Blog #203: Elementary My Dear Woolf: The Case for Seeing Arthur Conan Doyle in To the Lighthouse

In a very early Woolf blog, I fancifully suggested that Minta Doyle’s surname might be a tribute to Scottish born Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The statement was a rather wild one, given that other than the name itself I had no clues to lead me in that direction. There was seemingly no reason for an Arthur Conan Doyle reference in To the Lighthouse. Now, however, thanks to Meredith, I think I have the beginnings of a case.

My sleuthing went as follows. Because Minta connects to Meredith by way of Lord Ormont and his Aminta, I checked to see if there might not also be a connection between Meredith and Doyle. It turns out that the young Conan Doyle was a passionate Meredith fan. Meredith’s work was one of Doyle’s “youthful cults,” and he gave popular lectures on Meredith and wrote essays about him. In Memories and Adventures, Conan Doyle describes visiting Meredith and, after a rather testy initial encounter, being asked to drink a whole bottle of Burgundy, a request which Doyle was only too happy to satisfy. On this or on another visit Meredith also talked at length about Napoleon’s Marshals, and he brought The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot to Conan Doyle’s attention. Meredith’s comments and Marbot’s memoirs (which Clarissa is glimpsed reading in Mrs. Dalloway) supposedly inspired Doyle to write his Exploits of Brigadier Gerard.

The Doyle Meredith connection is also a Leslie Stephen one. According to Andrew Lycett (in his Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes), on one occasion when visiting Box Hill with J M Barrie and Arthur Quiller Couch, Doyle met Leslie Stephen at Meredith’s. Supposedly Doyle found Stephen “retiring and unprepossessing.” What Leslie Stephen thought is not recorded, but he may well have told his family about meeting the creator of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson; and Virginia, though she would later disparage Watson as “a sack stuffed with straw, a dummy, a figure of fun”, may have been sufficiently impressed to remember this connection between Doyle and her father when she came to write To the Lighthouse. Doyle’s Scottish heritage would have been an additional reason for referencing him. A touch of Conan Doyle ancestry in Minta Doyle, by way of Meredith, might also supply a reason for why Mr. Carmichael is so interested in acrostics and puzzles, and also in why To the Lighthouse offers so many sleuthing delights.

The biggest delight of my Conan Doyle sleuthing is almost certainly a false clue. False it may be, but the following story now forms a part of my To the Lighthouse fabric. In 1881, Conan Doyle published a signed article in The British Journal of Photography. Titled “After Cormorants with a Camera”, the essay is a colourful, boisterously hearty account of a trip Doyle made to the Isle of May with two friends. Doyle along with two friends hired two local sailors and their small boat to sail them over from the Burgh of Grail (Crail) to the Isle of May and its lighthouse. While his companions amused themselves by slaughtering great numbers of birds, Doyle spent his time developing his photographic skills and also catching several fish. In his story Doyle describes visiting and dining with the lighthouse keeper and his wife, whose eldest son has been accidentally shot in the leg by a “stout Frenchman who had come over for some shooting.” He also includes a punning reference to the charge of the Light Brigade.

A trip to a lighthouse in a small boat sailed by two local sailors, three passengers, the shooting of birds, artistic efforts to record the scene, a lighthouse keeper and his family, a lame son: uncannily strong as the parallels are between Doyle’s account and Woolf’s novel, it is highly unlikely that Woolf ever read Doyle’s essay. Her own biographical source material provided identical bones for her tale. All the same, because of the allusive and accretive method of her story telling, a method which invites the reader to look for subtle signs and to bring their own experience—experience both real and literary—to the story, for me To the Lighthouse now includes Arthur Conan Doyle’s little adventure. As a bonus, I also know a little more about pioneering Victorian photographers, of which, of course, Virginia’s aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron, was one.

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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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Blog #201: Bishop in Dove instead of Woolf

Fathers don’t have to be dynasts to bridge past and future. Through family and family stories, almost every father roots his children to the past while growing different possible futures through present actions. Understanding of “Grape Sherbet” is deepened by the knowledge that Rita Dove’s father was the first black man allowed to work as a chemist for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio. The sherbet is a miracle of chemistry, a reality-altering, colour transformation with implications as deep as Memorial Day and “the grassed-over mounds.” Memorial Day, after all, has its origins in the end of the Civil War. Like the children who name “each stone for/ a lost milk tooth,” who make the dead a positive part of natural growth, a part of growing up, the father may not understand all the implications of what he does. The grandmother’s “pure refusal” almost certainly is fueled more by racial anxiety than it is by diabetes. However, because of family, because of history, because of her father–a Dove who wears “his cap turned up / so the bib resembles a duck,”–Rita Dove can accept what the grandmother of her poem cannot. She can see why her father bothered, how he overcame pressures from both sides of the colour line, pressures both from within and from without, and because of his miracle she can face the past without ducking, without refusal. As she invents or re-creates her father’s feat, using secret recipes of her own, her “Grape Sherbet” burns with a grateful, playful smile.

Rita Dove: Introduction to “Grape Sherbet.”

I wrote the above paragraph to accompany Rita Dove’s “Grape Sherbet” when I included that poem in Fathers: A Literary Anthology. Short as the paragraph is, it was the product of several months of reading Rita’s poems and reading and thinking about her life. I thought I knew “Grape Sherbet” well, and yet this morning, thanks to a tweet by Robert Macfarlane, I realize how much there is yet to know. I’ve discovered one of Rita Dove’s secret recipes, and, once again, I am reminded that one of the rewards of reading poetry is that there is always more to know. Poetry is like landscape. A new experience or new fact can reconfigure the previously known so that it has to be revisited and rethought.

