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 The Voyage Out, 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.

From an Island

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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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Blog #206: Cornering Beckwith and MacAlister in To the Lighthouse

Time to deliver on my promise to further examine the Macalister and Beckwith names. Not an easy task, as my conjectures regarding these names are even wilder and more tendentious than those relating to Father McNabb. At least with Father McNabb, I have strong, even if circumstantial, evidence that Virginia would have known about him. I also feel quite confident that the number of connection points between the novel and Father McNabb’s personal and social history go beyond the coincidental.

With Macalister and Beckwith, I don’t have nearly the same number of connection points. For one thing, their historical traces are fewer. For another, they have much slighter roles in the novel. Mrs. Beckwith, in fact, seems almost totally tangential and unnecessary, a late, fleeting addition to the novel who exists solely as a name, an unseen presence, of whom we know only that she is kindly. Macalister is far more substantial than her, given that we do get a personal glimpse of him through his stories and his conversation with Mr. Ramsay. Also he and his son, like Sorley and his little boy, act as foils for Mr. Ramsay and James. All the same, his position in the novel is relatively slight, and as with Beckwith it is initially quite difficult to scratch up a significant historical correlative, beyond linking the name to Alistair MacAllister, whose cave on the Isle of Skye Walter Scott visited in 1814.

Faint and fleeting as the Beckwith and Macalister names are, increasingly I think they do have thematic importance. Both names can be connected to men who participated in the debates surrounding birth control and abortion. Together with the McNabb and Carmichael names, they help emphasize how aware Virginia was of the birth control issues and debates which took place in the late 19th and early 20th century. Taken together, the four names also add considerably to the impact of the bracketed paragraph about Prue’s death, a paragraph which has not received nearly the attention that Andrew’s death has, even though, when viewed through a birth control lens, Prue’s death from “some illness connected with childbirth” is every bit as violent, senseless and wicked as Andrew’s. Quite significantly, the Macalister name also finds its way into a bracketed segment, the only such segment outside of the “Time Passes” chapter, with the brutal, horrific description of the still living mackerel mutilated for bait. The square brackets create a puzzling equivalence between the callous, unthinking actions of Macalister’s boy and the deaths of Andrew and Prue.

Whatever Virginia meant by the equivalence, I believe her decision to associate the MacAlister name with the deaths of Prue and Andrew was a result of her interest in women’s sexuality, birth control, and family planning . Woolf’s interest in and wide ranging knowledge about these subjects has been explored by numerous scholars. For instance, in “Virginia Woolf and “The Third Generation” (Twentieth Century Literature, 2014, vol 60) Mary Jean Corbett suggests that despite her “disavowal of fiction and drama ‘with a purpose,’” Woolf would have been aware of such New Woman novels as Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins, novels which critiqued the sexual double standard and which dealt more openly with issues such as sexuality, pregnancy, abortion and syphilis. For Corbett, Night and Day “engages the question of literature’s relation to sexual conduct” while “eschewing what it implicitly constructs as the partisan tactics of New Woman writing.”

Corbett’s ideas about Woolf’s indirect methods are similar to those expressed by Laura Marcus in “Woolf’s Feminism, Feminism’s Woolf” in The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf (2010). In parsing Woolf’s feminism, Marcus writes that “whereas the feminist commentators of her time directly addressed the question of birth control and its impact on women’s lives, Woolf encodes it.” Likewise, In “‘To Escape the Horror of Family Life’: Virginia Woolf and the British Birth Control Debate” (New Essays on Virginia Woolf, 1995), Christina Hauck examines Mrs. Dalloway, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas to call attention to Woolf’s encoding of birth control, and in “Why Do the Ramsays Have So Many Children?: Birth Control and To the Lighthouse” (Virginia Woolf: Emerging Perspectives,1994), she suggests that To the Lighthouse encapsulated Woolf’s feeling “that early twentieth-century rhetoric about sex, reproduction, and birth control are [sic] overly dominated by men.”

To date, the most thorough and interesting examination of Woolf’s interest in reproductory issues is to be found in Layne Parish Craig’s When Sex Changed: Birth Control Politics and Literature between the World Wars (2013). In her book, Craig does a good job of teasing out how for Virginia “decisions about child-bearing were contingent on her medical situation and her husband’s concern for her health and writing career.” She reads Mrs. Dalloway against the writing of Marie Carmichael Stopes and the WW1 birth control debates, and argues that in her work Woolf “explores the limitations of sexual freedom suggested by widespread contraceptive use, while evincing ambivalence about birth control’s co-option of scientific authority.” While Craig’s arguments regarding Mrs. Dalloway may seem slightly forced, later in her book she makes a strong case that, in Three Guineas, Woolf “rejects male-dominated paradigms of reproductive politics that focus on the state’s role in promoting or limiting the growth of various populations, by insisting on the primacy of women’s education and decision making in the realm of reproduction as well as in professional and academic life.”

While Woolf’s knowledge of venereal diseases is not addressed by any of the above writers, her letters and journals indicate that she was interested in the subject and likely quite knowledgeable about it. On January 23rd, 1917, she had provided a speaker for the Richmond Branch of the Women’s Co-operative who had lectured “upon Venereal Diseases, and moral risks for our sons.” (L 2, p.138). Though some women in the audience were shocked and offended by the talk, Virginia was subsequently asked to provide a speaker on Sex Education (Diary 1, 141, April 18, 1918). Very likely, awareness of the subject, coupled with her curiosity about so many social issues, sensitized her to the ongoing public debate and inquiry with respect to sexually transmitted diseases.

