Blog #42: William Bankes of Kingston Lacy as William Bankes of To the Lighthouse

Months ago I promised to blog Lily Briscoe, but since she has already waited this long she can wait one more week. Today belongs to William Bankes. Like Charles Tansley, and Lily Briscoe, Bankes is a To the Lighthouse character for whom I found a historical antecedent. While the Tansley and Briscoe identifications are original to me, it turns out Ruth Vanita already beat me to Bankes. I’m delighted, since I take the Bankes corroboration as indirect confirmation of my other two identifications. Besides, the Bankes identification led me to Vanita’s “’Bringing Buried Things to Light’: Homoerotic Alliances in To the Lighthouse,” and I might otherwise have missed that wonderful paper.

In her paper Vanita supports my supposition that William Bankes’ name was probably derived from the historic William Bankes, Egyptologist and owner of Kingston Lacy. Bankes had to go into exile from England 1841, to escape sodomy charges after being caught in compromising circumstances with a guardsman. Virginia’s Bankes is not openly homosexual, indeed he is a widower, yet there are homoerotic overtones to the way in which he thinks of his youthful friendship with Mr. Ramsay.

And who cares a hill of beans or cantaloupe about where Virginia Woolf found the name for Bankes? Well, if you are a literary critic or a lover of books, you care because such identifications enrich your readings. They yield insights about the mind and interests of the writer. Such identifications can also be as evidence, however tentative, to support theories about what is happening in the books. Certainly, Ruth Vanita puts Bankes’s putative ancestry to good use in support of her own theories. I have thoughts and theories of my own about Bankes (to be shared after Saskatoon), and the historic William Bankes fits in well with those.

Another critical bonus of these name games is that they defamiliarize the books we read. They make them new. The human mind slips too easily into habit, and using outside knowledge—be it knowledge of names or knowledge of games—breaks the habit. The book is renewed every time we approach it with a new filter, always assuming the filter is a constructive one. To the Lighthouse became a very different book for me after reading Mark Hevert’s biological approach, and now after reading Ruth Vanita it is very different yet again. Neither version excludes the other. “Fifty pairs of eyes are not enough to get round than one woman with,” thinks Lily Briscoe, and certainly fifty pairs of eyes are not enough to get around Virginia Woolf, or even one of her books.

And what do bean and cantaloupe hills matter to those who don’t much love books? Not much, maybe, but they should. It strikes me that part of what makes reading so rewarding is that it requires readers to see the world anew. Good books make babies of us all. When we read a good book, we become newborns. We hear, see, touch, taste and smell for the first time, and we have to wire our brains to make sense of all this new data. Books challenge our ability to construct reality, and in so doing they challenge us to review the reality we constructed as infants. Rereading a book from a new perspective yields a new book, and in the same way the act of reading a good book often yields a new perspective on life. Reading is rebirthing, and it should make bean or cantaloupe lovers of us all.

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  1. Ashley says:

    *To the tune of London Calling’, by the clash*Lighthouse calling, to the fawaary boys,Soon a world war will come, with lots of sad noise,Lighthouse calling, to the mother, poor lass, Go hide in the cupboard, ’cause your hubby’s an ass!’Lighthouse calling, though you may think it boringYou don’t need a plot just for telling a story!Lighthouse calling, will they get there at all?Teh summertime’s ending, and soon comes the fall The middle part’s coming, and your patience is thin,But the middle part’s gorgeous, if eerie and grimA plotless curmudgeon? Well, plotless, my dearBut I dont curmudgeonly, just a bit queer.

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