The MacFarlane tweet which triggered this blog is as follows: “ It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world.” The quotation comes from Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses,” a poem which I read long ago and which I admired and still admire for its luminous realism, the way in which the mythic simmers beneath the painstaking, gritty surface details. In part, I like the poem because the cosmic is approached through the common. Through traces of personal history and the iridescent armour of the fish scale words glitters the cold dark hardness of the numinous. (Yoiks, what a pretentious sounding sentence. True, all the same.) I like the poem, too, because it reminds me of my fisherman past, and the heroism latent in the gore and exhaustion of my fish plant days.

Much as I like the poem, I had forgotten the line flagged by MacFarlane, and consequently I missed a large and important part of Dove’s poem. The Bishop allusion opens up new vistas, as, Woolf-like, Bishop uses allusion to dig out deep, beautiful caves beneath the surface of her work. “It’s just how we imagined lavender would taste” connects “Grape Sherbet” to Bishop’s explorations in “At the Fishhouses.” Dove’s history is a continuation and expansion of Bishop’s. The generational search for identity inherent in Bishop’s grandfather looms larger as Dove interrogates the past through her father and grandmother. In contrast to Bishop’s poem, geographical identity is largely eschewed, even if the darkness of the American south smoulders darkly beneath the cemetery turf. The bitterness of Bishop’s sea is transmuted to the lavender sweetness of sherbet, and salt enhances the sweetness.

It might be said that Dove’s poem verges on the saccharine. After all, there are so few grounds for optimism, even if the father’s miracle is a transforming one. Outside of the world of the poem, the dark forces of racism and sexism continue to maim and terrorize. But Dove is not willfully closing her eyes to reality. Her bow to Bishop is proof of that. Dove’s knowledge, too, is historical, and like Bishop’s it is drawn from the “hard cold mouth of the world,” “derived from the rocky breasts forever.” Bishop strengthens Dove, even as Dove draws upon her . Childish innocence disappears with the lost milk teeth. As adults, the knowledge we know is not the knowledge we imagined to be. To change the world, miracles are needed. Miracles require attention and belief. Like the father’s, the poet’s task is to bother. The task is to confront indifference and pay attention to the details of the world, and by so doing to attempt a “transmutation of fire that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.” Dove’s apparent simplicity owes much to Bishop’s seeming complexity.

“Grape Sherbet”

The Day? Memorial.

After the grill

Dad appears with his masterpiece –

swirled snow, gelled light.

We cheer. The recipe’s

a secret and he fights

a smile, his cap turned up

so the bib resembles a duck.

That morning we galloped

through the grassed-over mounds

and named each stone

for a lost milk tooth. Each dollop

of sherbet, later,

is a miracle,

like salt on a melon that makes it sweeter.

Everyone agrees – it’s wonderful!

It’s just how we imagined lavender

would taste. The diabetic grandmother

stares from the porch,

a torch

of pure refusal.

We thought no one was lying

there under our feet,

we thought it

was a joke. I’ve been trying

to remember the taste,

but it doesn’t exist.

Now I see why

you bothered,


by Rita Dove

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Blog #200: On Why Meredith Was Not Allowed to Go the Way of Calprenede and Scudery

Will you at any rate write to me? I hardly think so. You always say you love writing letters, but you never do it. The inconsistency of your sex, I suppose. Yours would be more soothing to read than George Meredith’s. What do you think? I opened that volume just before I left Belsize yesterday, and was so nauseated by the few sentences that met my eye, that I shut it up, put it down, and deliberately left it behind, so if you want it you must ask them to send it you. Nothing will induce me to read another word the man wrote. Is it prejudice, do you think, that makes us hate the Victorians, or is it the truth of the case? They seem to me a set of mouthing bungling hypocrites; but perhaps really there is a baroque charm about them which will be discovered by our great-great-grandchildren, as we have discovered the charm of Donne, who seemed intolerable to the 18th century. Only I don’t believe it. Thackeray and G. Meredith will go the way of Calprenede and Scudery.

Letter from Lytton Strachey to Virginia Woolf, Nov. 8th, 1912

Even if research is often clouded with anxiety and frustration, there can be powerful moments of pleasure. Research is occasionally akin to scanning a pebbly beach for pieces of sea smoothed glass. The eye and the mind are trained to spot the glint of unexpected treasure. Just so, sometimes, among the vagaries and uncertainties of research, a new and entirely unexpected piece of information surfaces. The information need not be profound or revolutionary to be exciting. Even a small new fact can deepen or reshape the subject of study. For me, Lytton Strachey’s letter is a case in point.

Before finding and reading this letter, I hadn’t thought too hard about the broader context of Virginia’s engagement with Meredith. His close personal connections to the Stephen family were of more interest to me than his wider cultural importance. Strachey’s letter, though, pushes me to think more deeply about Virginia’s relationship to Meredith as a Victorian. Strachey’s letter is a reminder of how hard the Edwardians and the Georgians wrestled with the Victorians. They were constantly reassessing them and constantly recalibrating their own efforts against Victorians legends and accomplishments.

