Blog #206: Cornering Beckwith and MacAlister in To the Lighthouse

Time to deliver on my promise to further examine the Macalister and Beckwith names. Not an easy task, as my conjectures regarding these names are even wilder and more tendentious than those relating to Father McNabb. At least with Father McNabb, I have strong, even if circumstantial, evidence that Virginia would have known about him. I also feel quite confident that the number of connection points between the novel and Father McNabb’s personal and social history go beyond the coincidental.

With Macalister and Beckwith, I don’t have nearly the same number of connection points. For one thing, their historical traces are fewer. For another, they have much slighter roles in the novel. Mrs. Beckwith, in fact, seems almost totally tangential and unnecessary, a late, fleeting addition to the novel who exists solely as a name, an unseen presence, of whom we know only that she is kindly. Macalister is far more substantial than her, given that we do get a personal glimpse of him through his stories and his conversation with Mr. Ramsay. Also he and his son, like Sorley and his little boy, act as foils for Mr. Ramsay and James. All the same, his position in the novel is relatively slight, and as with Beckwith it is initially quite difficult to scratch up a significant historical correlative, beyond linking the name to Alistair MacAllister, whose cave on the Isle of Skye Walter Scott visited in 1814.

Faint and fleeting as the Beckwith and Macalister names are, increasingly I think they do have thematic importance. Both names can be connected to men who participated in the debates surrounding birth control and abortion. Together with the McNabb and Carmichael names, they help emphasize how aware Virginia was of the birth control issues and debates which took place in the late 19th and early 20th century. Taken together, the four names also add considerably to the impact of the bracketed paragraph about Prue’s death, a paragraph which has not received nearly the attention that Andrew’s death has, even though, when viewed through a birth control lens, Prue’s death from “some illness connected with childbirth” is every bit as violent, senseless and wicked as Andrew’s. Quite significantly, the Macalister name also finds its way into a bracketed segment, the only such segment outside of the “Time Passes” chapter, with the brutal, horrific description of the still living mackerel mutilated for bait. The square brackets create a puzzling equivalence between the callous, unthinking actions of Macalister’s boy and the deaths of Andrew and Prue.

Whatever Virginia meant by the equivalence, I believe her decision to associate the MacAlister name with the deaths of Prue and Andrew was a result of her interest in women’s sexuality, birth control, and family planning . Woolf’s interest in and wide ranging knowledge about these subjects has been explored by numerous scholars. For instance, in “Virginia Woolf and “The Third Generation” (Twentieth Century Literature, 2014, vol 60) Mary Jean Corbett suggests that despite her “disavowal of fiction and drama ‘with a purpose,’” Woolf would have been aware of such New Woman novels as Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins, novels which critiqued the sexual double standard and which dealt more openly with issues such as sexuality, pregnancy, abortion and syphilis. For Corbett, Night and Day “engages the question of literature’s relation to sexual conduct” while “eschewing what it implicitly constructs as the partisan tactics of New Woman writing.”

Corbett’s ideas about Woolf’s indirect methods are similar to those expressed by Laura Marcus in “Woolf’s Feminism, Feminism’s Woolf” in The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf (2010). In parsing Woolf’s feminism, Marcus writes that “whereas the feminist commentators of her time directly addressed the question of birth control and its impact on women’s lives, Woolf encodes it.” Likewise, In “‘To Escape the Horror of Family Life’: Virginia Woolf and the British Birth Control Debate” (New Essays on Virginia Woolf, 1995), Christina Hauck examines Mrs. Dalloway, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas to call attention to Woolf’s encoding of birth control, and in “Why Do the Ramsays Have So Many Children?: Birth Control and To the Lighthouse” (Virginia Woolf: Emerging Perspectives,1994), she suggests that To the Lighthouse encapsulated Woolf’s feeling “that early twentieth-century rhetoric about sex, reproduction, and birth control are [sic] overly dominated by men.”

To date, the most thorough and interesting examination of Woolf’s interest in reproductory issues is to be found in Layne Parish Craig’s When Sex Changed: Birth Control Politics and Literature between the World Wars (2013). In her book, Craig does a good job of teasing out how for Virginia “decisions about child-bearing were contingent on her medical situation and her husband’s concern for her health and writing career.” She reads Mrs. Dalloway against the writing of Marie Carmichael Stopes and the WW1 birth control debates, and argues that in her work Woolf “explores the limitations of sexual freedom suggested by widespread contraceptive use, while evincing ambivalence about birth control’s co-option of scientific authority.” While Craig’s arguments regarding Mrs. Dalloway may seem slightly forced, later in her book she makes a strong case that, in Three Guineas, Woolf “rejects male-dominated paradigms of reproductive politics that focus on the state’s role in promoting or limiting the growth of various populations, by insisting on the primacy of women’s education and decision making in the realm of reproduction as well as in professional and academic life.”

While Woolf’s knowledge of venereal diseases is not addressed by any of the above writers, her letters and journals indicate that she was interested in the subject and likely quite knowledgeable about it. On January 23rd, 1917, she had provided a speaker for the Richmond Branch of the Women’s Co-operative who had lectured “upon Venereal Diseases, and moral risks for our sons.” (L 2, p.138). Though some women in the audience were shocked and offended by the talk, Virginia was subsequently asked to provide a speaker on Sex Education (Diary 1, 141, April 18, 1918). Very likely, awareness of the subject, coupled with her curiosity about so many social issues, sensitized her to the ongoing public debate and inquiry with respect to sexually transmitted diseases.

The Women’s Co-operative’s interest in venereal disease was itself part of heightened public awareness and interest. A Royal Commission on Venereal Diseases had been established just prior to the war, and the Commission’s investigations led to the formation of a National Council for the Combating of Venereal Diseases. According to an article in the March 25th, 1916 edition of The Spectator, the goals of the Council included providing necessary facilities for treatment, spreading knowledge among the medical profession and the general public, and trying to draw “attention to the grave danger which exists, and which will, as all experience proves, be greatly intensified when the war ends.” The Council’s efforts contributed to a massive education campaign and, in 1919, an intense debate in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, with Hansard publishing lengthy and remarkably frank speeches by, among others, Lord Willoughby De Broke, Lord Sydenham, Viscount Haldane, and the Archbishop of Canterbury (Hansard; HL Deb 02 April 1919 vol 34 cc53-93).

A significant figure who helped advance the goals of the National Council was Sir John Young Walker MacAlister (10 May 1856 – 1 December 1925). MacAlister was a Scottish journalist, editor, librarian, and promoter of medical postgraduate education. He was the Secretary of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1901 to 1925 and one of the promoters of the Society’s formation. In 1920, writing a year after he was knighted, he published “Venereal disease prevention, and the moral question,” a Public Health article (Vol. 33, p. 114) supporting the recommendations of the National Council on Venereal Disease. In particular, the article praised the Council for having “taught the press, and through the press the public, that in attempting to combat a great national evil, men, and women too, must be ready to forget the conventions of the last generation, and discuss things frankly with each other.”