The Women’s Co-operative’s interest in venereal disease was itself part of heightened public awareness and interest. A Royal Commission on Venereal Diseases had been established just prior to the war, and the Commission’s investigations led to the formation of a National Council for the Combating of Venereal Diseases. According to an article in the March 25th, 1916 edition of The Spectator, the goals of the Council included providing necessary facilities for treatment, spreading knowledge among the medical profession and the general public, and trying to draw “attention to the grave danger which exists, and which will, as all experience proves, be greatly intensified when the war ends.” The Council’s efforts contributed to a massive education campaign and, in 1919, an intense debate in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, with Hansard publishing lengthy and remarkably frank speeches by, among others, Lord Willoughby De Broke, Lord Sydenham, Viscount Haldane, and the Archbishop of Canterbury (Hansard; HL Deb 02 April 1919 vol 34 cc53-93).

A significant figure who helped advance the goals of the National Council was Sir John Young Walker MacAlister (10 May 1856 – 1 December 1925). MacAlister was a Scottish journalist, editor, librarian, and promoter of medical postgraduate education. He was the Secretary of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1901 to 1925 and one of the promoters of the Society’s formation. In 1920, writing a year after he was knighted, he published “Venereal disease prevention, and the moral question,” a Public Health article (Vol. 33, p. 114) supporting the recommendations of the National Council on Venereal Disease. In particular, the article praised the Council for having “taught the press, and through the press the public, that in attempting to combat a great national evil, men, and women too, must be ready to forget the conventions of the last generation, and discuss things frankly with each other.”

The Macalister name can also be connected to medical authority, birth control and reproductive rights through Sir John MacAlister’s brother. Sir Donald MacAlister (1854-1934), a member of the Cambridge Apostles from 1876 to 1882, was Principal of Glasgow University from 1907 to 1929. During his tenure, he greatly expanded the already famous Glasgow University Medical school. Beyond overseeing the physical expansion of the school, his accomplishments include helping to organize postgraduate medical training, establishing a chair in medical education, and opening Departmental lectures to both men and women.

In 1904 MacAlister became president of the General Medical Council, and for the next 27 years he used that position to exert considerable influence over the development of medicine in England. His DNB entry reads in part, “MacAlister ruled the GMC with a rod of iron. He made himself expert on such diverse business matters as preliminary and postgraduate education, the registration of nurses and midwives, Indian medical education, and the National Insurance Act.” According to Francis Galton, he was “very favourably disposed toward Eugenics” (August 18, 1910, letter to Karl Pearson). As an aside, I want to note that Galton and his views are gently mocked in Night and Day, when the narrator muses on Mr. Galton’s Hereditary Genius in a passage which becomes all the more ironic if one knows that the Stephen family and Virginia’s father figure in Galton’s book.

After the MacAlisters, Beckwith. Even by my elastic standards Beckwith Whitehouse is a bit of a stretch as antecedent for Mrs. Beckwith. Not because of his gender, since Virginia loved playing with and subverting gender identities, but because of his relative obscurity. Though he was born in 1882, the same year as Virginia, and though he did his medical studies at St. Thomas University in London, where he won the Sutton Sams memorial prize for obstetric medicine and diseases of women, most of his medical career was spent in Birmingham, where he became senior gynaecological surgeon at the General Hospital in 1921 and professor of midwifery and diseases in women at the University of Birmingham in 1924. Except through his numerous contributions to such journals as the Journal of Obstetrics, and the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, as well as to the British Medical Journal and The Lancet, he seems to have had a relatively low public profile outside of the Midlands. It is possible, however, that Virginia Woolf became aware of him because of the public debates surrounding Marie Stopes. In 1923, for instance, in a special 96 page issue on contraception published by The Practioner, Beckwith Whitehouse published an article titled “The Problem of Birth Control”, in which he strongly argued that birth control was detrimental to national interests and best left in the hands of the medical profession. This publication was readily available to the public, as is evidenced by my obtaining it as a copy discarded by the University of Toronto Public Library in 1924.

To help end this blog, I want to go back to my thoughts about Virginia’s linking of Stopes to Meredith through the Carmichael name. Aside reasons discussed previously, introducing a Stopes reference into To the Lighthouse also makes Meredithian sense insofar as in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Meredith indirectly critiqued the sexual theories of William Acton, physician and author of studies such as Prostitution, Considered in Its Moral, Social & Sanitary Aspects (1857) and The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (1857). Marie Carmichael Stopes occupies the same position in Woolf’s novel as Acton did in Meredith’s, even if Virginia is not so much criticizing her ideas as indirectly acknowledging and furthering Meredith’s contribution to the ongoing discussion about sexuality and reproductive rights. Whereas in Functions and Disorders Acton had written ‘the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind,’ in Married Love Stopes states that “woman’s side of sexual life has found little or no expression” and woman, “has been content to mold herself to the shape desired by man wherever possible… woman has bowed to man’s desire over her body, and, regardless of its pulses, he approaches her or not as is his will.” Between the publication of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel in 1859 and the publication of To the Lighthouse in 1927 much had changed.

It might be argued that I am overrunning my signals in connecting Beckwith and Macalister to historical figures who played a role in the public debates surrounding contraception and women’s control of their bodies. My rebuttal to such an argument is twofold. Firstly, almost every single name in To the Lighthouse seems to have a historical or literary connection, and names are very definitely one of the subtle ways in which Virginia Woolf attached her fiction to reality. She used names as metonyms, metonyms both personal and historical. Recovering the metonymical force of those names resurrects the world which shaped her.

Secondly, even if some of my connections turn out to be forced, or even erroneous, they do lead to a deepened understanding of some of the historical events and social forces which were part of the broader fabric of life at the time Virginia was writing her novel. Because of Beckwith, Macalister, McNabb, and Carmichael, I now know much more about the gender and sexual politics associated with the “New Woman” Question. Because of Beckwith, Macalister, McNabb and Carmichael, I now know something about the Venereal Disease Debates in the House of Lords in 1919. Because of Beckwith, Macalister, McNabb and Carmichael, I now know much more about Francis Galton and Eugenics. Because of Beckwith, Macalister, McNabb and Carmichael, I now know much more about family planning and birth control. Through Beckwith, Macalister, Carmichael and McNabb the web of To the Lighthouse connects to some of the realities of Virginia’s life and times, and all is changed, changed utterly.


