give it you.”

Beyond geography and beyond grief, Freshwater would also have had a strong impact on Virginia because of family. One of the reasons why Vanessa’s photograph hangs on the wall in Dimbola is that Dimbola was the home of the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the famous Pattle sisters and Virginia’s great-aunt. Generous and impulsive, passionate and eccentric, imperious and artistic, she made Dimbola Lodge, her Freshwater residence, into the center of a salon culture through which swirled, among many others, Charles Darwin, George Frederick Watts, Ellen Terry, William Holman Hunt, Alice Lidell, Lewis Carroll, Sir Henry Taylor and George Meredith. There was also the towering figure of Alfred Lord Tennyson, next door neighbour and reluctant lodestar who drew Julia Margaret and so many other Victorians to Freshwater.

Whether or not Virginia, before visiting the Isle of Wight, had heard family stories about Julia Margaret Cameron or noticed photographs by her—very likely, given that Virginia’s mother, Julia Prinsep Jackson, was not only Julia Cameron’s niece, but also the subject of several of her photographs—Dimbola Lodge and stories about Freshwater society were to leave a deep and lasting impression on her. When, after Leslie Stephen’s death in 1904, the Stephen children moved to 46 Gordon Square, Vanessa hung five Cameron photographs of Julia Stephen on the right hand side of the entry hall, and on the other side she hung portraits of eminent Victorians, of which at least one, that of Henry Herschel, was also by Julia Margaret Cameron.

Later in life, not only did Virginia own and cherish several of Julia Margaret Cameron’s works, but her great-aunt and Freshwater repeatedly show up in several of her writings. Most obviously, they appear in Freshwater, the family play which Virginia first conceived of in 1919, extensively drafted in 1923, and then rewrote and produced in 1931. They also show up fleetingly in “Pattledom,” a brief, 1925 review of Memories and Reflections by Lady Troubridge, and at greater length in “Julia Margaret Cameron”, an introductory essay which Virginia wrote for her and Roger Fry’s collaborative publication of some of Cameron’s photographs, Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women (1926). Essay, review and play brim over with exuberance and caricature, yet all of them offer admiring glimpses of Julia Margaret Cameron as an imperious force of nature, constantly troubling and enriching the life of those around her.

In Virginia Woolf’s Influential Forebears: Julia Margaret Cameron, Anny Thackeray Ritchie, and Julia Prinsep Stephen(2015), Marion Dell mentions that some of Cameron’s close friends referred to her as ‘Cammy,’ sometimes spelled ‘Camme.” Dell is surely right in suggesting that “Cameron’s influence pervades To the Lighthouse. Now, as well as the Cam river and Virgil’s Saint Camilla (an association suggested by David Bradshaw in his OUP edition of To the Lighthouse) , I see Julia Margaret Cameron glint behind Cam’s name as she dashes headlong. With the Cam name, another penny drops in the associative well of my mind. Salon ripples move out from the center. Nearest the center is the St. Ives Stephen circle of family and friends, further out is the Isle of Wight circle created by Julia Margaret Cameron. The widest outpost salon circle of all is the Isle of Skye circle, containing within it the two previous and, no doubt, others yet to be noted and identified.

In the mist of the mind, the salon ripples amplify some elements. Certainly, Tennyson’s presence is amplified. While his presence in To the Lighthouse is justified by his stature as poet and by the thematic relevance of the lines quoted, his importance to Freshwater and the Cameron circle deepen the biographical richness and resonances of Virginia’s novel. The same is true of Queen Victoria. The Queen’s residence at Osborne Hall and her love of the Isle of Wight figured large in the lives of Freshwater residents. Osborne Hall itself was an salon outpost, as well as a summer refuge where the royal family could enjoy a less restrictive form of domesticity than possible at Buckingham or Windsor. Osborne Hall was also where, between 1892 and 1895, Kaiser William II, a fierce competitor in the Cowes regatta, would visit his grandmother, the Queen. Because local, the Osborne doings of the Queen and her family were of particular interest to all islanders.

The Isle of Wight also adds depth and color to the circus poster which so excites Mrs. Ramsay on the way into town. Touring circuses were an important feature of Victorian life, and Queen Victoria herself was known as a circus enthusiast and patron. While the poster with its horsemen, seals, lions and tigers would not make sense in a place as small and remote as the Isle of Skye (or, come to that, St. Ives), circuses did visit the Isle of Wight and would have been heavily advertised. Charlie Keith, famous both as clown and circus owner, is known to have performed on the Isle of Wight, possibly for the Queen, and in 1859 the circus acrobat John Amor broke his neck on the Isle of Wight while attempting a triple summersault. With its crowds and its festivities, the Cowes Regatta week in August was the optimum time for circuses to visit and to paper the Isle with their posters. While Kaiser William was trying to defeat the Britannia and boss Cowes, a grief creased Virginia may well have been struck by the glistening reds and blues of a circus poster.

Enough for now, but there will be more Wight stuff in my next blog, “A Freshwater Lighthouse: Anne Thackeray Ritchie and From an Island.”

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