Blog #131: Puzzle Pleasure and the Manning’s “new billiard room” in To the Lighthouse

List of Matremoirs

List of Patremoirs

Children of Writers

Let us go then, exploring,
This summer morning,
When all are adoring
The plum-blossom and the bee.
And humming and hawing,
Let us ask of the starling
What he may think
On the brink
Of the dust bin, whence he picks
Among the sticks
Combings of scullion’s hair.
What’s life, we ask;
Life, Life, Life!
Cries the bird,
As if he had heard….

Virginia poem published in Another World Than This

In a draft introduction for this Tunnelling To the Lighthouse project, I refer to the Da Vinci Code, and increasingly I am thinking about the code element in this project. So many of my thoughts and so much of my energy go into trying to find hidden meanings in To the Lighthouse. Partly this is because one thing connects to another and the rewards are so great. There is the eureka thrill of discovery and then there is the thrill of how the discovery reconfigures the book. To find the name of Sorley in Virginia’s 1926 “These are the Plans” essay is one kind of pleasure; to think about how that name then deepens the novels connections to WW1, poetry, and philosophy is yet another.

I have moments when I wonder if I am not spending too much time on puzzle solving, moments when I wonder if I am not losing sight of the larger picture. Finding reasons behind the naming of Sorley, Bankes, and Tansley, seeing Edmund Gosse as one possible model for Tansley, finding the Peacock quotation, reading about Anna of the Five Towns, excites the lover of crosswords in me, and I am convinced there is ever so much more I am missing. Virginia buried at least one poem in Orlando (Vita Sackville-West exhumed the poem and published it in Another World Than This, an poetry anthology edited by her and Harold Nicolson) and I wonder what else Virginia has buried in To the Lighthouse. For instance, I have a strong suspicion that there is an acrostic somewhere in the book. The reference to Mr Carmichael and acrostics, later modified to a reference about him and puzzles, leads me in that direction. There was an article about Cicada 3301 in the Guardian recently, and I was sorely (enjoy the pun) tempted to post a comment so as to try to enlist Cicada players and gamers to discover hidden elements in To the Lighthouse. Perhaps at some point in the future I will do so. Right now, I am having too much fun on my own.

One more quick example of puzzle pleasure and where it can lead. For some time, I have wondered about the new billiard room which the Mannings are building. Why did Virginia even introduce the Mannings, and why does she so insist upon their building of a new billiard room? Four times “billiard room” figures in the text. The repetition calls for attention, and yet the detail is seemingly so slight and so random. Seemingly. In actual fact, it is huge and central.

Recently I started thinking about the relationship of Heart of Darkness to To the Lighthouse, about Mrs. Ramsay as both Kurtz and the Intended (I’ll be blogging those ideas soon), and suddenly the billiard room made sense. If you remember that the Mannings live at Marlow and if you connect Marlow to Conrad’s narrator in Heart of Darkness, then with the billiards thousands of elephants step into the room.

A far fetched puzzle solution? I think not. As with the use of the Sorley name, Virginia displays astounding lightness of touch and staggering confidence in her readers’ abilities. Even if they had not read Heart of Darkness, she knew they would have clues at their disposal. Check out this fascinating 1889 Pall Mall Gazette article about billiard balls and the ivory trade. Elephants destroyed and the atrocities of the Congo, all for billiard balls and piano keys. The Mannings have much to answer for.

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