HYPERGRAPH, (not to confused with the hippogriff, Virgilian or Rowlingian)

“An Address on Abortion: It’s Frequency and Importance”
by Beckwith Whitehouse, M. S. Lond., F.R.C.S., Professor of Midwifery and Diseases of Women, University of Birmingham.
(The British Medical Journal, Vol. 2, No. 3597 (Dec. 14, 1929), pp. 1095-1099)

“The subject of this address has been chosen for two reasons—namely, its frequency, and its importance to the community. The increasing number of abortions among most white races during the past thirty years has naturally focused attention upon a problem which has always to some extent exercised the minds of the medical and legal professions. With a stationary or falling birthrate the position naturally becomes more, and the prevention of abortion is today a responsibility which involves not only the welfare of the individual but also that of the family and the state. A nation with a diminishing birth rate and a high abortion ratio must sooner or later suffer. There appears to be little doubt that, for the present, the day of the large family has gone, for good or evil. We are told that it is for good, but sometimes I have my doubts on this matter. I know many large families, families of as many as ten or a dozen, and I say unhesitatingly that in my experience they are the happiest and are getting the best out of life. I have spoken to the mothers of these families, mothers from all grades of society, and never once have I heard any expression of regret, either from a social, economic or physical standpoint.

In this age of mechanical transport, unhealthy excitement, entertainment, and “rush,” the modern cult for limitation of the family by the wholesale promulgation and practice of contraceptive measures is speeding apace. There are too many intentionally sterile marriages today, and perhaps what is equally as bad, there are too many one-child families growing up. Abortion must therefore be regarded as something more than a trivial accident. Its frequency is some countries today is appalling….

One fact has been impressed upon me time after time. and that is the pertinacity of the married woman who sets out with a determination to terminate her own pregnancy. Argument is useless, and when she has failed to produce the required result by means of a popular purgative pill or a prescription from a popular chemist “to remedy all female menstrual irregularities,” she approaches her own doctor. If he finds no indication to interfere, she goes to somebody else, and eventually possibly does find some individual who is able to satisfy his own conscience that a medical reason exists for the evacuation of the uterine contents. If help cannot be obtained in this devious manner, there is always the homely knitting needle, crochet-hook, douche nozzle, or professional criminal abortionist. Women in this state will not listen to advice or words of warning. They are optimists of the first water, individuals who do not care what happens as long as it does not happen to themselves. I do not propose to say anything more on this question of criminal abortion. The subject has been discussed very fully recently by the Medico-Legal Society, the Society of Medical Officers of Health, and the Royal Society of Medicine, and I refer you to the Transactions of these societies for an expression of the considered and current views of those best qualified to speak.”

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Blog #205: Finding a Kennedy candidate for To the Lighthouse



War is only glorious when you buy it in the Daily Mail and enjoy it at the breakfast table. It goes splendidly with bacon and eggs. Real war is the final limit of damnable brutality, and that’s all there is in it.  It’s about the silliest, filthiest most inhumanly fatuous thing that ever happened.  It makes the whole universe seem like a mad muddle.  One feels that all talk of order and meaning in life is insane sentimentality.

The Hardest Part, 1918


One thing leads to another, and because of the way in which Virginia Woolf uses names to connect her fiction to life, and because of my speculations about the McNabb name, I also want to indulge in a brief speculation about old Kennedy, the Ramsay gardener.  Kennedy is a rather ubiquitous name, but  seeing the name in To the Lighthouse, particularly in the “Time Passes” segment, together with connecting Mrs. McNabb to Father Vincent McNabb and the conditions leading to the General Strike of 1926, led me to google “Kennedy, 1926 General Strike.”  In among the Google dross, I found Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, more familiarly known as “Woodbine Willie” because of the Woodbine cigarettes he handed out to his fellow soldiers. Even if his Kennedy name was the second barrel of a double barreled name, in its day it sounded loud enough to be an audible part of Virginia’s world.

Born in 1883, Studdert Kennedy was an Anglican minister who served as an Army chaplain during WWI, and who received the Military Cross for his courage in comforting the wounded at Messines Ridge.  After the war, he published several books of poems, and a brief yet very interesting essay collection titled The Hardest Part  (1918).  His poems and his essays, while affirming the courage and dignity of ordinary foot soldiers, strongly critiqued the absurdity and tragic waste of war.  After the war Kennedy, for a time minister of St. Edmund King and Martyr, Lombard Street, London, became a highly visible public figure as a social reformer and champion of the working poor.

As a Social Evangelist, he was deeply involved in Christian socialist and pacifist causes.  Through the medium of his deeply rooted  Anglican faith, he sought to promote a middle way between the excesses of laissez faire capitalism and Marxist socialism.  Hugely popular, he travelled across England giving sermons and speeches on behalf of the Industrial Christian Fellowship.  Like Father McNabb, he had a deep sympathy for the working poor and he campaigned tirelessly for an end to unemployment and poverty.  When he died of influenza in 1929, several memorial services were held across England, and over 2000 people turned up for his funeral in Worcester.  His fame was such that James Joyce referenced him in Finnegan’s Wake as ““Woodbine Willie, so popiular with the poppyrossies.”

I’m not entirely convinced Virginia had Studdert Kennedy in mind when she named the gardener, yet given that  every other name in To the Lighthouse, even that of George Bast, connects meaningfully and convincingly to a historical or literary figure, given that Virginia could not fail but to be aware of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy’s literary and social justice activities, and given that knowledge of Kennedy deepens our understanding both of the impact of the war and of the labour movement I feel quite comfortable sharing the above speculations.  Discovering Kennedy and learning about his life has added new depths to my understanding of Virginia’s world.  I’m a happy little fly, all the more for being so entangled and enmeshed in the web of her fiction


“What’s the Good?”