For Virginia, Meredith was more than just a close family friend or uncle figure. As a late Victorian, and as a member of the patriarchy, no matter how enlightened, he was someone to be fought against. Virginia and her friends, along with many Modernist thinkers and writers, were, in part, defining themselves against the Victorians. More than that, they were working to cut the Victorians down to size and to reduce or to dispel their shadows. Eminent Victorians is but one famous example of the mythbusting and historical renovations which took place. One of the chief goals of Modernism was to break with, or, at the very least, disavow the Victorian past, and it is a measure of their revisionist success that we sometimes don’t properly appreciate the degree to which they were indebted to the Victorians.

Virginia was no exception. So far in my blogs I’ve looked at ways in which she was indebted to, and in conversation with, Edmund Gosse, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Violet Paget; and in future To the Lighthouse explorations I want to survey Thomas Hardy and Henry James influences. So often, these relationships with the Victorians are covert or masked, perhaps in part because Virginia wanted to conceal influences or because she was working towards erasure through silence. More likely, though, Victorian ancestors were kept in the shadows because Virginia understood the suggestive power of hints, traces, and subtle allusions. Also, in ghosting the Victorians, she could both honour and tame the past.

Virginia’s relationship to Meredith made him particularly hard to handle. As well as being a close family friend, he had taken an interest in her and Vanessa as children, and he had shared their deep love for Thoby. Also, in the public sphere, his ideas and his writings had challenged aspects of the patriarchy and had helped to advance the cause of women. With The Egoist and with Diana of the Crossways, in particular, he had loudly and clearly championed the cause of women. Not only that, Virginia was indebted to him for stylistic experiments and genre challenging innovations in his novels. As Gillian Beer has written, “Meredith’s intensely experimental approach to the novel is always a part of his moral concern with human personality,” and Virginia, as her essays about Meredith make clear, learned much from Meredith’s experiments.

As with the other Victorians, much of what Meredith stood for had to be erased or reshaped. Many of his contributions had to be concealed. All the same, Virginia owed Meredith too great a debt, both personal and literary, to cast him completely into darkness. Her essays about him are often generous and kind. She refers to him favorably in A Room of One’s Own. His strong, structural and thematic influence is boldly flagged in The Voyage Out. Finally, in To the Lighthouse, Virginia pays homage by using him as the pattern for Mr. Carmichael. Through Mr. Carmichael, she gives Meredith the last words in the novel, and has him, as he stands with Lily on the edge of the lawn, crown the occasion. Even if–perhaps taking her tone from Strachey–Virginia could describe Meredith as being “hard as an old crab at the bottom of the sea,” for her he was too wise and too loved a man to be allowed to go “the way of Calprenede and Scudery.”

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Blog #199: A Tragic Digression On A To the Lighthouse Approach


One of the best things about research is making unexpected discoveries. The discoveries are not always directly useful, yet for the researcher they can be valuable and deeply moving. This is the story of one such discovery.

With the help of AbeBooks, I’ve just obtained a copy of The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen. It’s a hardworn copy, with dark yet faded battered cover, and warped pages showing signs of foxing. The book was sent by in Lincoln, a business which specializes in selling books withdrawn from academic libraries throughout the UK. My book, a Duckworth 1st edition, came from Bristol Polytechnic, but before that, as the ornate, slightly whimsical, ex libris bookplate announces, it belonged to Humphrey Owen Jones.

The bookplate, dated 1909, shows an image of Clare College, Cambridge, the college from which Jones had graduated Masters in 1903, and where he stayed on as a fellow in the chemistry department. From 1901 on, he was Jacksonian demonstrator for the irascible sir James Dewar, inventor of the vacuum flask. With Dewar, Jones did research on the properties of matter at low temperatures and helped discover carbon monosulfide. The bookplate playfully flags Jones’s chemical passion with a clock-like model atom inscribed into the top of the border, and with two duckish looking glass retorts balanced on the edges of the frame pediment, one on each side of the atom.

The bookplate also helps to explain Humphrey Owen Jones’s interest in Leslie Stephen. Below the Clare College image are sketched two small, framed landscapes, one of mountain peaks and the other of a golf course. Superimposed criss-cross upon them are half a dozen golf clubs and climbing axes. Jones—along with his wife, Muriel Gwendolen Edwards, and his sister Bronwen Ceridwen Jones—was a passionate mountaineer. He started climbing in Snowdonia and then, no doubt under the influence of Stephen’s The Playground of Europe, turned his attention to the Alps. He climbed extensively in the Mont Blanc region, and he was part of a group which made the first ascent of the Brouillard ridge route to the summit of Mont Blanc. In 1909, Jones was elected to the Alpine Club, the club of which Leslie Stephen had been a founding member and, from 1865-1868, president.

And now for the tragic part of my digression: Jones’s copy of The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen is mine because of Jones’s mountaineering passion. On August 15th, 1912, while on their honeymoon, Jones and his wife attempted the 2941 meter high Aguille Rouge de Peuterey with the help of their Swiss guide, Julius Truffer. When Truffer slipped and fell on Jones, all three plunged almost 1000 feet down the mountain. Their deaths were witnessed by the renown solo climber Paul Preuss, who a little more than a year later, while attempting a free solo of the Mandlkogel in Austria, would similarly fall almost a thousand feet to his death.

Jones was 34 years old when he died, and his wife was only 26. The north summit of l’Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey was named in their honor, and a stained glass window in St Cynbryds church, Llandulas, also commemorates their death. So, too, thanks to the bookplate and the power of Google, does the battered book which I now own. To my copy of The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen are added part of the lives of Humphrey Owen Jones and his wife of two weeks, Muriel Gwendolen Jones.

