Blog #211: Strange ghosts, [A Secret Sisterhood], and Lighthouse Bliss

(But while I try to write, I am making up “To the Lighthouse”—the sea is to be heard all through it. I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant “novel”. A new—by Virginia Woolf. But what? Elegy?)

Saturday 27 June 1925

Katherine Mansfield. Katherine Mansfield. At long last, Katherine Mansfield.

I’ve always known I should come to her eventually, yet up until now I’ve run shy of her, fearing not to find overt traces of her in To the Lighthouse or, even worse, fearing that there was nothing new to say. After all, at least four books (see note below) and dozens of articles have been written about Virginia and Katherine. There should be nothing new left to say. Wrong, wrong, wrong! So much remains to be said, as proved by the following.

It was curiosity rather than courage which nudged me to begin. Rereading To The Lighthouse for perhaps the 100th time—not hyperbole—the phrase “heavenly bliss” went strangely radioactive. My inner Geiger started clicking. Yes, a young boy might endow a picture of a refrigerator with heavenly bliss, might find the picture fringed with joy, yet somehow “bliss” glowed bright with deeper meaning. Sunken meanings smouldered.

A quick “control f” search of the lovely Adelaide ebook edition of To The Lighthouse found more than “heavenly bliss”. “Bliss” appears a second time in the novel when Lily tries to find the sympathy which Mr. Ramsay seems to demand from her. In order to do so, she works to recollect the “glow, the rhapsody, the self-surrender” which she had seen on so many women’s faces when they blazed up into a “rapture of sympathy” which “evidently conferred on them the most supreme bliss of which human nature was capable.” “Bliss” here is directly linked with the female providing sympathy to the male. The word becomes loaded with irony. The bliss with which James endowed the refrigerator is now conferred by self-surrender to the neediness and exactions of men.

The third and final appearance of “bliss” occurs when Lily reflects upon Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s relationship, realizing that “[i]t was no monotony of bliss.” Domestic bliss in the Ramsay household is not a given; it is something to be fought for, to be negotiated, something to be strenuously pursued by means of silence, words and attitudes. Lily’s insight comes immediately upon the realization that in the Ramsay household “one had constantly a sense of repetition — of one thing falling where another had fallen, and so setting up an echo which chimed in the air and made it full of vibrations.” “Bliss” is carved out, in part by “long rigid silences”, from the day to day of repeated marital tension.

Mindful of “Craftmanship,” of how “words belong to each other,” of how “words suggest the writer,” I started to look for associations “bliss” might have had for Virginia. Though I hadn’t read Katherine Mansfield for some years, it wasn’t long before the obvious became obvious to me. “Bliss” was its own “incarnadine,” and a sunken meaning of bliss was Katherine’s “Bliss.”

One diary entry and one letter provide strong evidence of how strongly “Bliss” infected Virginia. On August 7th, 1918, Virginia recorded the following in her diary:

I threw down Bliss with the exclamation, “She’s done for!” Indeed I dont see how much faith in her as woman or writer can survive that sort of story. I shall have to accept the fact, I’m afraid, that her mind is a very thin soil, laid an inch or two deep upon very barren rock. For Bliss is long enough to give her a chance of going deeper. Instead she is content with superficial smartness; & the whole conception is poor, cheap, not the vision, however imperfect, of an interesting mind. She writes badly too. And the effect was as I say, to give me an impression of her callousness & hardness as a human being. I shall read it again; but I don’t suppose I shall change. She’ll go on doing this sort of thing, perfectly to her & Murry’s satisfaction Or is it absurd to read all this criticism of her personally into a story?

(D 1: 179)

Three and a half years later, in a March 20th, 1922, letter to Janet Case, Virginia wrote:

I’ve not read K. Mansfield [The Garden Party], and don’t mean to. I read Bliss; and it was so brilliant,-so hard, and so shallow, and so sentimental that I had to rush to the bookcase for something to drink. Shakespeare, Conrad, even Virginia Woolf. But she takes in all the reviewers, and I daresay I’m wrong (don’t be taken in by that display of modesty.) Middleton Murry is a posturing Byronic little man; pale; penetrating: with bad teeth; histrionic; an egoist; not, I think, very honest; but a good journalist, and works like a horse, and writes the poetry a very old hack might write—but this is spiteful. Do not let my views reach the public. People say we writers are jealous.