Well, I ‘ve done my bit o’ scrappin’,
And I ‘ve done in quite a lot ;
Nicked ‘em neatly wiv my bayonet,
So I needn’t waste a shot.
‘Twas my duty, and I done it,
But I ‘opes the doctor ‘s quick.
For I wish I ‘adn’t done it,
Gawd ! it turns me shamed and sick.

There ‘s a young ‘un like our Richard,
And I bashed ‘is ‘ead in two.
And there ‘s that ole grey-’aired geezer
Which I stuck ‘is belly through.
Gawd, you women, wives and mothers,
It ‘s sich waste of all your pain.
If you knowed what I ‘d been doin’,
Could yer kiss me still, my Jane?

When I sets me dahn to tell yer
What it means to scrap and fight
Could I tell ye true and honest,
Make ye see this bleedin’ sight ?
No I couldn’t and I wouldn’t.
It would turn your ‘air all grey ;
Women suffers ‘ell to bear us,
And we suffers ‘ell to slay.

I suppose some Fritz went courtin’
In the gloamin’ same as me,
And the old world turned to ‘eaven
When they kissed beneath a tree.
And each evening seemed more golden,
Till the day as they was wed,
And ‘is bride stood shy and blushin’,
Like a June rose, soft and red.

I remembers ‘ow it were, lass,
On that silver night in May,
When ye ‘ung your ‘ead and whispered
That ye couldn’t say me nay.
Then, when June brought in the roses
And you changed your maiden name,
‘Ow ye stood there, shy and blushin’,
When the call of evening came.

I remembers ‘ow I loved ye.
When ye arsked me in your pride
‘Ow I ‘d liked my Sunday dinner
As ye nestled at my side.
For between a thousand races
Lands may stretch and seas may foam,
But it makes no bloomin’ difference,
Boche or Briton, ‘ome is ‘ome.

I remember what ‘e cost ye,
When I gave ye up for dead,
As I ‘eld your ‘and and watched ye
With the little lad in bed.
‘Struth I wish ‘e’d stop ‘is lookin’,
And shut up ‘is bloomiri’ eyes.
‘Cause I keeps on seein’ Richard
When I whacks ‘im and ‘e cries.

Damn the blasted war to ‘ell, lass,
It ‘s just bloody rotten waste.
Them as gas on war and glory
Oughter come and ‘ave a taste.
Yes, I larned what women suffers
When I seed you stand the test.
But you knowed as it were worth it
When ‘e felt to find your breast.

All your pain were clean forgotten
When you touched ‘is little ‘ead.
And ye sat up proud and smilin’.
With a living lad in bed.
But we suffers too — we suffers.
Like the damned as groans in ‘ell,
And we ‘aven’t got no Babies,
Only mud, and blood, and smell.

‘Tain’t the suff’rin as I grouse at,
I can stick my bit o’ pain ;
But I keeps on alius askin’
What ‘s the good, and who’s to gain ?
When ye ‘ve got ‘ a plain objective ‘
Ye can fight your fight and grin,
But there ain’t no damned objective,
And there ain’t no prize to win.

We ‘re just like a lot o’ bullocks
In a blarsted china shop,
Bustin’ all the world to blazes,
‘Cause we dunno ‘ow to stop.
Trampling years of work and wonder
Into dust beneath our feet.
And the one as does most damage
Swears that victory is sweet.

It ‘s a sweet as turns to bitter.
Like the bitterness of gall,
And the winner knows ‘e ‘s losin’
If ‘e stops to think at all.
I suppose this ain’t the spirit
Of the Patriotic man.
Didn’t ought to do no thinkin’ ;
Soldiers just kill all they can.

But we carn’t ‘elp thinkin’ sometimes.
Though our business is to kill,
War ‘as turned us into butchers,
But we ‘re only ‘uman still.
Gawd knows well I ain’t no thinker,
And I never knew before,
But I knows now why I ‘m fightin’,
It ‘s to put an end to war.

Not to make my country richer,
Or to keep her flag unfurled.
Over every other nation
Tyrant mistress of the world.
Not to boast of Britain’s glory,
Bought by bloodshed in her wars.
But that Peace may shine about her,
As the sea shines round her shores.

If ole Fritz believes in fightin’,
And obeys ‘is War Lord’s will,
Well until ‘e stops believin’,
It ‘s my job to fight and kill.
But the Briton ain’t no butcher,
‘E ‘s a peaceful cove at ‘eart.
And it ‘s only ’cause ‘e ‘as to
That ‘e plays the butcher’s part.

‘Cause I ‘as to — that ‘s the reason
Why I done the likes o’ this ;
You ‘re an understanding woman.
And you won’t refuse your kiss.
Women pity soldiers’ sorrow,
That can bring no son to birth,
Only death and devastation.
Darkness over all the earth.

We won’t ‘ave no babe to cuddle,
Like a blessing to the breast,
We ‘ll just ‘ave a bloody mem’ry
To disturb us when we rest.
But the kids will some day bless us,
When they grows up British men,
‘Cause we tamed the Prussian tyrant,
And brought Peace to earth again.

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Blog #204: Reaching “Time Passes” by way of Ditchling and Father Vincent McNabb













Stone the crows, I’m back to names again. More specifically, I’m back to Mrs. McNabb. Lord love a duck! Five years ago, when I first indulged in what I then called “wild and tendentious” speculations about Mrs. McNabb, I was led on by thoughts about Marie Carmichael. This time, I come to Mrs. McNabb by way of Ditchling and Eric Gill. The epigraph material from five years ago shows that this approach was already available to me back then, only I was too blind to make connections. It took a hike to Ditchling to properly open my eyes.