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Blog #198: Of Seals and Walruses in To the Lighthouse

I read a great deal, I say: all the big books I have read I have read in the country. Besides this I write—with greater ease, at times, than ever in London. But the books are the things that I enjoy—on the whole—most. I feel sometimes for hours together as though the physical stuff of my brain were expanding, larger & larger, throbbing quicker & quicker with new blood—& there is no more delicious sensation than this. I read some history: it is suddenly all alive, branching forwards & backwards & connected with every kind of thing that seemed entirely remote before. I seem to feel Napoleons influence on our quiet evening in the garden for instance—I think I see for a moment how our minds are all threaded together—how any live mind today is of the very same stuff as Plato’s & Euripides. It is only a continuation & development of the same thing. It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind. Then I read a poem say—& the same thing is repeated. I feel as though I had grasped the central meaning of the world, & all these poets & historians & philosophers were only following out paths branching from that centre in which I stand. And then—some speck of dust gets into my machine I suppose, & the whole thing goes wrong again. I open my Greek book next morning, & feel worlds away from it all—worse than that—the writing is entirely indifferent to me. Then I go out into the country—plodding along as fast as I can go—not much thinking of what I see, or of anything, but the movement in the free air soothes & makes me sensitive at once. As long as one can feel anything—life may lead one where it likes. In London undoubtedly there are too many people—all different—all claiming something or losing something—& they must all be reconciled to the scheme of the universe before you can let yourself think what that scheme is. Of course, people too, if one read them rightly, might illuminate as much as if not more than books. It is probably best therefore in the long run to live in the midst of men & women—to get the light strong in your eyes as it were—not reflected through cool green leaves as it is in books.

A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals 1897-1909
July 1st, 1903

Briefly, I want to crawl out of individual tunnels. I want to take a deep breath and look around me. Even though I still have work to do on, I want to write down a few thoughts about Virginia’s broader enterprise. The impetus, oddly enough, comes from looking forward to Henry James. While chipping away at Meredith and probing and charting a couple more unexplored crevices, I started to think about who to map next. I’ve now reached a point where I almost feel that To the Lighthouse encompasses all literature written before 1927, and all I need to do in order to find a major writer is to look. Among others, I’ve already charted the presence of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Scott, Proust, Forster, Wharton, Conrad, Shelley, Peacock, Joyce, Dickens, and Meredith, so why should I not find signs of writers such as Austen, Hardy, and Mansfield.

Given his literary stature, his friendship with the Stephen family, and his visits to St. Ives, Henry James came to mind as a strong candidate and, sure enough, with the help of Mark Hussey’s Virginia Woolf A to Z, I quickly found traces of James in To the Lighthouse. Hussey notes Daniel Vogel and Harvena Richter as two critics who have explored Jamesian elements in To the Lighthouse, and a quick skim of Covert Relationships: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James (1990)and Virginia Woolf: The Inward Voyage (1970) suggests that I will have little mapping of my own to do. In charting the presence of Henry James, all I will have to do is to record the explorations of Richter and Vogel.

Before doing that, and also before finishing with Meredith, I want to note a few thoughts about what Virginia is doing with all these authors. Why all those voices? Why did she work so many writers so deeply into the fabric of her novel? Is To the Lighthouse a literary version of the DNB? Is it a literary acrostic puzzle? Is it an attempt to create a grand unified literary theory? What makes To the Lighthouse so sane when it could easily disintegrate into a schizophrenic cacophony of ancestral voices run amok?

Vogel, fresh in my mind, prompts possibilities. Vis a vis Henry James, Vogel reads Virginia through a Bloomian filter. “Anxiety of influence” is at work, and Virginia is “engaged in conscious and unconscious deception, in covering [her] own tracks, and in repression.” So often, though, Virginia is not covering her tracks. On the contrary. She deliberately sets out tracks for us to follow. Minta leads to Aminta, leads to Meredith. Mrs. Bast leads to Leonard Bast, leads to Forster. Marlow leads to Heart of Darkness, leads to Conrad. Again and again, Virginia playfully drops clues for us to follow–allusive clues which, instead of concealing, call attention to influence.

For Virginia, influence was guide, goad and glory. Yes, of course, there was anxiety, anxiety which she openly noted and acknowledged. For instance, of Proust she wrote, “And he will I suppose both influence me and make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.” When trying to ascertain and record her thoughts and feelings, no matter how faint, she was always unflinchingly honest. She did not hide from fear of influence and the anxiety attendant on that fear. Rather, she embraced the fear, and in so doing made the most of the influence. “Books,” as she noted in A Room of One’s Own, “have a way of influencing each other,” and she was quick to welcome and celebrate the influence.

As guide, influence exposed Virginia both to techniques and to ideas. She was always dissecting other writers to see how they achieved their effects. She was always measuring and testing her ideas against theirs. As goad, influence challenged her to excel. Techniques were to be mastered and improved upon. Ideas were to be challenged and expanded or overturned. And all the while, as glory, influence was to be embraced. It was to be savoured and celebrated. To be influenced is to be connected, is to become, however slightly, part of the web of culture and civilization. To acknowledge influence is to pay tribute to tradition and to help keep the light burning. Books are what one brings to the lighthouse.