The Macalister name can also be connected to medical authority, birth control and reproductive rights through Sir John MacAlister’s brother. Sir Donald MacAlister (1854-1934), a member of the Cambridge Apostles from 1876 to 1882, was Principal of Glasgow University from 1907 to 1929. During his tenure, he greatly expanded the already famous Glasgow University Medical school. Beyond overseeing the physical expansion of the school, his accomplishments include helping to organize postgraduate medical training, establishing a chair in medical education, and opening Departmental lectures to both men and women.

In 1904 MacAlister became president of the General Medical Council, and for the next 27 years he used that position to exert considerable influence over the development of medicine in England. His DNB entry reads in part, “MacAlister ruled the GMC with a rod of iron. He made himself expert on such diverse business matters as preliminary and postgraduate education, the registration of nurses and midwives, Indian medical education, and the National Insurance Act.” According to Francis Galton, he was “very favourably disposed toward Eugenics” (August 18, 1910, letter to Karl Pearson). As an aside, I want to note that Galton and his views are gently mocked in Night and Day, when the narrator muses on Mr. Galton’s Hereditary Genius in a passage which becomes all the more ironic if one knows that the Stephen family and Virginia’s father figure in Galton’s book.

After the MacAlisters, Beckwith. Even by my elastic standards Beckwith Whitehouse is a bit of a stretch as antecedent for Mrs. Beckwith. Not because of his gender, since Virginia loved playing with and subverting gender identities, but because of his relative obscurity. Though he was born in 1882, the same year as Virginia, and though he did his medical studies at St. Thomas University in London, where he won the Sutton Sams memorial prize for obstetric medicine and diseases of women, most of his medical career was spent in Birmingham, where he became senior gynaecological surgeon at the General Hospital in 1921 and professor of midwifery and diseases in women at the University of Birmingham in 1924. Except through his numerous contributions to such journals as the Journal of Obstetrics, and the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, as well as to the British Medical Journal and The Lancet, he seems to have had a relatively low public profile outside of the Midlands. It is possible, however, that Virginia Woolf became aware of him because of the public debates surrounding Marie Stopes. In 1923, for instance, in a special 96 page issue on contraception published by The Practioner, Beckwith Whitehouse published an article titled “The Problem of Birth Control”, in which he strongly argued that birth control was detrimental to national interests and best left in the hands of the medical profession. This publication was readily available to the public, as is evidenced by my obtaining it as a copy discarded by the University of Toronto Public Library in 1924.

To help end this blog, I want to go back to my thoughts about Virginia’s linking of Stopes to Meredith through the Carmichael name. Aside reasons discussed previously, introducing a Stopes reference into To the Lighthouse also makes Meredithian sense insofar as in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Meredith indirectly critiqued the sexual theories of William Acton, physician and author of studies such as Prostitution, Considered in Its Moral, Social & Sanitary Aspects (1857) and The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (1857). Marie Carmichael Stopes occupies the same position in Woolf’s novel as Acton did in Meredith’s, even if Virginia is not so much criticizing her ideas as indirectly acknowledging and furthering Meredith’s contribution to the ongoing discussion about sexuality and reproductive rights. Whereas in Functions and Disorders Acton had written ‘the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind,’ in Married Love Stopes states that “woman’s side of sexual life has found little or no expression” and woman, “has been content to mold herself to the shape desired by man wherever possible… woman has bowed to man’s desire over her body, and, regardless of its pulses, he approaches her or not as is his will.” Between the publication of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel in 1859 and the publication of To the Lighthouse in 1927 much had changed.

It might be argued that I am overrunning my signals in connecting Beckwith and Macalister to historical figures who played a role in the public debates surrounding contraception and women’s control of their bodies. My rebuttal to such an argument is twofold. Firstly, almost every single name in To the Lighthouse seems to have a historical or literary connection, and names are very definitely one of the subtle ways in which Virginia Woolf attached her fiction to reality. She used names as metonyms, metonyms both personal and historical. Recovering the metonymical force of those names resurrects the world which shaped her.

Secondly, even if some of my connections turn out to be forced, or even erroneous, they do lead to a deepened understanding of some of the historical events and social forces which were part of the broader fabric of life at the time Virginia was writing her novel. Because of Beckwith, Macalister, McNabb, and Carmichael, I now know much more about the gender and sexual politics associated with the “New Woman” Question. Because of Beckwith, Macalister, McNabb and Carmichael, I now know something about the Venereal Disease Debates in the House of Lords in 1919. Because of Beckwith, Macalister, McNabb and Carmichael, I now know much more about Francis Galton and Eugenics. Because of Beckwith, Macalister, McNabb and Carmichael, I now know much more about family planning and birth control. Through Beckwith, Macalister, Carmichael and McNabb the web of To the Lighthouse connects to some of the realities of Virginia’s life and times, and all is changed, changed utterly.


HYPERGRAPH, (not to confused with the hippogriff, Virgilian or Rowlingian)

“An Address on Abortion: It’s Frequency and Importance”
by Beckwith Whitehouse, M. S. Lond., F.R.C.S., Professor of Midwifery and Diseases of Women, University of Birmingham.
(The British Medical Journal, Vol. 2, No. 3597 (Dec. 14, 1929), pp. 1095-1099)

“The subject of this address has been chosen for two reasons—namely, its frequency, and its importance to the community. The increasing number of abortions among most white races during the past thirty years has naturally focused attention upon a problem which has always to some extent exercised the minds of the medical and legal professions. With a stationary or falling birthrate the position naturally becomes more, and the prevention of abortion is today a responsibility which involves not only the welfare of the individual but also that of the family and the state. A nation with a diminishing birth rate and a high abortion ratio must sooner or later suffer. There appears to be little doubt that, for the present, the day of the large family has gone, for good or evil. We are told that it is for good, but sometimes I have my doubts on this matter. I know many large families, families of as many as ten or a dozen, and I say unhesitatingly that in my experience they are the happiest and are getting the best out of life. I have spoken to the mothers of these families, mothers from all grades of society, and never once have I heard any expression of regret, either from a social, economic or physical standpoint.

In this age of mechanical transport, unhealthy excitement, entertainment, and “rush,” the modern cult for limitation of the family by the wholesale promulgation and practice of contraceptive measures is speeding apace. There are too many intentionally sterile marriages today, and perhaps what is equally as bad, there are too many one-child families growing up. Abortion must therefore be regarded as something more than a trivial accident. Its frequency is some countries today is appalling….