For five magical days this summer, I stayed in the quaint, near-feudal village of Iford, just two kilometres away from Rodmell and Monk’s House by way of local footpaths through head-high corn fields and scraggly chest-high rapeseed. Living in Iford was like stepping back in time, with so much of the town’s existence dominated by the mixed farm activities—ranging from grain crops, cattle raising, pheasant shooting and fishing ponds—of the Iford Estate. For me, Iford was a perfect jumping off place for Virginia Woolf country and the South Downs Trail, as far away as Alfriston to the south and Ditchling to the north.

The hike to Ditchling was particularly memorable, perhaps because we set out on a windy day, and as our boots ground their way over the chalk marl ground of the “blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs,” we were buffeted and scuffed about by strong gusts. The wind fed our exhilaration as we wandered along the ridge above Kingston, muddled our way through the north-west corner of Llewes, continued on past the sheep and the dew ponds and the reforested areas near Blackcap, and then puzzled out a descent onto the Ditchling plain, only to then have to ferret out the overgrown and mazy public footpaths which led into town, and later on to the train station at Hassock.

Ditchling was a delightful surprise. Quaint and picturesque, with outstanding features such as Anne of Cleves house and the Church of St. Margaret, not to mention a very traditional feeling high street, it fully deserves the tourist accolades it gets. The real prize, though, was the Ditchling Museum of Arts + Craft. Before visiting it, I knew absolutely nothing about Eric Gill and ‘The Third Order of St. Dominic’, or the Guild of SS Joseph and Dominic and the Distributists. Much of what I learned in Ditchling was disturbing and deeply unsettling, as the museum openly addresses Gill’s incestuous abuse of his sisters and his daughters. Pity those in London or Oxford who have to decide on how to approach such cultural icons as the Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral, or the BBC Broadcasting House statues, or John the Baptist at St. John’s College. Use of Gill Sans and Perpetua type, too, now requires moral stocktaking and the weighing of personal boundaries. Serene and classical as many of his pieces are, my response to his work is tainted by the revulsion which I feel towards the man.

Particularly troubling is that this child molester was befriended and supported by Virginia and her circle. The horror! The horror! They met as neighbours and artists, not as female victim of sexual abuse in childhood and man sexually abusing his daughters, yet the juxtaposition of their sexual histories, no matter how retrospective, is deeply troubling. What would Virginia have felt or done had she known? Gill was likely not yet abusing the five year old Petra when Virginia and Leonard stayed with the Gill family in 1912, nor is likely that Virginia and Leonard–or others in their circle such as Vanessa and Clive Bell, Roger Fry or Jacques Raverat–ever had any suspicion about Gill’s sexual predations. If they had, Leonard would never have commissioned the statue of a naked, even if chaste and modest, Chloe in 1928. The statue is now part of the Harvard Art Museum collection.

While Eric Gill had not yet met Father Vincent McNabb in 1912, Virginia and Leonard almost certainly would have come to know of him through Gill and the Ditchling community. From 1914 to 1924, Father McNabb’s religious beliefs and his Distributist theories were central to the Ditchling experiment; and, as Fiona MacCarthy has written, with his “galvanic energy” he “was at this time the prime influence, the chief architect of the developing community at Ditchling.” The religious lay community at Ditchling was a concrete manifestation of his Thomist and Distributist ideals, and accordingly he became the spiritual director of the craftsmen’s Guild of SS Joseph and Dominic, established in 1921. For several years he was a frequent visitor and occasional resident in Ditchling, highly visible and distinctive, dressed as he was in his black and white Dominican robes and his trademark hobnailed boots.

Of course it is very likely that Virginia also knew about Father McNabb through his 1926 collection of essays The Church and the Land, through his London activities, through Hyde Park Speaker’s corner, through Leonard and the Webbs, through McNabb disciples or supporters such as Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton and Maurice Baring, and through his vigorous anti-abortion campaigning and his attacks on Marie Carmichael Stopes. Though in my earlier blog I connected Father McNabb primarily to Marie Carmichael Stopes, his championing of the poor and his Ditchling activities, along with his vigorous support for social justice provide further reasons why Virginia might have chosen to give his surname to one of her characters, a character, moreover, who is a poor, working-class woman.

Kate Flint, Anne Fernald and, more recently, Charles Ferrall and Dougal McNeill in Writing the 1926 General Strike (1915) have all suggested that the “horror”of the General Strike of 1926 affected the composition of To the Lighthouse. Identifying Mrs. McNabb’s name as an allusion to Father Vincent McNabb supports and enriches this argument. Father McNabb was deeply influenced by Pope Leo XIII’s famous De Rerum Novarum encyclical (1891), which called attention to the exploitation of the working class, and supported unions as a way of opposing the worst excesses of unrestrained capitalism. Father McNabb likely, though I have yet to find direct proof of this, was a strongly vocal and visible London presence during the 1926 strike. The McNabb name, accordingly, has strong connections to social reform and the conditions of the working poor in London. By way of reinforcement, Manning, the name of Mrs. Ramsay’s friends in Marlow, also has labour and social reform connections. London’s famous Cardinal Manning was an important figure in helping to resolve the Great London Dock Strike of 1889, a strike seen as a major event in the development of the modern labour and union movement. Partly because of his social activism, Cardinal Manning is also credited with having influenced De Rerum Novarum.

Father McNabb’s name takes us deep into several areas of English life in the first quarter of the 20th century. Names are such a powerful tool for firmly attaching, even if ever so lightly, fiction to life. By way of proof, one last, whimsical, yet totally plausible observation. Father McNabb’s Christian name was Joseph; Vincent was his priest name, a name given to him upon his ordination to the Dominicans in 1891. Given Virginia’s playfulness and sly humour, it is possible, even likely, that the To the Lighthouse lines, “They were actually fighting. Joseph and Mary were fighting,” spring from Father Vincent (née Joseph) McNabb’s indirect presence in the novel, and refer to his fierce conflict with Marie Carmichael Stopes.