I opened this meditation with a lengthy quotation from one of Virginia’s early journals. I’ll close with an even earlier one:

I must now expound another simile that has been rolling itself round in my mind for many days past. This is that I am a Norseman bound on some long voyage. The ship now is frozen in the drift ice; slowly we are drifting towards home. I have taken with me after anxious thought all the provisions for my mind that are necessary during the voyage. The seals & walruses that I shoot during my excursions on the ice (rummaging in the hold) are the books that I discover here & read.

A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals 1897-1909
August 1899

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Blog #197: George Meredith and Virginia Woolf: The Lark Ascending To the Lighthouse

The Lark Ascending

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
All intervolv’d and spreading wide,
Like water-dimples down a tide
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls;
A press of hurried notes that run
So fleet they scarce are more than one,
Yet changingly the trills repeat
And linger ringing while they fleet,
Sweet to the quick o’ the ear, and dear
To her beyond the handmaid ear,
Who sits beside our inner springs,
Too often dry for this he brings,
Which seems the very jet of earth
At sight of sun, her music’s mirth,
As up he wings the spiral stair,
A song of light, and pierces air
With fountain ardor, fountain play,
To reach the shining tops of day,
And drink in everything discern’d
An ecstasy to music turn’d,
Impell’d by what his happy bill
Disperses; drinking, showering still,
Unthinking save that he may give
His voice the outlet, there to live
Renew’d in endless notes of glee,
So thirsty of his voice is he,
For all to hear and all to know
That he is joy, awake, aglow,
The tumult of the heart to hear
Through pureness filter’d crystal-clear,
And know the pleasure sprinkled bright
By simple singing of delight,
Shrill, irreflective, unrestrain’d,
Rapt, ringing, on the jet sustain’d
Without a break, without a fall,
Sweet-silvery, sheer lyrical,
Perennial, quavering up the chord
Like myriad dews of sunny sward
That trembling into fulness shine,
And sparkle dropping argentine;
Such wooing as the ear receives
From zephyr caught in choric leaves
Of aspens when their chattering net
Is flush’d to white with shivers wet;
And such the water-spirit’s chime
On mountain heights in morning’s prime,
Too freshly sweet to seem excess,
Too animate to need a stress;
But wider over many heads
The starry voice ascending spreads,
Awakening, as it waxes thin,
The best in us to him akin;
And every face to watch him rais’d,
Puts on the light of children prais’d,
So rich our human pleasure ripes
When sweetness on sincereness pipes,
Though nought be promis’d from the seas,
But only a soft-ruffling breeze
Sweep glittering on a still content,
Serenity in ravishment.

For singing till his heaven fills,
’T is love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes:
The woods and brooks, the sheep and kine
He is, the hills, the human line,
The meadows green, the fallows brown,
The dreams of labor in the town;
He sings the sap, the quicken’d veins;
The wedding song of sun and rains
He is, the dance of children, thanks
Of sowers, shout of primrose-banks,
And eye of violets while they breathe;
All these the circling song will wreathe,
And you shall hear the herb and tree,
The better heart of men shall see,
Shall feel celestially, as long
As you crave nothing save the song.
Was never voice of ours could say
Our inmost in the sweetest way,
Like yonder voice aloft, and link
All hearers in the song they drink:
Our wisdom speaks from failing blood,
Our passion is too full in flood,
We want the key of his wild note
Of truthful in a tuneful throat,
The song seraphically free
Of taint of personality,
So pure that it salutes the suns
The voice of one for millions,
In whom the millions rejoice
For giving their one spirit voice.

Yet men have we, whom we revere,
Now names, and men still housing here,
Whose lives, by many a battle-dint
Defaced, and grinding wheels on flint,
Yield substance, though they sing not, sweet
For song our highest heaven to greet:
Whom heavenly singing gives us new,
Enspheres them brilliant in our blue,
From firmest base to farthest leap,
Because their love of Earth is deep,
And they are warriors in accord
With life to serve and pass reward,
So touching purest and so heard
In the brain’s reflex of yon bird;
Wherefore their soul in me, or mine,
Through self-forgetfulness divine,
In them, that song aloft maintains,
To fill the sky and thrill the plains
With showerings drawn from human stores,
As he to silence nearer soars,
Extends the world at wings and dome,
More spacious making more our home,
Till lost on his aërial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

George Meredith, 1881

Meredith again. In an earlier blog, I connected the opening of To the Lighthouse to Shelley’s “To a Skylark.” Now, with my latest discoveries, Mrs. Ramsay’s “You’ll have to be up with the lark” also gives of Meredith. All is changed–subtly, yet utterly changed, as my reading of the novel shifts to accommodate Meredith’s poem and the ripples it raises.

If anything, the novel becomes even more celebratory, more lyrical than previous internal versions. I feel it more as a triumphant ascent, a singing of the sap and of “the better hearts of men”; a ripening of “human pleasure” and an instilling of “love of earth.” The filter of the poem subtly corrects and counterbalances more sombre or ponderously philosophical readings of the novel. To the Lighthouse contains a lot of darkness, yet ultimately it, too, extends the world and helps the fancy sing. Polyphony. Meredith on top of Shelley reminds me of that.

Of course Meredith’s poem also sounds darker notes, and these too contribute to a revision of To the Lighthouse’s score. The lark links “all hearers in the song they drink,” including those whose lives are defaced “by many a battle-dint” and by “grinding wheels on flint.” Their lives yield substance for the lark’s song, just as countless scientists, poets, philosophers and novels provide the substance out of which Virginia composed To the Lighthouse. And also, as with Woolf’s novel, a major key to the accomplishment is “self-forgetfulness,” an abandonment and rejection of the solipsistic, egoistic “I,” and a steady soaring towards increased silence so as to leave the reader’s fancy free to sing. The Charles Tansley “taint of personality” is left behind. Like Meredith’s lark, Woolf’s lighthouse draws on collective “human stores” and, in so doing, shines as a beacon opposed to the primal darkness and savagery also to be found in man.