One fact has been impressed upon me time after time. and that is the pertinacity of the married woman who sets out with a determination to terminate her own pregnancy. Argument is useless, and when she has failed to produce the required result by means of a popular purgative pill or a prescription from a popular chemist “to remedy all female menstrual irregularities,” she approaches her own doctor. If he finds no indication to interfere, she goes to somebody else, and eventually possibly does find some individual who is able to satisfy his own conscience that a medical reason exists for the evacuation of the uterine contents. If help cannot be obtained in this devious manner, there is always the homely knitting needle, crochet-hook, douche nozzle, or professional criminal abortionist. Women in this state will not listen to advice or words of warning. They are optimists of the first water, individuals who do not care what happens as long as it does not happen to themselves. I do not propose to say anything more on this question of criminal abortion. The subject has been discussed very fully recently by the Medico-Legal Society, the Society of Medical Officers of Health, and the Royal Society of Medicine, and I refer you to the Transactions of these societies for an expression of the considered and current views of those best qualified to speak.”

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Blog #205: Finding a Kennedy candidate for To the Lighthouse



War is only glorious when you buy it in the Daily Mail and enjoy it at the breakfast table. It goes splendidly with bacon and eggs. Real war is the final limit of damnable brutality, and that’s all there is in it.  It’s about the silliest, filthiest most inhumanly fatuous thing that ever happened.  It makes the whole universe seem like a mad muddle.  One feels that all talk of order and meaning in life is insane sentimentality.

The Hardest Part, 1918


One thing leads to another, and because of the way in which Virginia Woolf uses names to connect her fiction to life, and because of my speculations about the McNabb name, I also want to indulge in a brief speculation about old Kennedy, the Ramsay gardener.  Kennedy is a rather ubiquitous name, but  seeing the name in To the Lighthouse, particularly in the “Time Passes” segment, together with connecting Mrs. McNabb to Father Vincent McNabb and the conditions leading to the General Strike of 1926, led me to google “Kennedy, 1926 General Strike.”  In among the Google dross, I found Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, more familiarly known as “Woodbine Willie” because of the Woodbine cigarettes he handed out to his fellow soldiers. Even if his Kennedy name was the second barrel of a double barreled name, in its day it sounded loud enough to be an audible part of Virginia’s world.

Born in 1883, Studdert Kennedy was an Anglican minister who served as an Army chaplain during WWI, and who received the Military Cross for his courage in comforting the wounded at Messines Ridge.  After the war, he published several books of poems, and a brief yet very interesting essay collection titled The Hardest Part  (1918).  His poems and his essays, while affirming the courage and dignity of ordinary foot soldiers, strongly critiqued the absurdity and tragic waste of war.  After the war Kennedy, for a time minister of St. Edmund King and Martyr, Lombard Street, London, became a highly visible public figure as a social reformer and champion of the working poor.

As a Social Evangelist, he was deeply involved in Christian socialist and pacifist causes.  Through the medium of his deeply rooted  Anglican faith, he sought to promote a middle way between the excesses of laissez faire capitalism and Marxist socialism.  Hugely popular, he travelled across England giving sermons and speeches on behalf of the Industrial Christian Fellowship.  Like Father McNabb, he had a deep sympathy for the working poor and he campaigned tirelessly for an end to unemployment and poverty.  When he died of influenza in 1929, several memorial services were held across England, and over 2000 people turned up for his funeral in Worcester.  His fame was such that James Joyce referenced him in Finnegan’s Wake as ““Woodbine Willie, so popiular with the poppyrossies.”

I’m not entirely convinced Virginia had Studdert Kennedy in mind when she named the gardener, yet given that  every other name in To the Lighthouse, even that of George Bast, connects meaningfully and convincingly to a historical or literary figure, given that Virginia could not fail but to be aware of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy’s literary and social justice activities, and given that knowledge of Kennedy deepens our understanding both of the impact of the war and of the labour movement I feel quite comfortable sharing the above speculations.  Discovering Kennedy and learning about his life has added new depths to my understanding of Virginia’s world.  I’m a happy little fly, all the more for being so entangled and enmeshed in the web of her fiction


“What’s the Good?”


Well, I ‘ve done my bit o’ scrappin’,
And I ‘ve done in quite a lot ;
Nicked ‘em neatly wiv my bayonet,
So I needn’t waste a shot.
‘Twas my duty, and I done it,
But I ‘opes the doctor ‘s quick.
For I wish I ‘adn’t done it,
Gawd ! it turns me shamed and sick.

There ‘s a young ‘un like our Richard,
And I bashed ‘is ‘ead in two.
And there ‘s that ole grey-’aired geezer
Which I stuck ‘is belly through.
Gawd, you women, wives and mothers,
It ‘s sich waste of all your pain.
If you knowed what I ‘d been doin’,
Could yer kiss me still, my Jane?

When I sets me dahn to tell yer
What it means to scrap and fight
Could I tell ye true and honest,
Make ye see this bleedin’ sight ?
No I couldn’t and I wouldn’t.
It would turn your ‘air all grey ;
Women suffers ‘ell to bear us,
And we suffers ‘ell to slay.

I suppose some Fritz went courtin’
In the gloamin’ same as me,
And the old world turned to ‘eaven
When they kissed beneath a tree.
And each evening seemed more golden,
Till the day as they was wed,
And ‘is bride stood shy and blushin’,
Like a June rose, soft and red.

I remembers ‘ow it were, lass,
On that silver night in May,
When ye ‘ung your ‘ead and whispered
That ye couldn’t say me nay.
Then, when June brought in the roses
And you changed your maiden name,
‘Ow ye stood there, shy and blushin’,
When the call of evening came.

I remembers ‘ow I loved ye.
When ye arsked me in your pride
‘Ow I ‘d liked my Sunday dinner
As ye nestled at my side.
For between a thousand races
Lands may stretch and seas may foam,
But it makes no bloomin’ difference,
Boche or Briton, ‘ome is ‘ome.

I remember what ‘e cost ye,
When I gave ye up for dead,
As I ‘eld your ‘and and watched ye
With the little lad in bed.
‘Struth I wish ‘e’d stop ‘is lookin’,
And shut up ‘is bloomiri’ eyes.
‘Cause I keeps on seein’ Richard
When I whacks ‘im and ‘e cries.

Damn the blasted war to ‘ell, lass,
It ‘s just bloody rotten waste.
Them as gas on war and glory
Oughter come and ‘ave a taste.
Yes, I larned what women suffers
When I seed you stand the test.
But you knowed as it were worth it
When ‘e felt to find your breast.

All your pain were clean forgotten
When you touched ‘is little ‘ead.
And ye sat up proud and smilin’.
With a living lad in bed.
But we suffers too — we suffers.
Like the damned as groans in ‘ell,
And we ‘aven’t got no Babies,
Only mud, and blood, and smell.

‘Tain’t the suff’rin as I grouse at,
I can stick my bit o’ pain ;
But I keeps on alius askin’
What ‘s the good, and who’s to gain ?
When ye ‘ve got ‘ a plain objective ‘
Ye can fight your fight and grin,
But there ain’t no damned objective,
And there ain’t no prize to win.