Lord stone the crows! I’ll have more to say about that conflict in a future blog when I also look at the Macalister and Beckwith names, as well as Prue’s death “in some illness connected with childbirth.”


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Blog #203: Elementary My Dear Woolf: The Case for Seeing Arthur Conan Doyle in To the Lighthouse

In a very early Woolf blog, I fancifully suggested that Minta Doyle’s surname might be a tribute to Scottish born Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The statement was a rather wild one, given that other than the name itself I had no clues to lead me in that direction. There was seemingly no reason for an Arthur Conan Doyle reference in To the Lighthouse. Now, however, thanks to Meredith, I think I have the beginnings of a case.

My sleuthing went as follows. Because Minta connects to Meredith by way of Lord Ormont and his Aminta, I checked to see if there might not also be a connection between Meredith and Doyle. It turns out that the young Conan Doyle was a passionate Meredith fan. Meredith’s work was one of Doyle’s “youthful cults,” and he gave popular lectures on Meredith and wrote essays about him. In Memories and Adventures, Conan Doyle describes visiting Meredith and, after a rather testy initial encounter, being asked to drink a whole bottle of Burgundy, a request which Doyle was only too happy to satisfy. On this or on another visit Meredith also talked at length about Napoleon’s Marshals, and he brought The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot to Conan Doyle’s attention. Meredith’s comments and Marbot’s memoirs (which Clarissa is glimpsed reading in Mrs. Dalloway) supposedly inspired Doyle to write his Exploits of Brigadier Gerard.

The Doyle Meredith connection is also a Leslie Stephen one. According to Andrew Lycett (in his Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes), on one occasion when visiting Box Hill with J M Barrie and Arthur Quiller Couch, Doyle met Leslie Stephen at Meredith’s. Supposedly Doyle found Stephen “retiring and unprepossessing.” What Leslie Stephen thought is not recorded, but he may well have told his family about meeting the creator of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson; and Virginia, though she would later disparage Watson as “a sack stuffed with straw, a dummy, a figure of fun”, may have been sufficiently impressed to remember this connection between Doyle and her father when she came to write To the Lighthouse. Doyle’s Scottish heritage would have been an additional reason for referencing him. A touch of Conan Doyle ancestry in Minta Doyle, by way of Meredith, might also supply a reason for why Mr. Carmichael is so interested in acrostics and puzzles, and also in why To the Lighthouse offers so many sleuthing delights.

The biggest delight of my Conan Doyle sleuthing is almost certainly a false clue. False it may be, but the following story now forms a part of my To the Lighthouse fabric. In 1881, Conan Doyle published a signed article in The British Journal of Photography. Titled “After Cormorants with a Camera”, the essay is a colourful, boisterously hearty account of a trip Doyle made to the Isle of May with two friends. Doyle along with two friends hired two local sailors and their small boat to sail them over from the Burgh of Grail (Crail) to the Isle of May and its lighthouse. While his companions amused themselves by slaughtering great numbers of birds, Doyle spent his time developing his photographic skills and also catching several fish. In his story Doyle describes visiting and dining with the lighthouse keeper and his wife, whose eldest son has been accidentally shot in the leg by a “stout Frenchman who had come over for some shooting.” He also includes a punning reference to the charge of the Light Brigade.

A trip to a lighthouse in a small boat sailed by two local sailors, three passengers, the shooting of birds, artistic efforts to record the scene, a lighthouse keeper and his family, a lame son: uncannily strong as the parallels are between Doyle’s account and Woolf’s novel, it is highly unlikely that Woolf ever read Doyle’s essay. Her own biographical source material provided identical bones for her tale. All the same, because of the allusive and accretive method of her story telling, a method which invites the reader to look for subtle signs and to bring their own experience—experience both real and literary—to the story, for me To the Lighthouse now includes Arthur Conan Doyle’s little adventure. As a bonus, I also know a little more about pioneering Victorian photographers, of which, of course, Virginia’s aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron, was one.

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Blog #202: To the Lighthouse Brings Married Love to “Modern Love”

“She gave him comprehension of the meaning of love: a word in many mouths, not often explained. With her, wound in his idea of her, he perceived it to signify a new start in our existence, a finer shoot of the tree stoutly planted in good gross earth; the senses running their live sap, and the minds companioned, and the spirits made one by the whole-natured conjunction. In sooth, a happy prospect for the sons and daughters of Earth, divinely indicating more than happiness: the speeding of us, compact of what we are, between the ascetic rocks and the sensual whirlpools, to the creation of certain nobler races, now very dimly imagined.”

– GEORGE MEREDITH, Diana of the Crossways.

Sometimes it is almost too easy to overlook the obvious. This morning I had a much belated insight which brought the full force of that platitude home. For over three months now I’ve been thinking about the relationship between Mr. Carmichael and George Meredith, and in all that time I have not thought about Mr. Carmichael’s name. Why is Mr. Carmichael named Mr. Carmichael? More specifically, what connection, if any, does the Carmichael name have to George Meredith?

Perhaps the question didn’t occur to me because in two previous blogs I had already speculated about the Carmichael name. I had linked Carmichael to Marie Carmichael Stopes on the strength of Marie’s purchasing the Portland lighthouse in 1923, and also because of the Mary Carmichael character in A Room of One’s Own, a character who, like Marie Stopes, is a woman novelist with a strong interest in science. Further, I suggested that Marie Carmichael Stopes earned a reference in To the Lighthouse because of her strong feminist contribution to science, education and social engineering. If the novel’s lighthouse is seen to symbolize culture, is seen to stand as a guide for future generations, then it is easy to see why Virginia would have paid subtle homage to Marie Stopes with the Carmichael name. Giving the name to a male character would also have furthered the novel’s blurring of genders and gender roles.