One of the attendant delights of tunneling To the Lighthouse is breaking into passages possibly unintended by or even unknown to Virginia. “The Lark Ascending” tunnel is a powerful example of this. Most people today, if they know of “The Lark Ascending,” know of it through Vaughan Williams’ symphonic piece with the same name. First produced in Shirehampton in 1920 , on June 14, 1921, it was premiered in London by the British Symphony Orchestra under a still young Adrian Boult, and over the years it won an ever larger audience, until, in the second half of the 20th century, it became what it is today, one of the most, if not the most, popular pieces of classical music in Britain.

The composition history of “The Lark Ascending” is most interesting. Supposedly, Vaughan Williams was working on the piece when World War 1 started and, though 41 at the time, he put it and much of his music aside to take on an active part in the war effort. After first enlisting in the Special Constabulary of the Metropolitan Police Service, he then became a Wagon Orderly with the Royal Army Medical Corps with whom he served as an ambulance driver in France and Greece. In 1917 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. At the end of the war, he became director of music for the British First Army, a position which he filled until he was demobilized early in 1919. It was only on his return to civilian life that Vaughan Williams completed his “Romance for Violin and Orchestra.” In 1926 the piece was published by Oxford University Press under the title of “The Lark Ascending,” and the score was prefaced with the following 12 lines from Meredith’s poem:

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In cherrup, whistle, slur and shake. …..
For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes. …..
‘Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

Intriguingly, Virginia was related to Vaughan Williams through her cousin Adeline Fisher, who became Vaughan Williams’ first wife. Hermione Lee records that Adeline was also the closest friend of Stella Duckworth, Virginia’s half-sister and, briefly, surrogate mother. On June 10th, 1897, the fifteen year old Virginia records the excitement attendant on the engagement of Adeline and Ralph, an engagement happening just two months after the marriage of Stella and Jack Hills; and then on June 17th, along with further details, she writes “Poor Ralph is a calf—according to her–& also, I am afraid, to us—-However they are very much in love, & there is a chance that he has genius.” Ralph and Adeline were married on October 9th, 1897, at all Saints Church in Hove, and, while Virginia did not attend, her only diary entry for the 4th of October to the 15th of October is dated October 10th, and consists of the words: “Adeline and Ralph are being married as I write.” Almost certainly, both the gap in Virginia’s diary and her failure to be at Adeline and Ralph’s marriage can be attributed to the tragedy of Stella’s death on July 19th. Also, just as Prue’s sudden death in To the Lighthouse recalls the death of Stella, possibly, just possibly, Ralph and Adeline’s courtship and marriage fused with Stella and Jack’s to plant seeds for Virginia’s treatment of Minta and Paul.

Virginia was also connected to Vaughan Williams through friends. Gwen Raverat, for example. As a Darwin, Gwen was a first cousin of Ralph. Not only that, in 1930 and 1931 Gwen and Ralph worked together to help produce the ballet “Job: A Masque for Dancing,” with Ralph writing the music and Gwen producing the set designs. While there is no mention of Vaughan Williams in the many letters between the Raverats and Virginia, very likely they would have spoken of him.

Whether or not Virginia ever talked or gossiped about Vaughan Williams with friends, she had a strong interest in Ralph’s music. On July 4th, 1897, she records hearing and enjoying a concert of Ralph’s music at St Barnabas Church , South Lambeth, where Ralph was organist. On March 9th 1905 Virginia went to the Aeolian Hall, “a beautiful new Music Hall on Bond Street” to hear Plunkett Greene singing Ralph’s songs. Again on March 13th, 1905, she mentions hearing Vaughan Williams’ music at the home of the Freshfield family. Though her letters and diaries do not specifically record attending other concerts featuring Vaughan Williams’ music, she and Leonard probably did attend such concerts, especially between 1926 and 1929, when Leonard was music critic for the Nation and the Athenaeum. Also in 1925 and 1926, Leonard and Virginia were active subscribing members of the National Gramophonic Society and, according to Emma Sutton (Virginia Woolf and Classical Music: Politics, Aesthetics, Form, 2013) this society did release recordings of works by Vaughan Williams.

Virginia did not attend the London premier of “The Lark Ascending” (after going to a concert on June 10th, 1921, she suffered a severe bout of ill health and spent 60 days enduring “all the horrors of the dark cupboard of illness”), but given her interest in Vaughan Williams, and her knowledge of his music, it is possible that if To the Lighthouse does indeed reference Meredith’s poem, the reference also encompasses Vaughan Williams’ piece. Whatever Virginia knew or intended, my To the Lighthouse–and yours, too–now includes Meredith’s “The Lark Ascending,” compounded with Vaughan Williams’ and, accordingly, it also brings with it thoughts of Vaughan Williams’ WW1 experience. Intended or unintended, I find such thoughts enriching, and I am also pleased to know a little bit more about WW1 and about Vaughan Williams.


Note to self: Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, Patience and access to more journals and archives…particularly the Nation and Athenaeum, National Gramophonic Society records, and Leonard Woolf’s diaries at the University of Sussex.