We ‘re just like a lot o’ bullocks
In a blarsted china shop,
Bustin’ all the world to blazes,
‘Cause we dunno ‘ow to stop.
Trampling years of work and wonder
Into dust beneath our feet.
And the one as does most damage
Swears that victory is sweet.

It ‘s a sweet as turns to bitter.
Like the bitterness of gall,
And the winner knows ‘e ‘s losin’
If ‘e stops to think at all.
I suppose this ain’t the spirit
Of the Patriotic man.
Didn’t ought to do no thinkin’ ;
Soldiers just kill all they can.

But we carn’t ‘elp thinkin’ sometimes.
Though our business is to kill,
War ‘as turned us into butchers,
But we ‘re only ‘uman still.
Gawd knows well I ain’t no thinker,
And I never knew before,
But I knows now why I ‘m fightin’,
It ‘s to put an end to war.

Not to make my country richer,
Or to keep her flag unfurled.
Over every other nation
Tyrant mistress of the world.
Not to boast of Britain’s glory,
Bought by bloodshed in her wars.
But that Peace may shine about her,
As the sea shines round her shores.

If ole Fritz believes in fightin’,
And obeys ‘is War Lord’s will,
Well until ‘e stops believin’,
It ‘s my job to fight and kill.
But the Briton ain’t no butcher,
‘E ‘s a peaceful cove at ‘eart.
And it ‘s only ’cause ‘e ‘as to
That ‘e plays the butcher’s part.

‘Cause I ‘as to — that ‘s the reason
Why I done the likes o’ this ;
You ‘re an understanding woman.
And you won’t refuse your kiss.
Women pity soldiers’ sorrow,
That can bring no son to birth,
Only death and devastation.
Darkness over all the earth.

We won’t ‘ave no babe to cuddle,
Like a blessing to the breast,
We ‘ll just ‘ave a bloody mem’ry
To disturb us when we rest.
But the kids will some day bless us,
When they grows up British men,
‘Cause we tamed the Prussian tyrant,
And brought Peace to earth again.

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Blog #204: Reaching “Time Passes” by way of Ditchling and Father Vincent McNabb













Stone the crows, I’m back to names again. More specifically, I’m back to Mrs. McNabb. Lord love a duck! Five years ago, when I first indulged in what I then called “wild and tendentious” speculations about Mrs. McNabb, I was led on by thoughts about Marie Carmichael. This time, I come to Mrs. McNabb by way of Ditchling and Eric Gill. The epigraph material from five years ago shows that this approach was already available to me back then, only I was too blind to make connections. It took a hike to Ditchling to properly open my eyes.

For five magical days this summer, I stayed in the quaint, near-feudal village of Iford, just two kilometres away from Rodmell and Monk’s House by way of local footpaths through head-high corn fields and scraggly chest-high rapeseed. Living in Iford was like stepping back in time, with so much of the town’s existence dominated by the mixed farm activities—ranging from grain crops, cattle raising, pheasant shooting and fishing ponds—of the Iford Estate. For me, Iford was a perfect jumping off place for Virginia Woolf country and the South Downs Trail, as far away as Alfriston to the south and Ditchling to the north.

The hike to Ditchling was particularly memorable, perhaps because we set out on a windy day, and as our boots ground their way over the chalk marl ground of the “blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs,” we were buffeted and scuffed about by strong gusts. The wind fed our exhilaration as we wandered along the ridge above Kingston, muddled our way through the north-west corner of Llewes, continued on past the sheep and the dew ponds and the reforested areas near Blackcap, and then puzzled out a descent onto the Ditchling plain, only to then have to ferret out the overgrown and mazy public footpaths which led into town, and later on to the train station at Hassock.

Ditchling was a delightful surprise. Quaint and picturesque, with outstanding features such as Anne of Cleves house and the Church of St. Margaret, not to mention a very traditional feeling high street, it fully deserves the tourist accolades it gets. The real prize, though, was the Ditchling Museum of Arts + Craft. Before visiting it, I knew absolutely nothing about Eric Gill and ‘The Third Order of St. Dominic’, or the Guild of SS Joseph and Dominic and the Distributists. Much of what I learned in Ditchling was disturbing and deeply unsettling, as the museum openly addresses Gill’s incestuous abuse of his sisters and his daughters. Pity those in London or Oxford who have to decide on how to approach such cultural icons as the Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral, or the BBC Broadcasting House statues, or John the Baptist at St. John’s College. Use of Gill Sans and Perpetua type, too, now requires moral stocktaking and the weighing of personal boundaries. Serene and classical as many of his pieces are, my response to his work is tainted by the revulsion which I feel towards the man.

Particularly troubling is that this child molester was befriended and supported by Virginia and her circle. The horror! The horror! They met as neighbours and artists, not as female victim of sexual abuse in childhood and man sexually abusing his daughters, yet the juxtaposition of their sexual histories, no matter how retrospective, is deeply troubling. What would Virginia have felt or done had she known? Gill was likely not yet abusing the five year old Petra when Virginia and Leonard stayed with the Gill family in 1912, nor is likely that Virginia and Leonard–or others in their circle such as Vanessa and Clive Bell, Roger Fry or Jacques Raverat–ever had any suspicion about Gill’s sexual predations. If they had, Leonard would never have commissioned the statue of a naked, even if chaste and modest, Chloe in 1928. The statue is now part of the Harvard Art Museum collection.

While Eric Gill had not yet met Father Vincent McNabb in 1912, Virginia and Leonard almost certainly would have come to know of him through Gill and the Ditchling community. From 1914 to 1924, Father McNabb’s religious beliefs and his Distributist theories were central to the Ditchling experiment; and, as Fiona MacCarthy has written, with his “galvanic energy” he “was at this time the prime influence, the chief architect of the developing community at Ditchling.” The religious lay community at Ditchling was a concrete manifestation of his Thomist and Distributist ideals, and accordingly he became the spiritual director of the craftsmen’s Guild of SS Joseph and Dominic, established in 1921. For several years he was a frequent visitor and occasional resident in Ditchling, highly visible and distinctive, dressed as he was in his black and white Dominican robes and his trademark hobnailed boots.

Of course it is very likely that Virginia also knew about Father McNabb through his 1926 collection of essays The Church and the Land, through his London activities, through Hyde Park Speaker’s corner, through Leonard and the Webbs, through McNabb disciples or supporters such as Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton and Maurice Baring, and through his vigorous anti-abortion campaigning and his attacks on Marie Carmichael Stopes. Though in my earlier blog I connected Father McNabb primarily to Marie Carmichael Stopes, his championing of the poor and his Ditchling activities, along with his vigorous support for social justice provide further reasons why Virginia might have chosen to give his surname to one of her characters, a character, moreover, who is a poor, working-class woman.

