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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