Given Marie Stopes’ notoriety in the early 1920’s–and given also Virginia’s familiarity with her work–my identification is, I believe, a sound one, as far as it goes. But what about George Meredith and Mr. Carmichael? What about Marie Carmichael Stopes and George Meredith? Was there a valid and meaningful connection to be made? Such obvious questions, and, as it turns out, such rewarding ones.

The answer to the questions is to be found with Married Love, Stopes’ 1918 book about female sexuality, sex education, and, obliquely, birth control. Though banned in the US as obscene, in England the book was a run-away best seller and sold over half a million copies by 1925. The Meredith connection to Married Love is two-fold. First, the title itself. Just as Meredith in “Modern Love” had stripped the veneer of romantic love from marriage by exploring the psychological realities of an unhappy marriage, so, too, Stopes used Married Love to educate the public about biological realities underlying sexuality and the potential impact of those realities on marriage. She was very consciously continuing Meredith’s work, and her title was intended to call attention to the parallel between Meredith’s works and hers. Second, to make sure no one missed the point, Stopes began her book with an epigram from Diana of the Crossways, the lines quoted at the head of this entry. In his poems and his novels, Meredith had challenged cultural myths and had tried to address social problems arising from those myths. Throughout his life he had sought to change contemporary attitudes towards women and towards sexuality, and because of this he was the ideal model for Stopes the sexual educator and social reformer.

In taking the Carmichael name for her Meredith character, Virginia was confirming the parallel which Marie herself had drawn. By so subtly attaching the web of her fiction to life, she was linking past and present reformers. Further by having Mr. Carmichael crown the occasion at the conclusion of the novel with his godlike benediction, she was sounding a cautiously optimistic note for the future. The description of him “surging up” “looking like an old pagan god, shaggy, with weeds in his hair and the trident” evokes Meredith’s superb, lyrical scene where Aminta and Weyburn transcend Aminta’s married status and perform old Triton’s rites by swimming in the ocean together. To glimpse, even if “scarcely perceptible”, George Meredith and Marie Carmichael Stopes standing beside Lily Briscoe and Augustus at the end of the novel, is to feel renewed hope for the final destiny of mankind.

“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible.”

VIRGINIA WOOLF, A Room of One’s Own

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Blog #201: Bishop in Dove instead of Woolf

Fathers don’t have to be dynasts to bridge past and future. Through family and family stories, almost every father roots his children to the past while growing different possible futures through present actions. Understanding of “Grape Sherbet” is deepened by the knowledge that Rita Dove’s father was the first black man allowed to work as a chemist for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio. The sherbet is a miracle of chemistry, a reality-altering, colour transformation with implications as deep as Memorial Day and “the grassed-over mounds.” Memorial Day, after all, has its origins in the end of the Civil War. Like the children who name “each stone for/ a lost milk tooth,” who make the dead a positive part of natural growth, a part of growing up, the father may not understand all the implications of what he does. The grandmother’s “pure refusal” almost certainly is fueled more by racial anxiety than it is by diabetes. However, because of family, because of history, because of her father–a Dove who wears “his cap turned up / so the bib resembles a duck,”–Rita Dove can accept what the grandmother of her poem cannot. She can see why her father bothered, how he overcame pressures from both sides of the colour line, pressures both from within and from without, and because of his miracle she can face the past without ducking, without refusal. As she invents or re-creates her father’s feat, using secret recipes of her own, her “Grape Sherbet” burns with a grateful, playful smile.

Rita Dove: Introduction to “Grape Sherbet.”

I wrote the above paragraph to accompany Rita Dove’s “Grape Sherbet” when I included that poem in Fathers: A Literary Anthology. Short as the paragraph is, it was the product of several months of reading Rita’s poems and reading and thinking about her life. I thought I knew “Grape Sherbet” well, and yet this morning, thanks to a tweet by Robert Macfarlane, I realize how much there is yet to know. I’ve discovered one of Rita Dove’s secret recipes, and, once again, I am reminded that one of the rewards of reading poetry is that there is always more to know. Poetry is like landscape. A new experience or new fact can reconfigure the previously known so that it has to be revisited and rethought.

The MacFarlane tweet which triggered this blog is as follows: “ It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world.” The quotation comes from Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses,” a poem which I read long ago and which I admired and still admire for its luminous realism, the way in which the mythic simmers beneath the painstaking, gritty surface details. In part, I like the poem because the cosmic is approached through the common. Through traces of personal history and the iridescent armour of the fish scale words glitters the cold dark hardness of the numinous. (Yoiks, what a pretentious sounding sentence. True, all the same.) I like the poem, too, because it reminds me of my fisherman past, and the heroism latent in the gore and exhaustion of my fish plant days.

Much as I like the poem, I had forgotten the line flagged by MacFarlane, and consequently I missed a large and important part of Dove’s poem. The Bishop allusion opens up new vistas, as, Woolf-like, Bishop uses allusion to dig out deep, beautiful caves beneath the surface of her work. “It’s just how we imagined lavender would taste” connects “Grape Sherbet” to Bishop’s explorations in “At the Fishhouses.” Dove’s history is a continuation and expansion of Bishop’s. The generational search for identity inherent in Bishop’s grandfather looms larger as Dove interrogates the past through her father and grandmother. In contrast to Bishop’s poem, geographical identity is largely eschewed, even if the darkness of the American south smoulders darkly beneath the cemetery turf. The bitterness of Bishop’s sea is transmuted to the lavender sweetness of sherbet, and salt enhances the sweetness.

It might be said that Dove’s poem verges on the saccharine. After all, there are so few grounds for optimism, even if the father’s miracle is a transforming one. Outside of the world of the poem, the dark forces of racism and sexism continue to maim and terrorize. But Dove is not willfully closing her eyes to reality. Her bow to Bishop is proof of that. Dove’s knowledge, too, is historical, and like Bishop’s it is drawn from the “hard cold mouth of the world,” “derived from the rocky breasts forever.” Bishop strengthens Dove, even as Dove draws upon her . Childish innocence disappears with the lost milk teeth. As adults, the knowledge we know is not the knowledge we imagined to be. To change the world, miracles are needed. Miracles require attention and belief. Like the father’s, the poet’s task is to bother. The task is to confront indifference and pay attention to the details of the world, and by so doing to attempt a “transmutation of fire that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.” Dove’s apparent simplicity owes much to Bishop’s seeming complexity.