(L 2: 514–15)

“Bliss” had clearly registered strongly. Even if her comments were strongly negative, the deep impact of “Bliss” upon Virginia is “plain as a pikestaff.”

Once launched, I found tangential confirmation of this impact in one of the aforementioned four books written about Virginia and Katherine, Patricia Moran’s rich and stimulating Word of Mouth: Body Language in Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf. Moran devotes an entire chapter to the way in which Katherine and “Bliss” captured Virginia’s imagination and influenced elements in Mrs. Dalloway. Her argument is that “despite Woolf’s repudiation of Mansfield’s story, “Bliss” echoes throughout Mrs. Dalloway. Even a cursory reading of the two works turns up an astonishing number of resemblances.” It is my contention that the same can be said of “Bliss” and To the Lighthouse.

Consider. Both works feature a dinner party with many details in common, both have highly symbolic pear trees, both draw attention to elaborate fruit displays, and both feature deep, silent communion between two characters. Nor are these commonalities superficial. Virginia thought long and hard about Katherine’s writing and shaped aspects of her own in response. Teasing out similarities and analyzing the interplay enriches understanding both of “Bliss” and of To the Lighthouse.

Perhaps the most striking similarity between the two dinner parties is that they both feature French dishes for which the hostess receives high praise, praise which is more properly due to the family cook who prepared either the soufflée or the boeuf en daube. In the case of Bertha the praise draws attention to her childishness, whereas in the case of Mrs. Ramsay it helps emphasize her competence and complexity. The same is true of the deep pleasure which Bertha and Mrs. Ramsay take in the success of their respective dinner parties. Bertha, despite thinking of her event as like a Tchekof play, is naïve and childlike in her response, whereas Mrs. Ramsay is regal. She is not diminished by her limited knowledge of Tolstoi.

Two more elements worth comparing are anxiety over late guests and the behaviour of the husbands. In “Bliss” the late guest is Pearl Fulton, the woman to whom Bertha is so strongly attracted. Also late is Harry, Bertha’s husband, and there is a strong possibility that there is a link between his tardiness and Pearl’s. Though they arrive separately, they may well have had an assignation prior to the dinner party. Perhaps Virginia was playing with this possibility when she makes her newly engaged lovers the late arrivals at Mrs. Ramsay’s party. Since Harry is mockingly referred to as a biblical bridegroom, replacing him with a real bridegroom would be a natural and subversive thing to do. Paul and Minta may well be intended as a playful recasting of Pearl and Harry.

Similarly, Mr Ramsay’s angry response to Mr. Carmichael’s soup eating and Mrs. Ramsay’s concern that “everybody could see” may be a reworking of Harry’s caustic comments about Pearl, and about Bertha’s ensuing concern that Pearl has felt his rudeness. The difference is that Mrs. Ramsay’s primary concern is for her husband, for the way in which he might be publicly betraying himself, whereas Bertha is worried on behalf of her guest. Mrs. Ramsay’s worries are all too real, but Bertha’s worries are misplaced, since Harry makes his comments to hide his liaison with Pearl.

Inevitably there are commonalities between all dinner parties—hard, for instance, not to have a dinner party without guests and food—and it is likely that Virginia did not intend all the parallels between Mrs. Ramsay’s and Bertha’s to be intentional. In fact, she may have deliberately shaded some of her details and descriptions so as to avoid overt comparisons and to keep Katherine’s words and ideas from bleeding into hers. For instance, important as the soup is in To the Lighthouse it is never identified, never seen as “beautiful red soup” or “eternal” tomato soup. Also, the details and symbolic force of Mrs. Ramsay dressing for the party and putting on jewellery differ markedly from Bertha doing the same thing. Katherine deliberately calls attention to the way in which Bertha’s jade necklace and white dress evoke the pear tree. Virginia, on the other hand, never tells us the colour of Mrs. Ramsay’s dress, nor do we ever find out if Rose picks the gold, opal or amethyst necklace out for her. Virginia’s symbolism here, if symbolism it is, is much more covert and lies much more with Rose than with Mrs. Ramsay.

