Blog #167: Anna Karenina and To the Lighthouse (Blog 5 of several plus 1)

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“there could be no doubt that for some reason or other our mothers had mismanaged their affairs very gravely”

A Room of One’s Own

Multiplicity again! Always multiplicity. I have been thinking about the many faces of Mrs. Ramsay; I have been thinking about Mrs. Ramsay and Darya Alexandrenova and Julia Stephen and Conrad’s “Intended.” Virginia is a genius of multiplicity and there is no getting away from multiplicity when thinking about her and her works. Her selection and control of facts is so nuanced and precise that readers can–and are constantly expected to–use the same facts to perceive multiple, widely varying stories. Interpretation is required, yet as interpretation layers upon interpretation, part of the skill in reading Virginia is always to remember the existence of the interpretations beyond or below the surface one. Right now, for instance, in reading To the Lighthouse as a retelling of Anna Karenina, I also have to keep remembering that the novel is deeply biographical. I have to keep remembering Vanessa’s words:

It seemed to me that in the first part of the book you have given a portrait of mother which is more like her to me than anything I could ever have conceived of as possible. It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead.

No object, character or event in To the Lighthouse means just one thing.

Always remembering Mrs. Ramsay`s other avatars, always remembering that “fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with,” always remembering that for Virginia and Vanessa Mrs. Ramsay was also their mother, I want to continue thinking about Mrs. Ramsay as a version of Darya Alexandrenova. In comparing the Beauf en Daube dinner to the Potage Marie Louise one, I said that Darya or Dolly is Mrs. Ramsay rewritten on a heroic scale. What I should have said is that she is an inversion of Dolly. Where Dolly is passive, Mrs. Ramsay is active. Where Dolly is weak and pathetic, Mrs. Ramsay is strong and heroic. Where Dolly is hesitant and uncertain, Mrs. Ramsay is firm and decisive. Where Dolly is overwhelmed by her responsibilities as wife, mother and angel of the house, Mrs. Ramsay is calm and imperial. Again and again, Virginia shapes and presents Mrs. Ramsay as the deliberate antithesis of Dolly.

Tolstoy`s picture of Dolly is an empathetic, even sympathetic one. We are made to feel the difficulty of her situation, and we see the unfairness of it. Stepan Oblonsky dumps all the hard work of parenting and domestic management onto her. He cares about his wife, but he is too self-centered, too much of a lazy egoist to actually help her in any meaningful way. He trades on his charm and lightheartedness and freely indulges in a hedonistic lifestyle at Dolly`s expense. She, meanwhile, is exhausted and nearly crushed multiple burdens of her roles as wife, mother and household manager.

To some extent, Woolf`s portrayal of Mrs. Ramsay is similar to Tolstoy`s of Dolly. Mrs. Ramsay, too, is overloaded with her multiple burdens. In fact, Woolf gives Mrs. Ramsay an even heavier burden than the one born by Dolly. Like Julia Stephen, she has eight children instead of six. Like Julia Stephen in London and St. Ives, she also takes on the responsibility of social work. She looks after the poor and the sick. She makes house calls. She also looks after the halt and the lame in the family friendship circle. There are hints of this nurturing role in Dolly–her matchmaking with respect to Kitty and Dolly, and her efforts on Anna’s behalf, for instance–but Dolly’s activities are trivial compared to what Mrs. Ramsay does to look after Mr. Bankes, Mr. Carmichael, Paul, Charles Tansley and all the others. Again and again, Mrs. Ramsay is superhuman in her nurturing activities, a transcendent embodiment of ‘the angel in the house.’

Mrs. Ramsay, though, is more than Dolly on steroids. Virginia Woolf’s conception of Mrs. Ramsay is fundamentally, radically different than that of Tolstoy’s conception of Dolly. What Woolf brings to Mrs. Ramsay and particularly to Mrs. Ramsay’s role as mother is agency. Unlike Dolly, Mrs. Ramsay is not a passive victim overwhelmed by fate and a socially determined role. Mrs. Ramsay is a powerful creative force and, if her situation is, in many ways, similar to Dolly’s, it is not because of helplessness. Mrs. Ramsay’s situation is a product of near sightedness and an inability to properly question the past and her role as mother. Nurturing and self-sacrificing she may be, but she is more than strong enough to cope with most physical, mental and emotional demands. She may suffer moments of intense fatigue and exhaustion, yet she is not overwhelmed by the burdens of motherhood. There is nothing in To the Lighthouse comparable to the following Anna Karenina passage:

“Yes, altogether,” thought Darya Alexandrovna, looking back over her whole existence during those fifteen years of her married life, “pregnancy, sickness, mental incapacity, indifference to everything, and most of all—hideousness. Kitty, young and pretty as she is, even Kitty has lost her looks; and I when I’m with child become hideous, I know it. The birth, the agony, the hideous agonies, that last moment … then the nursing, the sleepless nights, the fearful pains….”
Darya Alexandrovna shuddered at the mere recollection of the pain from sore breasts which she had suffered with almost every child. “Then the children’s illnesses, that everlasting apprehension; then bringing them up; evil propensities” (she thought of little Masha’s crime among the raspberries), “education, Latin—it’s all so incomprehensible and difficult. And on the top of it all, the death of these children.” And there rose again before her imagination the cruel memory, that always tore her mother’s heart, of the death of her last little baby, who had died of croup; his funeral, the callous indifference of all at the little pink coffin, and her own torn heart, and her lonely anguish at the sight of the pale little brow with its projecting temples, and the open, wondering little mouth seen in the coffin at the moment when it was being covered with the little pink lid with a cross braided on it.

“And all this, what’s it for? What is to come of it all? That I’m wasting my life, never having a moment’s peace, either with child, or nursing a child, forever irritable, peevish, wretched myself and worrying others, repulsive to my husband, while the children are growing up unhappy, badly educated, and penniless.

Unlike Dolly, Mrs. Ramsay never agonizes about her mothering. She may deplore the behavior of her children, may question “strife, divisions, difference of opinion, prejudices, twisted into the very fibre of being, ” but she is never at a loss in her parenting and she never doubts herself. Where Dolly has doubts about the efficacy of French instruction, is unreasonably distressed by Mascha’s behaviour in the raspberries, and overreacts to the children’s squirting milk and cooking raspberries over candles, Mrs. Ramsay is always sure and confident about her parenting. She has a clear sense of what she wants to achieve (James “all red and ermine on the Bench or directing a stern and momentous enterprise in some crisis of public affairs,” for instance), and she is always quick to assert herself and to maintain her authority. Even in moments of crisis, as in the nursery when Cam and James are at odds over the skull, she quickly and capably soothes her children and maintains calm control over the situation. Her actions are always swift and decisive, measured and controlled, confident and infallible. Everything about her corresponds to Julia Stephen, as Virginia described her in the Moments of Being “Reminiscences” piece:

Her intellectual gifts had always been those that find their closest expression in action; she had great clearness of insight, sound judgement, humour, and a power of grasping very quickly the real nature of someone’s circumstances, and so arranging that the matter, whatever it was, fell into its true proportions at once. Sometimes with her natural impetuosity, she took in on herself to despatch difficulties with a high hand, like some commanding Empress.

Mrs Ramsay, of course, shares Julia Stephen’s imperial qualities. Not for nothing do we see her “stand quite motionless for a moment against a picture of Queen Victoria wearing the blue ribbon of the Garter.” Not for nothing does Mr. Carmichael resist “her masterfulness, her positiveness, something matter-of-fact in her.” Lily remembers Mrs. Ramsay as a Canute-like figure saying “‘Life stand still here’; Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent.” Mrs. Ramsay’s imperial nature is manifest in the way in which she guides, directs and controls those around her. It is manifest in Lily’s memory of “the astonishing power she had over one.” Where Dolly is impotent, Mrs. Ramsay is omnipotent.

To measure Mrs. Ramsay against Dolly is to see how deeply critical Virginia is of her. Dolly is too weak to change anything. Mrs. Ramsay is not. Her imperial powers indict her. She may be a wonderfully capable mother, yet her power and agency also make her responsible for the state of society. Her parenting and her educational methods serve to prop up the existing order. The fairytale she reads to James is deeply misogynist. The existing myths are perpetuated. She is “formidable to behold,” and it is only in silence that her daughters can “sport with infidel ideas which they had brewed for themselves of a life different from hers; in Paris, perhaps; a wilder life; not always taking care of some man or other.” In supporting men and masculine values, Mrs. Ramsay betrays her daughters, hers sons, and all of society. She is keeper of the status quo, and it is the status quo which leads inexorably to WWI.

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