“Grape Sherbet”

The Day? Memorial.

After the grill

Dad appears with his masterpiece –

swirled snow, gelled light.

We cheer. The recipe’s

a secret and he fights

a smile, his cap turned up

so the bib resembles a duck.

That morning we galloped

through the grassed-over mounds

and named each stone

for a lost milk tooth. Each dollop

of sherbet, later,

is a miracle,

like salt on a melon that makes it sweeter.

Everyone agrees – it’s wonderful!

It’s just how we imagined lavender

would taste. The diabetic grandmother

stares from the porch,

a torch

of pure refusal.

We thought no one was lying

there under our feet,

we thought it

was a joke. I’ve been trying

to remember the taste,

but it doesn’t exist.

Now I see why

you bothered,


by Rita Dove

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Blog #200: On Why Meredith Was Not Allowed to Go the Way of Calprenede and Scudery

Will you at any rate write to me? I hardly think so. You always say you love writing letters, but you never do it. The inconsistency of your sex, I suppose. Yours would be more soothing to read than George Meredith’s. What do you think? I opened that volume just before I left Belsize yesterday, and was so nauseated by the few sentences that met my eye, that I shut it up, put it down, and deliberately left it behind, so if you want it you must ask them to send it you. Nothing will induce me to read another word the man wrote. Is it prejudice, do you think, that makes us hate the Victorians, or is it the truth of the case? They seem to me a set of mouthing bungling hypocrites; but perhaps really there is a baroque charm about them which will be discovered by our great-great-grandchildren, as we have discovered the charm of Donne, who seemed intolerable to the 18th century. Only I don’t believe it. Thackeray and G. Meredith will go the way of Calprenede and Scudery.

Letter from Lytton Strachey to Virginia Woolf, Nov. 8th, 1912

Even if research is often clouded with anxiety and frustration, there can be powerful moments of pleasure. Research is occasionally akin to scanning a pebbly beach for pieces of sea smoothed glass. The eye and the mind are trained to spot the glint of unexpected treasure. Just so, sometimes, among the vagaries and uncertainties of research, a new and entirely unexpected piece of information surfaces. The information need not be profound or revolutionary to be exciting. Even a small new fact can deepen or reshape the subject of study. For me, Lytton Strachey’s letter is a case in point.

Before finding and reading this letter, I hadn’t thought too hard about the broader context of Virginia’s engagement with Meredith. His close personal connections to the Stephen family were of more interest to me than his wider cultural importance. Strachey’s letter, though, pushes me to think more deeply about Virginia’s relationship to Meredith as a Victorian. Strachey’s letter is a reminder of how hard the Edwardians and the Georgians wrestled with the Victorians. They were constantly reassessing them and constantly recalibrating their own efforts against Victorians legends and accomplishments.

For Virginia, Meredith was more than just a close family friend or uncle figure. As a late Victorian, and as a member of the patriarchy, no matter how enlightened, he was someone to be fought against. Virginia and her friends, along with many Modernist thinkers and writers, were, in part, defining themselves against the Victorians. More than that, they were working to cut the Victorians down to size and to reduce or to dispel their shadows. Eminent Victorians is but one famous example of the mythbusting and historical renovations which took place. One of the chief goals of Modernism was to break with, or, at the very least, disavow the Victorian past, and it is a measure of their revisionist success that we sometimes don’t properly appreciate the degree to which they were indebted to the Victorians.

Virginia was no exception. So far in my blogs I’ve looked at ways in which she was indebted to, and in conversation with, Edmund Gosse, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Violet Paget; and in future To the Lighthouse explorations I want to survey Thomas Hardy and Henry James influences. So often, these relationships with the Victorians are covert or masked, perhaps in part because Virginia wanted to conceal influences or because she was working towards erasure through silence. More likely, though, Victorian ancestors were kept in the shadows because Virginia understood the suggestive power of hints, traces, and subtle allusions. Also, in ghosting the Victorians, she could both honour and tame the past.

Virginia’s relationship to Meredith made him particularly hard to handle. As well as being a close family friend, he had taken an interest in her and Vanessa as children, and he had shared their deep love for Thoby. Also, in the public sphere, his ideas and his writings had challenged aspects of the patriarchy and had helped to advance the cause of women. With The Egoist and with Diana of the Crossways, in particular, he had loudly and clearly championed the cause of women. Not only that, Virginia was indebted to him for stylistic experiments and genre challenging innovations in his novels. As Gillian Beer has written, “Meredith’s intensely experimental approach to the novel is always a part of his moral concern with human personality,” and Virginia, as her essays about Meredith make clear, learned much from Meredith’s experiments.

As with the other Victorians, much of what Meredith stood for had to be erased or reshaped. Many of his contributions had to be concealed. All the same, Virginia owed Meredith too great a debt, both personal and literary, to cast him completely into darkness. Her essays about him are often generous and kind. She refers to him favorably in A Room of One’s Own. His strong, structural and thematic influence is boldly flagged in The Voyage Out. Finally, in To the Lighthouse, Virginia pays homage by using him as the pattern for Mr. Carmichael. Through Mr. Carmichael, she gives Meredith the last words in the novel, and has him, as he stands with Lily on the edge of the lawn, crown the occasion. Even if–perhaps taking her tone from Strachey–Virginia could describe Meredith as being “hard as an old crab at the bottom of the sea,” for her he was too wise and too loved a man to be allowed to go “the way of Calprenede and Scudery.”

List of Matremoirs

List of Patremoirs

Children of Writers

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