Like Katherine, however, Woolf deliberately calls attention to the symbolic force of the pear tree. When Lily, by a painful effort of concentration, lodges the scrubbed kitchen table in the branches of the pear tree, she sees the table as a “symbol of her profound respect for Mr. Ramsay’s mind.” For the reader, this is also a direct invitation to consider the pear tree as symbol. The masculine force of the table enhances the feminine force of the pear tree. Lily and the tree are united in holding and sustaining the table. Men depend upon women to sustain them. Lily’s pear tree is another manifestation of the fountain of female sympathy which Mr. Ramsay needs and demands to make fertile his barrenness. In Word of Mouth, Patricia Moran gives a detailed reading of the gendered use which Katherine makes of the pear tree, and many of her insights could equally apply to To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Ramsay. Even on a simple descriptive level, Katherine and Virginia’s pear trees are extremely close in appearance, with Mansfield’s tree being “silvery as Miss Fulton,” and the bark of Virginia’s described as “silver-bossed.”

The most striking similarity between “Bliss” and To the Lighthouse lies in the fruit bowl centre pieces. In “Bliss” Bertha artistically arranges “pyramids” of pears, apples, nectarines and grapes in a glass dish and a purple bowl. She has even bought the grapes to “tone in with the new dining room carpet,” and her arranging efforts are so successful that “the dark table seemed to melt into the dusky light and the glass dish and the blue bowl to float in the air.” In To the Lighthouse, Rose is the artist, and her festive arrangement makes use of grapes, pears, bananas, and a sea shell. She uses only one dish—not identified—and the arrangement, despite all the Egyptian references in the novel, is not described as pyramidal. The effect is Greek rather than Egyptian. As with the soup, an easy deliberate parallel is eschewed.

The importance of the centre pieces in “Bliss” and To the Lighthouse goes beyond their appearance and description. In both works, the taking of fruit is marked as important. In “Bliss”, Bertha experiences an apparent moment of silent communion with Miss Fulton when the latter takes a tangerine from the display. In To the Lighthouse, Mrs Ramsay and Augustus Carmichael are united in feasting their eyes on the fruit and in looking together. Their silent interaction differs from Pearl and Bertha’s in that there is no sexual undercurrent between Mrs. Ramsay and Augustus, and significantly neither touches the fruit. Later, though, Mrs. Ramsay is upset when an anonymous hand reaches out and takes a pear. Very possibly the anonymous hand is a male one, belonging perhaps to Jasper or Charles Tansley .

If, as I obviously do, one accepts the “Bliss” echoes in To the Lighthouse as deliberate, two major insights are generated by contrasting the ways in which Virginia and Katherine describe the taking of the fruit. The first insight is that in “Bliss” taking a tangerine rather than a pear is foreshadowing of sorts. Pearl’s choice of the tangerine is the true “sign” in the story, not her later question about the garden. Pearl’s not choosing the pear, the female fruit, subliminally prepares the reader for her not choosing Bertha, even if Bertha misses the significance of the choice. Virginia’s rewriting of the choice shines a strong light on Katherine’s fruit symbolism, even if, in Virginia’s version, the taking of the pear is an act of despoliation, a kind of rape which ravishes Rose’s work of art and upsets Mrs. Ramsay.