Kate Flint, Anne Fernald and, more recently, Charles Ferrall and Dougal McNeill in Writing the 1926 General Strike (1915) have all suggested that the “horror”of the General Strike of 1926 affected the composition of To the Lighthouse. Identifying Mrs. McNabb’s name as an allusion to Father Vincent McNabb supports and enriches this argument. Father McNabb was deeply influenced by Pope Leo XIII’s famous De Rerum Novarum encyclical (1891), which called attention to the exploitation of the working class, and supported unions as a way of opposing the worst excesses of unrestrained capitalism. Father McNabb likely, though I have yet to find direct proof of this, was a strongly vocal and visible London presence during the 1926 strike. The McNabb name, accordingly, has strong connections to social reform and the conditions of the working poor in London. By way of reinforcement, Manning, the name of Mrs. Ramsay’s friends in Marlow, also has labour and social reform connections. London’s famous Cardinal Manning was an important figure in helping to resolve the Great London Dock Strike of 1889, a strike seen as a major event in the development of the modern labour and union movement. Partly because of his social activism, Cardinal Manning is also credited with having influenced De Rerum Novarum.

Father McNabb’s name takes us deep into several areas of English life in the first quarter of the 20th century. Names are such a powerful tool for firmly attaching, even if ever so lightly, fiction to life. By way of proof, one last, whimsical, yet totally plausible observation. Father McNabb’s Christian name was Joseph; Vincent was his priest name, a name given to him upon his ordination to the Dominicans in 1891. Given Virginia’s playfulness and sly humour, it is possible, even likely, that the To the Lighthouse lines, “They were actually fighting. Joseph and Mary were fighting,” spring from Father Vincent (née Joseph) McNabb’s indirect presence in the novel, and refer to his fierce conflict with Marie Carmichael Stopes.

Lord stone the crows! I’ll have more to say about that conflict in a future blog when I also look at the Macalister and Beckwith names, as well as Prue’s death “in some illness connected with childbirth.”


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Blog #203: Elementary My Dear Woolf: The Case for Seeing Arthur Conan Doyle in To the Lighthouse

In a very early Woolf blog, I fancifully suggested that Minta Doyle’s surname might be a tribute to Scottish born Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The statement was a rather wild one, given that other than the name itself I had no clues to lead me in that direction. There was seemingly no reason for an Arthur Conan Doyle reference in To the Lighthouse. Now, however, thanks to Meredith, I think I have the beginnings of a case.

My sleuthing went as follows. Because Minta connects to Meredith by way of Lord Ormont and his Aminta, I checked to see if there might not also be a connection between Meredith and Doyle. It turns out that the young Conan Doyle was a passionate Meredith fan. Meredith’s work was one of Doyle’s “youthful cults,” and he gave popular lectures on Meredith and wrote essays about him. In Memories and Adventures, Conan Doyle describes visiting Meredith and, after a rather testy initial encounter, being asked to drink a whole bottle of Burgundy, a request which Doyle was only too happy to satisfy. On this or on another visit Meredith also talked at length about Napoleon’s Marshals, and he brought The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot to Conan Doyle’s attention. Meredith’s comments and Marbot’s memoirs (which Clarissa is glimpsed reading in Mrs. Dalloway) supposedly inspired Doyle to write his Exploits of Brigadier Gerard.

The Doyle Meredith connection is also a Leslie Stephen one. According to Andrew Lycett (in his Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes), on one occasion when visiting Box Hill with J M Barrie and Arthur Quiller Couch, Doyle met Leslie Stephen at Meredith’s. Supposedly Doyle found Stephen “retiring and unprepossessing.” What Leslie Stephen thought is not recorded, but he may well have told his family about meeting the creator of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson; and Virginia, though she would later disparage Watson as “a sack stuffed with straw, a dummy, a figure of fun”, may have been sufficiently impressed to remember this connection between Doyle and her father when she came to write To the Lighthouse. Doyle’s Scottish heritage would have been an additional reason for referencing him. A touch of Conan Doyle ancestry in Minta Doyle, by way of Meredith, might also supply a reason for why Mr. Carmichael is so interested in acrostics and puzzles, and also in why To the Lighthouse offers so many sleuthing delights.

The biggest delight of my Conan Doyle sleuthing is almost certainly a false clue. False it may be, but the following story now forms a part of my To the Lighthouse fabric. In 1881, Conan Doyle published a signed article in The British Journal of Photography. Titled “After Cormorants with a Camera”, the essay is a colourful, boisterously hearty account of a trip Doyle made to the Isle of May with two friends. Doyle along with two friends hired two local sailors and their small boat to sail them over from the Burgh of Grail (Crail) to the Isle of May and its lighthouse. While his companions amused themselves by slaughtering great numbers of birds, Doyle spent his time developing his photographic skills and also catching several fish. In his story Doyle describes visiting and dining with the lighthouse keeper and his wife, whose eldest son has been accidentally shot in the leg by a “stout Frenchman who had come over for some shooting.” He also includes a punning reference to the charge of the Light Brigade.

A trip to a lighthouse in a small boat sailed by two local sailors, three passengers, the shooting of birds, artistic efforts to record the scene, a lighthouse keeper and his family, a lame son: uncannily strong as the parallels are between Doyle’s account and Woolf’s novel, it is highly unlikely that Woolf ever read Doyle’s essay. Her own biographical source material provided identical bones for her tale. All the same, because of the allusive and accretive method of her story telling, a method which invites the reader to look for subtle signs and to bring their own experience—experience both real and literary—to the story, for me To the Lighthouse now includes Arthur Conan Doyle’s little adventure. As a bonus, I also know a little more about pioneering Victorian photographers, of which, of course, Virginia’s aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron, was one.

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Blog #202: To the Lighthouse Brings Married Love to “Modern Love”

“She gave him comprehension of the meaning of love: a word in many mouths, not often explained. With her, wound in his idea of her, he perceived it to signify a new start in our existence, a finer shoot of the tree stoutly planted in good gross earth; the senses running their live sap, and the minds companioned, and the spirits made one by the whole-natured conjunction. In sooth, a happy prospect for the sons and daughters of Earth, divinely indicating more than happiness: the speeding of us, compact of what we are, between the ascetic rocks and the sensual whirlpools, to the creation of certain nobler races, now very dimly imagined.”

– GEORGE MEREDITH, Diana of the Crossways.

Sometimes it is almost too easy to overlook the obvious. This morning I had a much belated insight which brought the full force of that platitude home. For over three months now I’ve been thinking about the relationship between Mr. Carmichael and George Meredith, and in all that time I have not thought about Mr. Carmichael’s name. Why is Mr. Carmichael named Mr. Carmichael? More specifically, what connection, if any, does the Carmichael name have to George Meredith?

