Blog #132: From To the Lighthouse to Empire and Commerce in Africa, by way of greenhouse and billiard room

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Like an over-intellectual sheep, I’m still ruminating the implications of connecting the Manning’s “new billiard room” to the ivory in Heart of Darkness. The connection has both ecological and political implications. The ecological force is admittedly small (even if elephants are today emblematic of the ecological carnage we wreak), yet Jasper’s shooting of the starlings; Nancy brooding over the pool; Lily disturbing the ants; the toads, thistle, butterflies, poppies, roses, carnations and cabbages in the “Time Passes” segment; the mutilating of the mackerel; and the possible naming of Charles Tansley after ecologist Arthur Tansley suggest ecological thinking on Virginia’s part—always remembering that the concept of ecology in the 1920ies was very different from our own.

Tansley is an interesting ecological signifier. In 1913 Arthur Tansley helped found the Journal of Ecology in 1913, and in the early 20ies he published several books on plant ecology. He was knighted in 1950 for his ecological and conservation work. My earlier thoughts about Arthur Tansley connected him to Virginia through his bestseller The New Psychology and its Relation to Life (1920) and his friendship with James Strachey. Now I wonder if his ecological credentials might not have been as, if not more, important to her. In her splendid analysis of Virginia’s deep interest in the modern study of nature, Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature (2010) Christina Alt demonstrates the depth and complexity of Virginia’s ethological, ecological and environmental thinking. Arthur Tansley’s ecological work might well have been the main reason Virginia changed the name of her Charles Tansey (note the flower association in that earlier name) character to Charles Tansley. After reading Alt, it is hard not to see the “new billiard room” from an ecological perspective.

Of course, political and imperial implications predominate. To the Lighthouse is full of imperial references, references such as Mrs. Ramsay’s Cashemere shawl, Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts about the men “who negotiated treaties, ruled India,” Mrs. Ramsay’s opal necklace from India, Mrs. Ramsay “motionless for a moment against a picture of Queen Victoria wearing the blue ribbon of the garter,” the girls’ at dinner questioning “of the Bank of England and the Indian Empire,” Mr. Carmichael, “going to India” and “willing to teach the boys Persian or Hindustani, “friends in Eastern places,” and the bones which “bleach and burn far away in Indian sands.” While there is no direct anti-imperial rhetoric, there is a clear sense that the Ramsay life style is as dependent on Imperial spoils as it is on the one armed poster hanger, the Swiss girl with the dying father, “the liftman in the Tube,” Mrs. McNab, and lame old Mr. Kennedy. The billiard room reference is a superb touch of indirect criticism, bringing with it, as it does, not just the powerful anti-colonial writing of Heart of Darkness (1899), but also E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), and, most importantly, Leonard’s Woolf’s Empire and Commerce in Africa (1920), a powerful condemnation of the state as a “super-joint-stock-company,” as well as lucid dissection of the cynical relationship between imperialism and finance. Not only did Virginia do extensive research for Leonard’s book, on publication she read it with “delight in the closeness, passion & logic of it.”

Underlying the ecological and imperial implications of the “new billiard room” is the question of consumption. The billiard room connects to the Ramsay greenhouse and to Mrs. Ramsay’s worries about maintaining it. £50 to repair what was primarily a status symbol (remembering that the Ramsay’s would have had little benefit from it outside the summer) is a staggering sum, if you consider that according to Arthur Bowley’s 1920 pamphlet The Change in the Distribution of the National Income 1880-1913, the average annual earnings for all wage-earners (excluding shop assistants) was estimated at £51 in 1913. No wonder Mrs. Ramsay is worried about the cost. Billiard room and greenhouse are items of conspicuous consumption, luxury items purchased at a considerable cost to the purchasers and to society at large. The billiard room and the greenhouse also connect to the Tale of the Fisherman and his Wife. The whole story hinges on the wife’s discontent with what she has and on her need to always have more, more, and more.

The question of how much is enough is not an easy one to resolve. While Virginia was acutely aware of the value of money, she appreciated the luxuries money could provide. She also understood that luxuries provide benefits. Luxuries come at a cost, yet in important ways they can improve life and make it better. Mr Ramsay’s defensive position that “the arts are merely a decoration imposed on the top of human life” was not one which Virginia endorsed. Quite the contrary. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia makes it very clear that “lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes.” She was all too aware of “what effect poverty has on the mind; and what effect wealth has on the mind.” Women had suffered as much from a lack of luxury as from a lack of necessities. Even if she did admire many of Thoreau’s ideas and understood that “ the most remarkable men tend to discard luxury because they find that it hampers the play of what is much more valuable to them,” luxury was not something she scorned. Indeed, when To the Lighthouse became a financial success, she and Leonard used part of the profits to purchase an automobile, and this despite the fact that she had a strong appreciation of the social and environmental costs of the automobile.

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