Blog # 116: To the Lighthouse: Of Refrigerators and Catalogues

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I need a Woolfian to share my feelings. Everything at the moment is covered with heavenly bliss and fringed with joy which only a Woolfian could understand. For the last couple of weeks, I have been teasing and worrying away at the refrigerator which James is cutting out. Why a refrigerator? I started out by asking, and then, having answered that question in various ways, I graduated to asking whether or not a refrigerator was even possible. James is cutting his refrigerator out some five years or so before WWI, and were refrigerators even invented then, and if so would they have already been available in the pages of the Army and Navy Stores catalogue?

A quick little bit of Wiki research told me that refrigeration was developed in the late 19th century, with the German engineer Carl Powell Gottfried Linde taking out patents in 1895. From that point on, refrigeration technology developed rapidly and home refrigeration units soon started to appear. The Wiki site even has a picture of a 1905 ad for a McCray refrigerator, although on close inspection, this refrigerator seems to have been nothing more than a glorified icebox. I wondered what images would a 1909 or 1910 Army and Navy Stores catalogue have contained?

Internet research didn’t turn up any catalogues, but it did turn up Edwardian Shopping: A Selection from the Army and Navy Stores Catalogues 1898-1913. By now my research had become obsessive, and so with the help of AbeBooks I ordered a copy from WorldofBooks in Goring-By-Sea for US $20.93. Yesterday the book arrived and it was many Christmases at once as I ripped open the packaging and started flipping through the pages. Never has a catalogue been examined with such expectation and such impatience and such anxiety. My big fear was that—because Edwardian Shopping is a selection, after all—there might not be a page with iceboxes or refrigerators on it.

Of course, as the opening sentence to this blog betrays, my fears were groundless. 1898 didn’t have refrigerators, though it did have oil cooking stoves, but in the 1902 portion of the book there is a whole page given over to refrigerators. On the page there is not just one, but six refrigerators, refrigerators ranging from Kent’s Patented Ventilated Refrigerator to the New Dry-Air Cabinet Refrigerator. Prices range from 2 pounds 19 shilling, and sixpence to 24 pounds, 18 shilling and 9 pence. Though one, the New Dry-Air Cabinet Refrigerator, anticipates the design of later fridges, none of the refrigerators have electrical or mechanical components—they are in effect glorified ice boxes—yet they are all, with one exception, named refrigerators. The page is titled refrigerators.

The feeling I had, and still have, is similar to the one I had many years ago when I visited Hilltop, Beatrix Potter’s house in the Lake District. In the house were various bits of doll furniture which had served as models for illustrations in Peter Rabbit and other books, and looking at the objects had a disorienting, hallucinatory effect. Images from the fantasy world of childhood had become real. Their reality, however, was of a peculiar nature. The cups and dishes which Peter Rabbit and his kin used had existed in the real world, yet even in the real world they were children’s items, toys mimicking an adult reality. It seemed to me that Plato’s cave needed yet another chamber. Even the shadows had shadows.

Something of the kind is what I now feel about the refrigerator page. I can imagine James cutting out one of the refrigerators—probably the New Dry-Air Cabinet Refrigerator—yet I can also imagine Virginia glancing at the page prior to writing her description of James at work. Her catalogue may well be of a later date than 1902, yet for her, as for me, the catalogue is already old, because she is writing in 1926, almost 20 years after the moment in which she situates James. In her own time, the time of her writing, catalogues would have started to include compressor containing electric refrigerators. Wiki talks about a 1922 model that “consisted of a wooden cold box, water-cooled compressor, an ice cube tray and a 9-cubic-foot (0.25 m3) compartment, and cost $714,” this in the same year when a Model-T Ford cost about $450. For Virginia writing in 1926 a refrigerator would have been a symbol of modernity and of immense cultural change. Kitchens and society were being revolutionized by technology. Somewhere in Virginia’s letters or diaries, (I will have to track down the reference) I remember her recording the purchase of a refrigerator, surely a momentous life changing purchase.

Time is slightly timeless in To the Lighthouse, but let us say that the first section of the book is set in 1911, give or take a couple of years. Virginia mind is therefore oscillating between 1911 and 1926, and her refrigerator partakes of both times. It is a polysemous, multivalent (pick your word) object which carries all kinds of messages and meanings. On the one hand it is a tool for conserving food, and as such a symbol of preservation. Refrigerators slow down and stave off decay. Against that, the refrigerator is also a symbol of change, of technology changing and presumably improving human culture. The refrigerator is an instrument of science, and it occupies the same sphere as the lighthouse. It could be viewed as a domestic lighthouse of sorts.