Perhaps the question didn’t occur to me because in two previous blogs I had already speculated about the Carmichael name. I had linked Carmichael to Marie Carmichael Stopes on the strength of Marie’s purchasing the Portland lighthouse in 1923, and also because of the Mary Carmichael character in A Room of One’s Own, a character who, like Marie Stopes, is a woman novelist with a strong interest in science. Further, I suggested that Marie Carmichael Stopes earned a reference in To the Lighthouse because of her strong feminist contribution to science, education and social engineering. If the novel’s lighthouse is seen to symbolize culture, is seen to stand as a guide for future generations, then it is easy to see why Virginia would have paid subtle homage to Marie Stopes with the Carmichael name. Giving the name to a male character would also have furthered the novel’s blurring of genders and gender roles.

Given Marie Stopes’ notoriety in the early 1920’s–and given also Virginia’s familiarity with her work–my identification is, I believe, a sound one, as far as it goes. But what about George Meredith and Mr. Carmichael? What about Marie Carmichael Stopes and George Meredith? Was there a valid and meaningful connection to be made? Such obvious questions, and, as it turns out, such rewarding ones.

The answer to the questions is to be found with Married Love, Stopes’ 1918 book about female sexuality, sex education, and, obliquely, birth control. Though banned in the US as obscene, in England the book was a run-away best seller and sold over half a million copies by 1925. The Meredith connection to Married Love is two-fold. First, the title itself. Just as Meredith in “Modern Love” had stripped the veneer of romantic love from marriage by exploring the psychological realities of an unhappy marriage, so, too, Stopes used Married Love to educate the public about biological realities underlying sexuality and the potential impact of those realities on marriage. She was very consciously continuing Meredith’s work, and her title was intended to call attention to the parallel between Meredith’s works and hers. Second, to make sure no one missed the point, Stopes began her book with an epigram from Diana of the Crossways, the lines quoted at the head of this entry. In his poems and his novels, Meredith had challenged cultural myths and had tried to address social problems arising from those myths. Throughout his life he had sought to change contemporary attitudes towards women and towards sexuality, and because of this he was the ideal model for Stopes the sexual educator and social reformer.

In taking the Carmichael name for her Meredith character, Virginia was confirming the parallel which Marie herself had drawn. By so subtly attaching the web of her fiction to life, she was linking past and present reformers. Further by having Mr. Carmichael crown the occasion at the conclusion of the novel with his godlike benediction, she was sounding a cautiously optimistic note for the future. The description of him “surging up” “looking like an old pagan god, shaggy, with weeds in his hair and the trident” evokes Meredith’s superb, lyrical scene where Aminta and Weyburn transcend Aminta’s married status and perform old Triton’s rites by swimming in the ocean together. To glimpse, even if “scarcely perceptible”, George Meredith and Marie Carmichael Stopes standing beside Lily Briscoe and Augustus at the end of the novel, is to feel renewed hope for the final destiny of mankind.

“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible.”

VIRGINIA WOOLF, A Room of One’s Own

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Blog #201: Bishop in Dove instead of Woolf

Fathers don’t have to be dynasts to bridge past and future. Through family and family stories, almost every father roots his children to the past while growing different possible futures through present actions. Understanding of “Grape Sherbet” is deepened by the knowledge that Rita Dove’s father was the first black man allowed to work as a chemist for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio. The sherbet is a miracle of chemistry, a reality-altering, colour transformation with implications as deep as Memorial Day and “the grassed-over mounds.” Memorial Day, after all, has its origins in the end of the Civil War. Like the children who name “each stone for/ a lost milk tooth,” who make the dead a positive part of natural growth, a part of growing up, the father may not understand all the implications of what he does. The grandmother’s “pure refusal” almost certainly is fueled more by racial anxiety than it is by diabetes. However, because of family, because of history, because of her father–a Dove who wears “his cap turned up / so the bib resembles a duck,”–Rita Dove can accept what the grandmother of her poem cannot. She can see why her father bothered, how he overcame pressures from both sides of the colour line, pressures both from within and from without, and because of his miracle she can face the past without ducking, without refusal. As she invents or re-creates her father’s feat, using secret recipes of her own, her “Grape Sherbet” burns with a grateful, playful smile.

Rita Dove: Introduction to “Grape Sherbet.”

I wrote the above paragraph to accompany Rita Dove’s “Grape Sherbet” when I included that poem in Fathers: A Literary Anthology. Short as the paragraph is, it was the product of several months of reading Rita’s poems and reading and thinking about her life. I thought I knew “Grape Sherbet” well, and yet this morning, thanks to a tweet by Robert Macfarlane, I realize how much there is yet to know. I’ve discovered one of Rita Dove’s secret recipes, and, once again, I am reminded that one of the rewards of reading poetry is that there is always more to know. Poetry is like landscape. A new experience or new fact can reconfigure the previously known so that it has to be revisited and rethought.

The MacFarlane tweet which triggered this blog is as follows: “ It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world.” The quotation comes from Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses,” a poem which I read long ago and which I admired and still admire for its luminous realism, the way in which the mythic simmers beneath the painstaking, gritty surface details. In part, I like the poem because the cosmic is approached through the common. Through traces of personal history and the iridescent armour of the fish scale words glitters the cold dark hardness of the numinous. (Yoiks, what a pretentious sounding sentence. True, all the same.) I like the poem, too, because it reminds me of my fisherman past, and the heroism latent in the gore and exhaustion of my fish plant days.

Much as I like the poem, I had forgotten the line flagged by MacFarlane, and consequently I missed a large and important part of Dove’s poem. The Bishop allusion opens up new vistas, as, Woolf-like, Bishop uses allusion to dig out deep, beautiful caves beneath the surface of her work. “It’s just how we imagined lavender would taste” connects “Grape Sherbet” to Bishop’s explorations in “At the Fishhouses.” Dove’s history is a continuation and expansion of Bishop’s. The generational search for identity inherent in Bishop’s grandfather looms larger as Dove interrogates the past through her father and grandmother. In contrast to Bishop’s poem, geographical identity is largely eschewed, even if the darkness of the American south smoulders darkly beneath the cemetery turf. The bitterness of Bishop’s sea is transmuted to the lavender sweetness of sherbet, and salt enhances the sweetness.

It might be said that Dove’s poem verges on the saccharine. After all, there are so few grounds for optimism, even if the father’s miracle is a transforming one. Outside of the world of the poem, the dark forces of racism and sexism continue to maim and terrorize. But Dove is not willfully closing her eyes to reality. Her bow to Bishop is proof of that. Dove’s knowledge, too, is historical, and like Bishop’s it is drawn from the “hard cold mouth of the world,” “derived from the rocky breasts forever.” Bishop strengthens Dove, even as Dove draws upon her . Childish innocence disappears with the lost milk teeth. As adults, the knowledge we know is not the knowledge we imagined to be. To change the world, miracles are needed. Miracles require attention and belief. Like the father’s, the poet’s task is to bother. The task is to confront indifference and pay attention to the details of the world, and by so doing to attempt a “transmutation of fire that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.” Dove’s apparent simplicity owes much to Bishop’s seeming complexity.

