Blog #139: Today we have the naming of names in To the Lighthouse

List of Matremoirs

List of Patremoirs

Children of Writers

2) Mr. Ramsay. A name spelled with an e instead of an a would sound the same. Virginia’s playfulness and her allusive use of names could easily have led her to change an e to an a, a twenty-one year old Georgian into a sixty-some year old Victorian. Frank Ramsey was a young Cambridge mathematician and philosopher, friend and translator of Wittgenstein, proponent of the redundancy theory of truth, and developer of the Ramsey theorem. In 1924, Virginia met the twenty-one year old Ramsey at a Maynard Keynes dinner, and he impressed her as “something like a Darwin, broad, thick, powerful,and a great mathematician, and clumsy to boot. Honest I should say, a true Apostle.” In 1925, Ramsey was part of a small discussion group that regularly met to discuss psychoanalysis. James Strachey and Arthur Tansley were also part of that group. Imagine, Mr. Ramsey and Mr. Tansley discussing Freud! The reality seems far more fictional than the book.

3) Charles Tansley. A month ago, even a week ago, I was so proud of being the first to see a link between Charles Tansley and the ecologist, Sir Arthur Tansley. Blissfully unaware of a comment and footnote in Peder Anker’s Imperial Ecology (see below), I had leapt upon the connection like a Victorian lepidopterist on a Straw-bordered Underwing. To connect Charles Tansley to Darwin and to Sir Arthur Tansley, pioneer ecologist and patron saint of the New Phytologist, was to shed bright new beams of light upon To the Lighthouse. Those beams only became more intense and more numerous when I learned about Tansley’s connections to psychoanalysis and about his 1920 bestseller, New Psychology and Its Relation to Life. There is more than one Virginia Woolf doctoral thesis lurking in the pages of New Psychology.

excerpt from Blog #50

As the above suggests, today’s entry is going to revisit Charles Tansley and some of my earlier ideas about names in To the Lighthouse. Partly this is because I’ve already revisited William and Charles Sorley, and partly this is because I’ve come across an essay which is both validating and deflating. Validating because it confirms some of my speculations about Virginia’s use of names in To the Lighthouse. Deflating because my insights are even less original than I had supposed. There are other footprints than mine and Peder Ankers’ on the Tansley sands.

The most recent footprints I’ve found are in Sanja Bahun’s “Woolf and Psychoanalytic Theory” as published in Bryony Randall and Jane Goldman’s Virginia Woolf in Context essay collection. In her essay, Bahun not only identifies Arthur Tansley as “a likely source for the Tansley in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse”; she also calls attention to Frank P. Ramsey’s participation in Strachey and Tansley’s psychoanalytic discussion group. Speaking of Ramsey, she states: “Woolf’s impression of the last would worm into the composite-father-figure of Mr. Ramsay in her 1927 novel.” Bahun is intrigued by the possibility that Woolf artistically integrated Ramsey and Tansley into the figurative network of To the Lighthouse. Virginia Woolf’s comment about the psychoanalytic aspect of the novel is also quoted: “I suppose that I did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and laid it to rest”.

While Bahun does not offer any detailed rereading of To the Lighthouse, she does call attention to two earlier sets of footprints which link the historical Tansley to the fictional one. These footprints are Laura Cameron and John Forrester’s 1999 History Workshop Journal essay ‘“A nice type of the English scientist”: Tansley and Freud’, and their 2000 Psychoanalysis and History essay “Tansley’s Psychoanalytic Network: an Episode out of the early History of Psychoanalysis in England.” Bahun does not, however, mention Laura Cameron’s 1999 Radical History Review essay “Histories of Disturbance,” a fascinating Tansley study which looks at some of the connections between the “new psychology” and “the new ecology” and in so doing attempts to show “how histories of the earth may be connected to histories of the self.” This essay, too, posits a connection between the historical Tansley; and, what is more, a footnote to the essay credits Perry Meisel and Walter Kendrick’s Bloomsbury / Freud: The Letters of James and Alix Strachey 1924-1925 with corroborating Cameron’s hunch about the Tansley / Tansley connection. Yet another set of footprints!

These footprints are deflating because they further reduce my claims to priority in connecting Charles Tansley to Arthur Tansley. The beach is getting trampled and Ankers footprints are joined by those of Meisel, Kendrick, Cameron, Forrester, Bahun, and who knows how many others. To use another metaphor, I am become a Scott to their Amundsens. No matter. I still claim priority in linking Mr. Ramsay and Paul Rayley to Sir William Ramsay and Lord Rayleigh. More importantly, the presences of these Amundsens tends to confirm my original insights. My primitive allusion-hunting instincts are validated and gratified, even if, according in Anne Fernald in “Woolf and Intertextuality,” they perform “a small violence on the text, revealing the seams of composition while announcing” my “own perspicacity.”

As evidence for the historicity of names piles up, new, exciting areas of speculation appear. To see historical antecedents for Bankes, Sorley, Ramsay, Rayley, Carmichael, Tansley and others invites questions about their collective and individual presence. How much is our mental shape of the book altered by becoming aware that Virginia invokes so many scientists and academics? so many artists? On an individual basis, why were specific figures selected? With respect to Tansley, for instance, the papers by Bahun, Forrester, and Cameron invite ecological and psychoanalytic re-readings of To the Lighthouse. In what ways, if at all, did Virginia connect “the new psychology” to “the new ecology”? Thinking of Arthur Tansley, what are we to make of Mrs. Ramsay and the rooks, Jasper and the starlings, Nancy and the tidal pool, Lily and the ants, nature in the “Time Passes” section, the socioeconomic pressures on the fishermen and villagers…to say nothing of the myriad psychological interactions amongst the various characters?

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