Leafing through Edwardian Shopping, I see all kinds of interesting objects and I go approach the question of “Why a refrigerator?” from another angle. If left to his own devices, James would probably have picked another object to cut out, a gun, a bicycle, a model screw steam boat, or even, say, the “Royal Bairns” car. Thinking about the refrigerator in this way sharpens the realization that James is guided in his choice by Mrs. Ramsay. Later in the novel, while thinking about how “all these young men parodied her husband,” Mrs. Ramsay turns the pages of the Stores list in the hope of coming upon something else for James to cut out. The refrigerator, too, was presumably her choice, and it should therefore be associated with her, and with her role as a preserver and shaper of culture. It is in connection with the refrigerator that she imagines him “all red and ermine on the Bench or directing a stern and momentous enterprise in some crisis of public affairs.”

To make this kind of connection between Mrs. Ramsay and the refrigerator is to probe deeper into both Virginia and Mrs. Ramsay’s mind. Mrs. Ramsay is repeatedly shown as someone who is training and shaping her children’s minds, and her approach to her daughters differs from her approach to her sons. She wants her daughters and the women around her to support and sustain men, while she wants the men to be a success in the public sphere. For all her daydreams about becoming “an investigator, elucidating the social problem,” she remains deeply conservative and continues to espouse, demonstrate and teach values appropriate to the Victorian “angel in the house.” Loving and lovable, a beacon or lighthouse for those around her, she is also a paralyzing force. By associating her with the refrigerator, Virginia is subtly indicting her. She will, as I hope to show later, do the same thing again when she has Mrs. Ramsay read, in all its misogyny, the fairytale of “The Fisherman and his Wife” to James..

Thinking about James cutting out pictures and about him “all red in ermine” also leads to thoughts of Virginia’s 1936 scrapbooks and the pictures which she included in Three Guineas. There is a black and white one of a judge who despite the black and white plate is almost certainly “all red in ermine,” and in the text preceding that page Virginia comments that “one of these days, you may wear a judge’s wig on your head, an ermine cape on your shoulders.” In the ten years which lie between the writing of To the Lighthouse and Three Guineas, Virginia has not forgotten the way in which judges are formed. The roots of Three Guineas and the Three Guineas scrapbooks are visible on the opening page of To the Lighthouse. As so often in her writing, you can see how her mind kept working at and elucidating different aspects of the same subject or problem over many years.

One last thought. The catalogue in To the Lighthouse does not have a date, but it does have a name. Specifying the origins of the catalogue is as important as obscuring the date. Obscuring the date helps make the novel mythical and almost timeless. Specifying the origins also tapped emotional associations for Virginia and her readers, rich associations of consumer culture similar to those which a Sears, Roebuck or Timothy Eatons catalogue might have tapped for an American or a Canadian reader. As I type, it occurs to me that the catalogue is an object meant to stimulate and increase consumption, and this aspect of the catalogue may provide another connection between James cutting out the refrigerator and Mrs. Ramsay later telling the story of “The Fisherman and His Wife.” The tale is a cautionary one, one which might be read as a warning about the consequences of unbridled consumption. Naming the catalogue might have had a similar cautionary purpose for Virginia. War and consumption are linked in the same object. Perhaps, though, I am imposing my own thoughts about consumerism and the Ponzi schemes of capitalism upon Virginia. While she was very aware of the importance of money and appreciated the delights of consumerism, I think she very rarely saw consumerism as a cause for concern. Money and the having of money in most of her writing—think of Mrs. Ramsay’ greenhouse concerns or of Virginia’s thoughts on the education of women—is a balm to be desired rather than a poison to be feared.

All the same, there may be a cricket cry of consumer criticism in making a catalogue the playground for James’s scissors. I seem to remember similar slight criticisms in some of the diary entries, and I will be alert for such signals in further readings and re-readings of Virginia’s writings. For now, all I can be sure of is that the specificity of the catalogue name was intentional. With its title the Army and Navy Stores catalogue casts the first shadow of war upon the narrative. Eleven years before the publication of Three Guineas, the presence of the Army and Navy Stores catalogue deftly hints at how “the public and the private worlds are inseparably connected.”

1902 Army and Navy Stores Catalogue Refrigerator Page

1902 Army and Navy Stores Catalogue Refrigerator Page

New Dry-Air Cabinet Refrigerator

1902 New Dry-Air Cabinet Refrigerator

Toy Page in 1902 Army and Navy Stores Catalogue

Toy Page in 1902 Army and Navy Stores Catalogue


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