“Grape Sherbet”

The Day? Memorial.

After the grill

Dad appears with his masterpiece –

swirled snow, gelled light.

We cheer. The recipe’s

a secret and he fights

a smile, his cap turned up

so the bib resembles a duck.

That morning we galloped

through the grassed-over mounds

and named each stone

for a lost milk tooth. Each dollop

of sherbet, later,

is a miracle,

like salt on a melon that makes it sweeter.

Everyone agrees – it’s wonderful!

It’s just how we imagined lavender

would taste. The diabetic grandmother

stares from the porch,

a torch

of pure refusal.

We thought no one was lying

there under our feet,

we thought it

was a joke. I’ve been trying

to remember the taste,

but it doesn’t exist.

Now I see why

you bothered,


by Rita Dove

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Blog #200: On Why Meredith Was Not Allowed to Go the Way of Calprenede and Scudery

Will you at any rate write to me? I hardly think so. You always say you love writing letters, but you never do it. The inconsistency of your sex, I suppose. Yours would be more soothing to read than George Meredith’s. What do you think? I opened that volume just before I left Belsize yesterday, and was so nauseated by the few sentences that met my eye, that I shut it up, put it down, and deliberately left it behind, so if you want it you must ask them to send it you. Nothing will induce me to read another word the man wrote. Is it prejudice, do you think, that makes us hate the Victorians, or is it the truth of the case? They seem to me a set of mouthing bungling hypocrites; but perhaps really there is a baroque charm about them which will be discovered by our great-great-grandchildren, as we have discovered the charm of Donne, who seemed intolerable to the 18th century. Only I don’t believe it. Thackeray and G. Meredith will go the way of Calprenede and Scudery.

Letter from Lytton Strachey to Virginia Woolf, Nov. 8th, 1912

Even if research is often clouded with anxiety and frustration, there can be powerful moments of pleasure. Research is occasionally akin to scanning a pebbly beach for pieces of sea smoothed glass. The eye and the mind are trained to spot the glint of unexpected treasure. Just so, sometimes, among the vagaries and uncertainties of research, a new and entirely unexpected piece of information surfaces. The information need not be profound or revolutionary to be exciting. Even a small new fact can deepen or reshape the subject of study. For me, Lytton Strachey’s letter is a case in point.

Before finding and reading this letter, I hadn’t thought too hard about the broader context of Virginia’s engagement with Meredith. His close personal connections to the Stephen family were of more interest to me than his wider cultural importance. Strachey’s letter, though, pushes me to think more deeply about Virginia’s relationship to Meredith as a Victorian. Strachey’s letter is a reminder of how hard the Edwardians and the Georgians wrestled with the Victorians. They were constantly reassessing them and constantly recalibrating their own efforts against Victorians legends and accomplishments.

For Virginia, Meredith was more than just a close family friend or uncle figure. As a late Victorian, and as a member of the patriarchy, no matter how enlightened, he was someone to be fought against. Virginia and her friends, along with many Modernist thinkers and writers, were, in part, defining themselves against the Victorians. More than that, they were working to cut the Victorians down to size and to reduce or to dispel their shadows. Eminent Victorians is but one famous example of the mythbusting and historical renovations which took place. One of the chief goals of Modernism was to break with, or, at the very least, disavow the Victorian past, and it is a measure of their revisionist success that we sometimes don’t properly appreciate the degree to which they were indebted to the Victorians.

Virginia was no exception. So far in my blogs I’ve looked at ways in which she was indebted to, and in conversation with, Edmund Gosse, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Violet Paget; and in future To the Lighthouse explorations I want to survey Thomas Hardy and Henry James influences. So often, these relationships with the Victorians are covert or masked, perhaps in part because Virginia wanted to conceal influences or because she was working towards erasure through silence. More likely, though, Victorian ancestors were kept in the shadows because Virginia understood the suggestive power of hints, traces, and subtle allusions. Also, in ghosting the Victorians, she could both honour and tame the past.

Virginia’s relationship to Meredith made him particularly hard to handle. As well as being a close family friend, he had taken an interest in her and Vanessa as children, and he had shared their deep love for Thoby. Also, in the public sphere, his ideas and his writings had challenged aspects of the patriarchy and had helped to advance the cause of women. With The Egoist and with Diana of the Crossways, in particular, he had loudly and clearly championed the cause of women. Not only that, Virginia was indebted to him for stylistic experiments and genre challenging innovations in his novels. As Gillian Beer has written, “Meredith’s intensely experimental approach to the novel is always a part of his moral concern with human personality,” and Virginia, as her essays about Meredith make clear, learned much from Meredith’s experiments.

As with the other Victorians, much of what Meredith stood for had to be erased or reshaped. Many of his contributions had to be concealed. All the same, Virginia owed Meredith too great a debt, both personal and literary, to cast him completely into darkness. Her essays about him are often generous and kind. She refers to him favorably in A Room of One’s Own. His strong, structural and thematic influence is boldly flagged in The Voyage Out. Finally, in To the Lighthouse, Virginia pays homage by using him as the pattern for Mr. Carmichael. Through Mr. Carmichael, she gives Meredith the last words in the novel, and has him, as he stands with Lily on the edge of the lawn, crown the occasion. Even if–perhaps taking her tone from Strachey–Virginia could describe Meredith as being “hard as an old crab at the bottom of the sea,” for her he was too wise and too loved a man to be allowed to go “the way of Calprenede and Scudery.”

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Blog #199: A Tragic Digression On A To the Lighthouse Approach


One of the best things about research is making unexpected discoveries. The discoveries are not always directly useful, yet for the researcher they can be valuable and deeply moving. This is the story of one such discovery.

With the help of AbeBooks, I’ve just obtained a copy of The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen. It’s a hardworn copy, with dark yet faded battered cover, and warped pages showing signs of foxing. The book was sent by in Lincoln, a business which specializes in selling books withdrawn from academic libraries throughout the UK. My book, a Duckworth 1st edition, came from Bristol Polytechnic, but before that, as the ornate, slightly whimsical, ex libris bookplate announces, it belonged to Humphrey Owen Jones.

The bookplate, dated 1909, shows an image of Clare College, Cambridge, the college from which Jones had graduated Masters in 1903, and where he stayed on as a fellow in the chemistry department. From 1901 on, he was Jacksonian demonstrator for the irascible sir James Dewar, inventor of the vacuum flask. With Dewar, Jones did research on the properties of matter at low temperatures and helped discover carbon monosulfide. The bookplate playfully flags Jones’s chemical passion with a clock-like model atom inscribed into the top of the border, and with two duckish looking glass retorts balanced on the edges of the frame pediment, one on each side of the atom.

