Blog #41: “Fathers: A Literary Anthology and Sir Arthur Tansley” or “Three Ways of Looking at To the Lighthouse”

This blog, and the next two, will be about To the Lighthouse. I haven’t been blogging or tweeting regularly of late because I have been working hard on a paper for the 22nd International Virginia Woolf Conference, to be held in Saskatoon at the beginning of June. In the course of my research, I have made what to me–and probably also to Paula Maggio and other Woolf lovers–are exciting discoveries about names in To the Lighthouse. My bold yet very plausible claim is that Charles Tansley owes his name both to Charles Darwin and to Sir Arthur Tansley; Lily Briscoe owes her name to Arthur Briscoe; and William Bankes owes his name to William Bankes. As far as I can tell, the Tansley and Briscoe identifications are original to me. The Bankes identification is not.

Bankes and Briscoe will be the subject of later blogs. Today’s blog will limit itself to Sir Arthur Tansley. So, who was or is Sir Arthur and how did I discover him? To start with the how, I discovered him with the help of Google. After reading Isobel Grundy’s interesting essay, “‘Words Without Meaning – Wonderful Words’: Virginia Woolf’s Choice of Names,” I asked myself if there might be meaning attached to other names in Virginia’s writings. When I googled Tansley, I quickly came to Sir Arthur Tansley, pioneer ecologist and patron saint of the New Phytologist. He wasn’t “Sir” in Virginia’s day, yet as a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Trinity College, Cambridge, graduate, and a friend of Bertrand Russell’s, he had to be known to her.

Take Sir Arthur’s surname and add to it Charles Darwin’s first name, and Charles Tansley’s christening is complete. Virginia obviously wanted Tansley, “the little atheist,” to have a strong biological pedigree. With this insight, I reread To the Lighthouse, and found a whole new book and a whole new way of thinking about Virginia. Mark Hevert’s paper, “‘Was there no safety?’: Suffering, Animals, and Religion in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.”, even if a bit clunky and ponderous at times, brings out many of the ideas and connections suggested by a biological reading of To The Lighthouse. My June paper [cliff hanger disclosure] will bring out more. In the meantime, you might want to buy or borrow Shaping Ecology: The Life of Arthur Tansley by Peter Ayres. By a stroke of happy timing, it is being published by Wiley – Blackwell at the end of this month.

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  1. Fascinating, Andre. To the Lighthouse was the first book I read by Woolf, and it remains one of my favorite novels. Good luck with that paper! A colleague of mine here at Otterbein University is writing a book on Woolf and may be at that conference.

  2. Laura Cameron says:

    Hi there

    I just came across your blog. I was excited to find (following up Meisel and Kendrick’s suggestion) the Tansley connection to To the Lighthouse back in 1998-9. Here is the article that refers to it. More info in the footnotes.

    Cameron, Laura, “Histories of Disturbance,” Radical History Review 74 (1999) 2-24.

    I’d be very interesting in seeing your paper. You are making more plausible connections to the names than anything I’ve seen yet.

    Cheers and all best, Laura

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