Second, Virginia is interested in the idea of silent communion and wanted to establish an equivalence between Bertha and Pearl and Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Carmichael. The way in which Bertha guesses Pearl’s mood “so exactly and so instantly” as Pearl holds the nectarine is reworked in the description of Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Carmichael feasting their eyes on the fruit and the way “looking together united them.” This communion between Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Carmichael is revisited later in the novel when this time it is Lily and Mr. Carmichael who share a silent moment. The parallel to the earlier scene is established by the way in which Mr. Carmichael’s pagan sea god appearance reminds the reader of how “Rose’s arrangement of the grapes and pears, of the horny pink-lined shell, of the bananas”, made Mrs. Ramsay “think of a trophy fetched from the bottom of the sea, of Neptune’s banquet”.

Silent or wordless communications in Virginia’s novels in general, and in To the Lighthouse in particular, has been noted and commented upon by various critics and thinkers. In Fiction and Repetition J Hillis Miller, focusing primarily on Mrs Dalloway, discusses how characters “may have some kind of intimate knowledge of one another”, “partly because they share the same memories and so respond in the same way to the same cues, each knowing what the other must be thinking, but it seems also to be an unreflective openness of one mind to another, a kind of telepathic insight.” Similarly, in her brilliant “The Window: Knowledge of Other Minds in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse”, Martha Nussbaum does a wonderful job of analyzing how Virginia explores “the problem of access to the other”, given that language is “a very imperfect instrument of understanding”. In her analysis, Nussbaum focuses on the silent communication between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, on their accomplishments “as fine readers of one another’s words, gestures, and actions,” Parsing this silent communication and the resulting accomplishments, Nussbaum concludes that To the Lighthouse demonstrates how “by working patiently to defeat shame, selfish anxiety, and the desire for power, it is sometimes possible for some people to get knowledge of one thing or another thing about some other people; and they can sometimes allow one thing or another thing about themselves to be known.”

In their explorations of silent communication, neither Miller nor Nussbaum look at the silent communication which Mr. Carmichael and Mrs Ramsay establish while looking at the fruit, or the silent echo (what other kind of echo could silent communication have?) of that communication between Mr. Carmichael and Lily at the end of the novel. Patricia Laurence in The Reading of Silence: Virginia Woolf in the English Tradition and Angela Hague in Fiction, Intuition, & Creativity: Studies in Brontë, James, Woolf, and Lessing are similarly silent about the communication found between Mr. Carmichael and Mrs. Ramsay or Mr. Carmichael and Lily, this despite the fact that these moments of communication, coming as they do between strangers, and with the second deliberately echoing the first, are far more mysterious and impressive than those which the Ramsays achieve. As Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Carmichael feast their eyes on the plate of fruit, Mrs. Ramsay recognizes that his way of looking is different from hers, yet “looking together united them.” It is at this moment that the party coalesces and gels, and an oasis of order is established. Similarly, Lily has her vision and triumphs over the blur of the canvas just after her insight that she and Mr. Carmichael “had not needed to speak. They had been thinking the same things and he had answered her without her asking him anything.”

It seems to me that these two scenes in To the Lighthouse may find part of their inspiration in “Bliss” and also in the relationship between Katherine and Virginia. On the one hand, they are a retelling of the soup, fruit bowl, pear tree moments between Bertha and Pearl, even if those moments later become charged with the irony of likely misinterpretation and miscommunication; Bertha’s “bliss”, after all, is born of ignorance. On the other hand, the scenes and the ideas which they contain may also owe a lot to the intense, natural sympathy which Virginia, at times, seemed to feel between Katherine and herself. Some of Virginia’s ideas about silent communication may well been incubated by thoughts about how on talking about solitude she found Katherine “expressing my feelings, as I never heard them expressed” (D2, 44), how she felt that “to no one else can I talk in the same disembodied way about writing: without altering my thought more than I alter it in writing here. (I except L. from this.)” (D2, 45), or how “[s]ometimes we looked very steadfastly at each other, as though we had reached some durable relationship, independent of the changes of the body, through the eyes.” Strong personal feelings might lie behind Virginia’s negative reaction to “Bliss”, and To the Lighthouse, ending as it does with silent understanding between poet and artist is a rewriting of “Bliss” and a memorial and testament to some of what Virginia felt that she and Katherine shared.