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Blog #196: Meredith’s “Modern Love” As Macbeth Source For To the Lighthouse

“And that, perhaps, is not the least merit of such a book as this. It shows us the wrong side of the carpet and, fascinating though the wrong side of things always is, it is also a little crude, and ultimately breeds a keener desire than we were conscious of before to look upon the right side. All these half-heard words and disconnected fragments, with their suggestion of Meredith talking somewhere behind a curtain, drive us to the true source of Meredith, which is his writing; for. like all great imaginative writers, he reveals himself there with a completeness and subtlety, for good and for bad, which transcend all the facts that we may be told about him.

“Small Talk About Meredith” (1919)

In two earlier blogs, I explored Virginia Woolf’s extensive use of Macbeth in To the Lighthouse. To my earlier findings on the subject, I now add the probability that Meredith is at least partly responsible for the To the Lighthouse Macbeth presence. Mr and Mrs. Ramsay looking “at each other down the long table sending these questions and answers across, each knowing exactly what the other felt,” are close kin to “Modern Love”‘s married couple whose warm-lighted looks “[s]hoot gaily o’er the dishes and the wine.”

There can be little doubt that Virginia was very familiar with “Modern Love,” and it is also likely that she associated some of the poem’s darker ironies with her parents. Leslie Stephen loved to recite poetry aloud, and in “Impressions of Leslie Stephen,” published in Maitland’s The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen, Virginia wrote that “many of the great English poems now seem to me inseparable from my father; I hear in them not only his voice, but in some sort his teaching and belief.”

Among the poets Leslie Stephen recited was George Meredith. Virginia remembered that her father “loved, too, and knew by heart since he had first read it, George Meredith’s ” Love in the Valley,” and he made us remark and this was a rare instance of its kind the beauty of Mr. Meredith’s metres and his mastery over them.” “Modern Love” would also be among the poems recited by Leslie Stephen, and Virginia certainly revisited that poem later in life. Even if, not surprisingly, she does not refer to it in “The Novels of George Meredith” (1928), she does reference the poem in “On Re-reading Meredith” (1918), and again in “Small Talk About Meredith” (1919).

If reading Meredith and “Modern Love” did contribute to Virginia’s use of Macbeth in To the Lighthouse, then by the quantum laws of literary entanglement “Modern Love” is also a presence in To the Lighthouse, even if only “on the wrong side of the carpet.” To see Macbeth filtered through Meredith expands and reshapes Macbeth implications in To the Lighthouse. Beyond its tragic Shakespearean aspect, Macbeth now acquires an ironic charge and invites deeper thought about conceptions and perceptions of marriage. Far more attention must be paid to the skeletons a marriage hides, and to the ways in which a marriage knot can bind. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay thoughts and actions, and the ways in which Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay form and deform each other as a couple, need to be scrutinized against the ironies of “Modern Love.” Those ironies must also be brought to bear on the marriage of Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley, all the more so because Minta’s name, by way of Lord Ormont and His Aminta, indirectly invokes Meredith.


At dinner, she is hostess, I am host.
Went the feast ever cheerfuller? She keeps
The Topic over intellectual deeps
In buoyancy afloat. They see no ghost.
With sparkling surface-eyes we ply the ball:
It is in truth a most contagious game:
Hiding the Skeleton, shall be its name.
Such play as this the devils might appal!
But here’s the greater wonder; in that we,
Enamoured of an acting nought can tire,
Each other, like true hypocrites, admire;
Warm-lighted looks, Love’s ephemerioe,
Shoot gaily o’er the dishes and the wine.
We waken envy of our happy lot.
Fast, sweet, and golden, shows the marriage-knot.
Dear guests, you now have seen Love’s corpse-light shine.

“Modern Love” (1862)

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Blog #195: More Meredith Anchor Points 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

The beauty, strength and intricacy of Virginia’s web continues to surprise and astound me. Meredith connects to To the Lighthouse not just because Mr. Carmichael’s relationship with Andrew parallels his with Thoby Stephen. Mr. Carmichael’s marital situation also echoes Meredith’s unhappy first marriage. Moreover Mr. Carmichael has for first name the name of Meredith’s father (as well as the first name of Diana’s husband in Diana of the Crossways), and Minta Doyle’s first name is a shortened version of Meredith’s heroine in Lord Ormont and his Aminta. Further, Mr. Carmichael’s knowledge of Persian may be a nod to the Meredith’s The Shaving of Shagpat, a story with strong Arabic and Persian elements.

But these are relatively slight connection points. Much stronger is the way in which Mr. Carmichael’s dislike of Mrs. Ramsay relates to Meredith’s relationship with Mrs. Leslie Stephen. Not that Meredith disliked Julia Stephen. On the contrary, according to Maitland, he once told Leslie Stephen that he never “reverenced a woman more,” and in a letter to Vanessa he said Leslie Stephen was the “one man in my knowledge worthy of being mated with your mother.” His letters to her are warm and caring. All the same, he sometimes voices disagreement or disapproval. For instance, in a letter dated August 23, 1884, he gently but directly criticizes her educational methods. He imagines the family at St. Ives, and he disapproves of the way in which Julia is bringing up the young Vanessa and Virginia to be subservient to Thoby.

