Blog # 60: Further Lighthouse name games: Mr. Ramsay and William Bankes

I’ve been having further thoughts about possible antecedents for Mr. Ramsay and Mr. Bankes. Some of the thoughts are triggered by wondering about why particular names were chosen. Seeing Sir William Ramsay and Frank Ramsey in Mr Ramsay deepens semes of chemistry, mathematics and philosophy in the novel, but might there be more to Mr. Ramsay’s origins than that? In his introduction to To the Lighthouse, Frank Bradford adds Ramsay MacDonald to Sir William Ramsay, and also raises the possibility that it was the geographical proximity of Raasay to the Skye that prompted Woolf to opt for the similar sounding Ramsay. As I had already reached the Raasay and Sir William Ramsay possibilities on my own, I am partial to Bradshaw’s suggestions, especially since his playing the name game widens the community of players, thereby giving the game more credibility.

At the same time, I think that with both Bankes and Ramsay the game can be taken further. Bankes and Ramsay are linked, linked by the mummified corpse of their friendship, and the link reveals further possibilities and further evidence as to the subtleties of Virginia’s mind. By connecting William Bankes to Mr. Ramsay, Virginia introduced an open sesame to a very important character cave. While Ruth Vanita rightly used the historical William Bankes and his homosexual notoriety to explore sexual ambiguity in the novel, Bankes can also be used to look at the cave of cultural transmission. As an Egyptologist, the historical William Bankes connects Mr. Ramsay to Ramses the Great, just as seeing Wallis Budge, the Egyptologist, in Mr. Budge of Between the Acts heightens awareness of the Egyptian elements in that novel.

The To the Lighthouse leap from Victorian to Egyptian is not as far fetched as it may seem. Externally, there is the Pharos connection and the Alexandrian ties which accompany it. Internally there is the mummified corpse, even if there is an admitted stretch from a Heaney bog corpse [1] to an Egyptian mummy. There is Mr. Ramsay’s question, “Is the lot of the average human being better now than in the time of the Pharaohs?” There are also the repeated associations of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay with royalty, associations which culminate with Mr Ramsay’s “imperious need” and the way in which Lilly hears him, the way in which “like everything else this strange morning the words became symbols, wrote themselves all over the grey-green walls.”

Most convincingly, there is the passage in which Lily remembers her encounter with Mrs. Ramsay:

Sitting on the floor with her arms round Mrs. Ramsay’s knees, close as she could get, smiling to think that Mrs. Ramsay would never know the reason of that pressure, she imagined 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, but they would never be offered openly, never made public. What art was there, known to love or cunning, by which one pressed through into those secret chambers? What device for becoming, like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored? Could the body achieve, or the mind, subtly mingling in the intricate passages of the brain? or the heart? Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs. Ramsay one? for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge, she had thought, leaning her head on Mrs. Ramsay’s knee.

In 1922, Howard Carter discovered Tutankhanum’s tomb close to that of Ramses VI. By evoking that discovery, Virginia’s description connects the Ramsay name with that of Ramses. Egyptian associations and myths are recruited to assist the Greek, the Roman, the Elizabethan, the Romantic, the Victorian, and the timeless. Virginia uses Jane Harrison and E. M. Forster pylons to pull the past into the present. Cultural transmission requires playing with scraps of the past. Modern characters are charged with historical meaning. The remote past lingers in the present moment. Virginia makes Egyptologists of us all. Like Budge and Bankes working on their hieroglyphs, we are forced to reconstruct her meanings from the traces she has left behind. Remembering Shelley and his importance to Virginia, remembering too Mr. Ramsay’s self-indulgent fear of oblivion, Egypt may also invoke “Ozymandias” as a deliberate part of Virginia’s artifice.

A final Bankes thought involves Joseph Banks. Virginia almost certainly thought of him. Even if his surname lacks an e, he was an astoundingly important biologist, and he has the added attraction of a Hebrides connection. In 1772 he visited Fingal’s cave on the Isle of Staffa, and his example was later followed by Mendelson, Scott, Keats, Turner and Queen Victoria.

1) Bog corpses existed before Heaney and, besides, the name game allows for anachronisms. Virginia wanted us to construct our own lighthouses and Lighthouse, not just parse hers.

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