[Virginia used square brackets to insert past moments into the present. I have need of square brackets to insert a future moment into the past. The future self typing these words into a previously posted blog is feeling rather smug. The insight about “strong personal feelings” has just found corroboration in Emily Midorakawa and Emma Claire Sweeney’s A Secret Sisterhood. Discussing “Bliss”, they write:

Virginia had yet to acknowledge what she would come to call her “Saphic” desires, but “Bliss” had clearly touched a raw nerve, vivifying something she could not yet name. It was hardly surprising that she should take the story personally since the character of Pearl Fulton shared some of her own most prominent qualities.

Back when Katherine had first shared a draft of the story with Murry, she’d admitted to basing some of the characters on people they both knew, warning him that he would recognize them as “fish out of the Garsington pond.” She had insisted, however, perhaps protesting too much, that Pearl Fulton was her “own invention”. And yet Pearl and Virginia were, in fact, strikingly similar, sharing the quality of icy aloofness. Like Pearl, Virginia was one of those pale, slender, beautiful women who had something strange about them,” capable “up to a certain point” of rare and wonderful candour, though “the certain point was there, and beyond that she would not go.” Even Pearl’s way of smiling and holding her head “a little on one side” is reminiscent of Katherine’s earlier depiction of Virginia in one of her letters to her friend, her head “a little on one side, smiling as though you knew some enchanting secret.”

Thank you Emily and Emma…and now I think I will let my past self continue on without further insertions]

I want to conclude by playing with one last possible Mansfield presence in To the Lighthouse. My contention is that this deep, powerful bond between Virginia and Katherine is referenced in the “Lighthouse” section of To the Lighthouse when Lily, mourning Mrs. Ramsay, thinks of her “raising to her forehead a wreath of white flowers; and then again, thinking how “[f]or days after she had heard of her death she had seen her thus, putting her wreath to her forehead and going unquestioningly with her companion, a shade across the fields.” The key word here is the word wreath. Words, remember, have a “suggestive power”, a strange “diabolic power” “to suggest the writer; his character, his appearance, his wife, his family, his house — even the cat on the hearthrug.” For Virginia, “wreath” carried a powerful association to Katherine’s “strange ghost.” In her diary entry for January 16th, 1923, writing a week after Katherine’s death, Virginia recorded a lengthy entry about Katherine, an entry which includes the following words:

“Then, as usual with me, visual impressions kept coming & coming before me—always of Katherine putting on a white wreath, & leaving us, called away; made dignified, chosen. And then one pitied her. And one felt her reluctant to wear that wreath, which was an ice cold one. And she was only 33.”

Later in the entry, Virginia again refers to the wreath and to the pity which she felt toward Katherine: “I no longer keep seeing her with her wreath. I don’t pity her so much. Yet I have the feeling that I shall think of her at intervals all through life. Probably we had something in common which I will never find in anyone else” (D2, 227). This last thought was again echoed in a March 2nd, 1923,sympathy letter sent to Dorothy Brett: “She gave me something no one else can.”

Remembering how Lily, remembering Mrs Ramsay, muses about the dead, how “one pitied them, one brushed them aside, one had even a little contempt for them,” and remembering too that in the penultimate paragraph of the novel Lily imagines Mr. Carmichael—a Pearl or Katherine figure to Lily’s Bertha or Virginia figure—letting fall “a wreath of violets and asphodels” I find it impossible not to read To the Lighthouse, in part at least, as one final tribute to Katherine Mansfield.

Layers upon layers. My thought of Mr. Carmichael as a Pearl or Katherine figure to Lily’s Bertha or Virginia figure is deepened by remembering that for Virginia Mr. Carmichael was also a Meredith figure (See blog #210). Thinking of her friendship and rivalry with Katherine, Virginia would also have been thinking of her father and George Meredith.



1) Word of Mouth: Body Language in Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf (1996), Patricia Moran
2) Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf: A Personal and Professional Bond (1996), Nora Sellei
3) Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf: A Public of Two (1999), by Angela Smith
4) Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf (2018), edited by Kimber, Martin and Froula

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