Dear Mrs. Leslie,

Your letter of inquiry gave the invalid great pleasure, as it is a woman, that leaps to be thought of. Nor has divine Philosophy yet raised even me to the Arctic stage of indifference, a point to which I steadily climb in spirit, dragged down now and again by some one remembering my name, who revives a personal throb or two. Eastbourne air was very serviceable. To-day we drove to Leith Hill. Generally my wife is regaining her strength, though slowly. She lives on fruit, and there is plenty in the present season. I live on hope; a condition resembling a midway station across the abyss, and depending on the winds as well as power of heart ; for now that she has failed, my sense of stability takes wing. However, in footing the tight-rope, one must not look ahead — nor under — nor up ; but steadily at the present support. Your philosopher will expound the state, and one that we started from, and are brought back to by the course of life, with just a little more knowledge of ourselves and half a yard around us. Tell him, I shall be glad when the tramps are gathered hither out of Europe and America. How much I should like to be with him, you and the children on your dazzling blue borders of sea, and observe Thoby’s first recreancy ! — before his father has taught him that he must act the superior, and you have schooled the little maids to accept the fact supposed : for it is largely (I expect you to dissent) a matter of training. Courage is proper to women, if it is trained, as with the infant man. My ‘Diana’ still holds me ; only by the last chapter ; but the coupling of such a woman and her man is a delicate business. She has no puppet-pliancy. The truth being, that she is a mother of Experience, and gives that dreadful baby suck to brains. I have therefore a feeble hold of her ; none of the novelist’s winding-up arts avail ; it is she who leads me. But my delay of the conclusion is owing to my inability to write of late. — I see that the Biographical Dictionary is advertised. I trust that the Master of the Cemetery for this Necrology is content with the Epitaphs on the tombstones ; meekly forethoughtful that his 19th century estimates will have no readers but the moons of the 20th, and the moonstruck. What was thought of their lights by contemporaries, should be good literary burlesque. I regret as much as he that he is bound to such work, and wish he would vary it with some Cornish sketches and the colouring he excels in “touches upon stuff that lives.” We were promised Lowell here at Burford. Morison I have not seen for long, but his girls are at Fellday, and we purpose to drive there. Adieu, dear Mrs. Leslie ; with my love to your lord and all the young ones.

George Meredith.

Meredith was even more plainspoken when, in 1889, Julia Stephen publicly supported Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s “An Appeal Against Female Sufferage.” He was clearly outraged by Julia’s decision to be one of the 104 eminent Victorian women who signed the Nineteenth Century‘s petition in support of Mrs. Ward’s appeal. His conceit of imagining a second Mrs. Leslie is meant to take some of the sting out of his words, but words such as “fatuousness” and “irrational opposition” show how strongly he disagreed with her action.

Even if the novel suggests other reasons for Mr. Carmichael’s dislike of Mrs. Ramsay, this letter provides a strong biographical attachment point for Virginia’s To the Lighthouse web. Pull on this corner of the web, and so much of the Stephen life comes into view. Behind Mrs. Ramsay’s pandering to her husband, for instance, is the tenderness which causes Mrs. Stephen to withhold “the stimulant of opposition” from Leslie Stephen.

To Mrs. Leslie Stephen.

Box Hill, June 13, 1889.

Dear Mrs. Leslie, — I hope I have done right — I can scarcely doubt it. Leslie has a double, and I have had it proclaimed that the Mrs. L. Stephen in agitation against the suffrage for women, is the wife of the False Leslie. For it would be to accuse you of the fatuousness of a Liberal Unionist, to charge the true Mrs. Leslie with this irrational obstructiveness.

The case with women resembles that of the Irish. We have played fast and loose with them, until now they are encouraged to demand what they know not how to use, but have a just right to claim. If the avenues of our professions had been thrown open to them, they might have learnt the business of the world, to be competent to help in governing. But these were closed, women were commanded to continue their reliance upon their poor attractions. Consequently, as with the Irish, they push to grasp the baguette which gives authority. And they will get it ; and it will be a horrible time. But better that than present sights.

Let me add, that if you are the true Mrs. Leslie of the signature, it is a compliment to your husband more touching than credibly sincere, after his behaviour in the bog of Irish politics. This I have likewise caused to be reported, ‘ Enough for me that my Leslie should vote, should think/ Beautiful pasture of the Britannic wife!’ But the world is a moving one that will pass her by.

I send this chiefly with the hope that you will be induced to forward Leslie (the true) to me for a rest of three of four days. Here he could lie on our lawn, stroll over the woods, and always have the stimulant of opposition so good for the Stephen race, — which your tenderness (if one has to trust what is rumoured) withholds from him. Put it to him seriously to come to me and hear political and social wisdom.

Your devoted,

George Meredith

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Blog #194: A Letter from George Meredith to Virginia Woolf

In addition to those contained in The Letters of George Meredith (1912), Virginia had one further letter at her disposal, one sent to her by Meredith on November 22, 1906, two days after the death of Thoby, but not made available to W. M. Meredith when he compiled The Letters. Published by Mohammad Shaheen in the Selected Letters of George Meredith (1997), it reads as follows:

Dearest Virginia,

You will know that among your friends I am one, with my whole heart close to you in your present great affliction. The loss of this bright young life is felt by me as if it had been a part of mine. I cannot pretend to offer consolation, for much sad experience tells me that it deals in this world to sufferer incapable of understanding it. Fortitude you will have inherited from father and mother. The sense that the hearts of your friends are about you may help: it will be warm with you later. Vanessa’s recovery is a flying gleam in our darkness. I cannot be near you personally in the last offices. My mind you will have then and always. Speak of me to Vanessa and Adrian.

George Meredith.

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