Blog #59: Pharos Lighthouse: Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster

A lighthouse was a necessity. The coast of Egypt is, in its western section, both flat and rocky, and ships needed a landmark to show them where Alexandria lay, and a guide through the reefs that block her harbours. Pharos was the obvious site, because it stood in front of the city ; and on Pharos the eastern promontory, because it commanded the more important of the two harbours the Royal. But it is not clear whether a divine madness also seized the builders, whether they deliberately winged engineering with poetry, and tried to add a wonder to the world. At all events they succeeded, and the arts combined with science to praise their triumph. Just as the Parthenon had been identified with Athens, and St. Peter’s was to be identified with Rome, so, to the imagination of contemporaries, ” The Pharos ” became Alexandria and Alexandria the Pharos. Never, in the history of architecture, has a secular building been thus worshipped and taken on a spiritual life of its own. It beaconed to the imagination, not only to ships, and long after its light was extinguished memories of it glowed in the minds of men.

Pharos and Pharillon, pp. 16,17

Standing on the lantern, at the height of five hundred feet above the ground, a statue of Poseidon struck the pious note, and gave a Greek air to Africa seen from the sea.

Pharos and Pharillon, p.19

Connecting Virginia’s lighthouse to Forster’s is quite easy, since in 1923 Virginia and Leonard published Forster’s Pharos and Pharillon, the book from which the above quotation is taken. Many of the essays in Pharos and Pharillon were written by Forster when he was stationed in Alexandria with the Red Cross during WWI, and the title of the book came in part from “Pharos,” the pen name under which he had originally published the pieces.

Virginia and Forster had a close, if guarded relationship, the start of which can be dated back to 1910, the year Forster published Howards End. [1] Virginia reviewed several of Forster’s books, and in 1927 she wrote “The Novels of E. M. Forster,” a lengthy appreciation which still took Forster to task for lacking “the single vision,” for lacking the courage to be either preacher or teacher, and for failing “to connect the actual thing with the meaning of the thing and to carry the reader’s mind across the chasm which divides the two without spilling a single drop of its belief.” [2]

Even if Virginia could be critical of Forster, she also acknowledged a significant debt. For instance, in 1930 she wrote to Ethel Smyth, referring to Forster as “the novelist, whose books once influenced mine, and are very good, I think, though impeded, shrivelled and immature” (L4: 218). Some of the extent of that debt can be seen in the Pharos and Pharillon quotation above, as well as in parallels in plot and technique between Howards End and To the Lighthouse. There are, for instance, strong parallels between Mrs. Ramsay and Mrs Wilcox, both nurturing, socially responsible women with deep connections to the houses in which they live. Both die suddenly and can be said to haunt their beloved houses. Finally, both have a vivid afterlife in the imaginations of the young women they befriended while alive, Lily Briscoe in the case of Mrs. Ramsay, and Helen Schlegel in the case of Mrs. Wilcox.

Forster’s lighthouse helps call attention to Egyptian and Greek elements in To the Lighthouse. To see Forster’s Pharos in To the Lighthouse is to reflect upon the naming of Mrs. Bast, a name which not only evokes Leonard Bast [3], but also Bast, “the Eye of Ra,” Goddess of sun, moon, cats, women, and secrets. It is to think about the similarity of Ramsay and Ramses, and about how often Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey are described in royal terms. It is also to remember that William Bankes is named after William Bankes, owner of Kingston Lacy and famed Egyptologist.

Further, Pharos draws attention to Mr. Ramsay’s speculation, “Is the lot of the average human being better now than in the time of the Pharaohs?” and to Lily trying to imagine “how in the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who was, physically, touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything.” And with the statue of Poseidon crowning it, Pharos also sheds new light on Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts of the dish of fruit as part of “Neptune’s banquet,” and of Mr. Carmichael, late in the novel, “looking like an old pagan god, shaggy, with weeds in his hair and the trident.” From Pharos and from Forster, Virginia learned to combine realism and mysticism, so as—as she said of Ibsen’s technique in her 1927 review of Forster—to make us feel that “the thing we are looking at is lit up, and its depths revealed.”

Forster’s Pharos and Pharillon also invites thoughts about the protean power of language and about Virginia’s playfulness. Forster’s experiments, and alleged failures2 helped Virginia to master the protean power of language and symbol. Early in Pharos and Pharillon Forster invents a story of how Melenaus mistook “Pharoah’s” for “Pharos,” and transformed “Prouti” into “Proteus.” Language is protean, shifting, altering, and distorting, even as we seek to use it to pin down reality. The protean leads to the mythic, and the mythic empowers the “enchanted world of imagination” to transcend the quotidian and the “black winged harpy” of rationalism. In Virginia’s hands, the play of language allows constant changes, allows, for instance, Mr Ramsay, husband of Mrs. Ramsay, “the happier Helen of our days,” to shift from wolfhound, to stone, to bird, to Spanish gentleman, while all the while remaining profoundly himself.

With Forster’s lighthouse comes civilization, culture and science, comes Egypt and Greece, comes mythology, comes “inner light,” “only connect” and Howards End, comes Forster’s writing and influence, and comes awe at Virginia’s audacity and skill.

1) While Virginia’s friendship with Forster didn’t begin until around 1910, and while Forster modelled Helen and Margaret on the sisters of Goldworthy Lowes Dickinson (“The Art of Fiction,” p.37), Virginia would certainly have seen elements of Vanessa and herself in the Schlegel sisters of Howards End. She would have thought long and hard about the importance of money and of class, and she may even have smiled at the irony of her eventual marriage to a Leonard.

2) Though insightful, Virginia’s criticism of Forster is also unfair, particularly as concerns A Passage to India.

3) To evoke Leonard Bast is also to evoke Leonard’s lost umbrella and thus to establish a connection between Leonard and “Charles Tansley losing his umbrella” (TTL 56), a connection which is deepened by the similarity in the social background, and the attendant insecurity, shared by both Virginia and Morgan’s characters.

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