Blog #52: Charles Sorley and William Sorley in To the Lighthouse

“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; Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in midair by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to the grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.”

A Room of One’s Own

Today’s blog proposes identifications for two more characters in To the Lighthouse: Sorley and his little boy. The identifications, if correct, point to the subtlety and daring of Virginia’s methods, as neither character ever makes a direct appearance in the novel, and one, indeed, is not even described. Of Sorley, the lighthouse keeper, we know only the name, and of the son we know that he is “a poor boy with a tuberculous hip” and that he is probably “less well grown than James.”

The lighthouse could not have a better keeper than William Ritchie Sorley (1885-1935), Cambridge graduate and holder of the Knightbridge chair of moral philosophy from 1900 to 1933. Sorley seems to have had theistic views, based on his ideas about the relationship between moral values and reality. Sorley was also very interested in the ethical significance of evolutionary theory, and in 1885 he published The Ethics of Naturalism. Today he is most remembered for his Moral Values and the Idea of God (1918) and A History of British Philosophy to 1900 (1920). To see William Ritchie Sorley as keeper of the lighthouse is to further appreciate how disingenuous Virginia was in saying, “I meant nothing by the lighthouse.”

While William Sorley’s Cambridge background and his career as a philosopher help qualify him as godfather to Virginia’s Sorley, even more important is his status as father of Charles Sorley (1895-1915). Charles Sorley was a promising young poet killed by a sniper’s bullet at the Battle of Loos. In his autobiography Goodbye to All That (1929), Robert Graves described Charles Sorley as “one of the three poets of importance killed during the war.” More relevantly, in “These are the Plans,” an August 1st, 1919, Athenaeum review piece, Virginia Woolf praised Sorley as “experimental,” as someone who “thought for himself,” as “a boy with a mind awakening daily more widely to the complexity of things, and naturally incapable of a dishonest or sentimental conclusion.”

To see William Sorley behind Sorley the lighthouse keeper and to see Charles Sorley behind Sorley’s little boy is to deepen the semes of Cambridge, philosophy, and generations, of family pressure and of cultural transmission. To see Charles Sorley behind Sorley’s little boy is also to deepen, intensify and complicate the emotional response to the wastefulness of Andrew Ramsay’s death. The Sorley name digs out a beautiful cave of character through which the horror of reality invades the horror of the fiction bounded by the square brackets In to the Lighthouse: “[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous.]” To see Charles Sorley behind Sorley’s little boy even transmutes Mrs. Ramsay’s domestic activism of knitting stockings for the poor to the domestic activism of women knitting stockings for the soldiers in WWI.

Above all, to see Sorleys behind Sorleys is to marvel at the lightness, confidence and complexity with which Virginia Woolf attached fiction to life. The weave of her fiction is so natural, so organic, so multitudinous, that she does not depend on the allusion-bibers like myself, randy for connections, to unpack her meanings for her. Multiplicity and redundancy are part of her technique. Hundreds of thousands of readers have read and understood the essence of To the Lighthouse without needing extraneous biographical or historical information.

All the same, unearthing and connecting such information to her novel deepens the reading experience and adds rich layers of pleasure and pain, meaning and understanding. Virginia wanted us to read her books in a constant spirit of inquiry, wanted us to constantly try to see patterns and make connections. By again and again attaching her fiction to reality at the corners, she invites us to read in the same spirit as Egyptologists work to decipher cuneiform (Bloomsbury or, more likely, Cambridge gossip may have carried word of William Bankes’ efforts in that direction), as detectives approach crime scenes (Minta Doyle’s surname connects her to Sherlock Holmes), as scientists approach nature and the physical universe, and as mystics approach the numinous.

One last, playful thought, a Virginian thought. By again and again attaching the web of her fiction to reality, Virginia makes struggling flies of us all.

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