The bookplate also helps to explain Humphrey Owen Jones’s interest in Leslie Stephen. Below the Clare College image are sketched two small, framed landscapes, one of mountain peaks and the other of a golf course. Superimposed criss-cross upon them are half a dozen golf clubs and climbing axes. Jones—along with his wife, Muriel Gwendolen Edwards, and his sister Bronwen Ceridwen Jones—was a passionate mountaineer. He started climbing in Snowdonia and then, no doubt under the influence of Stephen’s The Playground of Europe, turned his attention to the Alps. He climbed extensively in the Mont Blanc region, and he was part of a group which made the first ascent of the Brouillard ridge route to the summit of Mont Blanc. In 1909, Jones was elected to the Alpine Club, the club of which Leslie Stephen had been a founding member and, from 1865-1868, president.

And now for the tragic part of my digression: Jones’s copy of The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen is mine because of Jones’s mountaineering passion. On August 15th, 1912, while on their honeymoon, Jones and his wife attempted the 2941 meter high Aguille Rouge de Peuterey with the help of their Swiss guide, Julius Truffer. When Truffer slipped and fell on Jones, all three plunged almost 1000 feet down the mountain. Their deaths were witnessed by the renown solo climber Paul Preuss, who a little more than a year later, while attempting a free solo of the Mandlkogel in Austria, would similarly fall almost a thousand feet to his death.

Jones was 34 years old when he died, and his wife was only 26. The north summit of l’Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey was named in their honor, and a stained glass window in St Cynbryds church, Llandulas, also commemorates their death. So, too, thanks to the bookplate and the power of Google, does the battered book which I now own. To my copy of The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen are added part of the lives of Humphrey Owen Jones and his wife of two weeks, Muriel Gwendolen Jones.

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Blog #198: Of Seals and Walruses in To the Lighthouse

I read a great deal, I say: all the big books I have read I have read in the country. Besides this I write—with greater ease, at times, than ever in London. But the books are the things that I enjoy—on the whole—most. I feel sometimes for hours together as though the physical stuff of my brain were expanding, larger & larger, throbbing quicker & quicker with new blood—& there is no more delicious sensation than this. I read some history: it is suddenly all alive, branching forwards & backwards & connected with every kind of thing that seemed entirely remote before. I seem to feel Napoleons influence on our quiet evening in the garden for instance—I think I see for a moment how our minds are all threaded together—how any live mind today is of the very same stuff as Plato’s & Euripides. It is only a continuation & development of the same thing. It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind. Then I read a poem say—& the same thing is repeated. I feel as though I had grasped the central meaning of the world, & all these poets & historians & philosophers were only following out paths branching from that centre in which I stand. And then—some speck of dust gets into my machine I suppose, & the whole thing goes wrong again. I open my Greek book next morning, & feel worlds away from it all—worse than that—the writing is entirely indifferent to me. Then I go out into the country—plodding along as fast as I can go—not much thinking of what I see, or of anything, but the movement in the free air soothes & makes me sensitive at once. As long as one can feel anything—life may lead one where it likes. In London undoubtedly there are too many people—all different—all claiming something or losing something—& they must all be reconciled to the scheme of the universe before you can let yourself think what that scheme is. Of course, people too, if one read them rightly, might illuminate as much as if not more than books. It is probably best therefore in the long run to live in the midst of men & women—to get the light strong in your eyes as it were—not reflected through cool green leaves as it is in books.

A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals 1897-1909
July 1st, 1903

Briefly, I want to crawl out of individual tunnels. I want to take a deep breath and look around me. Even though I still have work to do on, I want to write down a few thoughts about Virginia’s broader enterprise. The impetus, oddly enough, comes from looking forward to Henry James. While chipping away at Meredith and probing and charting a couple more unexplored crevices, I started to think about who to map next. I’ve now reached a point where I almost feel that To the Lighthouse encompasses all literature written before 1927, and all I need to do in order to find a major writer is to look. Among others, I’ve already charted the presence of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Scott, Proust, Forster, Wharton, Conrad, Shelley, Peacock, Joyce, Dickens, and Meredith, so why should I not find signs of writers such as Austen, Hardy, and Mansfield.

Given his literary stature, his friendship with the Stephen family, and his visits to St. Ives, Henry James came to mind as a strong candidate and, sure enough, with the help of Mark Hussey’s Virginia Woolf A to Z, I quickly found traces of James in To the Lighthouse. Hussey notes Daniel Vogel and Harvena Richter as two critics who have explored Jamesian elements in To the Lighthouse, and a quick skim of Covert Relationships: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James (1990)and Virginia Woolf: The Inward Voyage (1970) suggests that I will have little mapping of my own to do. In charting the presence of Henry James, all I will have to do is to record the explorations of Richter and Vogel.

Before doing that, and also before finishing with Meredith, I want to note a few thoughts about what Virginia is doing with all these authors. Why all those voices? Why did she work so many writers so deeply into the fabric of her novel? Is To the Lighthouse a literary version of the DNB? Is it a literary acrostic puzzle? Is it an attempt to create a grand unified literary theory? What makes To the Lighthouse so sane when it could easily disintegrate into a schizophrenic cacophony of ancestral voices run amok?

Vogel, fresh in my mind, prompts possibilities. Vis a vis Henry James, Vogel reads Virginia through a Bloomian filter. “Anxiety of influence” is at work, and Virginia is “engaged in conscious and unconscious deception, in covering [her] own tracks, and in repression.” So often, though, Virginia is not covering her tracks. On the contrary. She deliberately sets out tracks for us to follow. Minta leads to Aminta, leads to Meredith. Mrs. Bast leads to Leonard Bast, leads to Forster. Marlow leads to Heart of Darkness, leads to Conrad. Again and again, Virginia playfully drops clues for us to follow–allusive clues which, instead of concealing, call attention to influence.

For Virginia, influence was guide, goad and glory. Yes, of course, there was anxiety, anxiety which she openly noted and acknowledged. For instance, of Proust she wrote, “And he will I suppose both influence me and make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.” When trying to ascertain and record her thoughts and feelings, no matter how faint, she was always unflinchingly honest. She did not hide from fear of influence and the anxiety attendant on that fear. Rather, she embraced the fear, and in so doing made the most of the influence. “Books,” as she noted in A Room of One’s Own, “have a way of influencing each other,” and she was quick to welcome and celebrate the influence.

As guide, influence exposed Virginia both to techniques and to ideas. She was always dissecting other writers to see how they achieved their effects. She was always measuring and testing her ideas against theirs. As goad, influence challenged her to excel. Techniques were to be mastered and improved upon. Ideas were to be challenged and expanded or overturned. And all the while, as glory, influence was to be embraced. It was to be savoured and celebrated. To be influenced is to be connected, is to become, however slightly, part of the web of culture and civilization. To acknowledge influence is to pay tribute to tradition and to help keep the light burning. Books are what one brings to the lighthouse.

I opened this meditation with a lengthy quotation from one of Virginia’s early journals. I’ll close with an even earlier one:

I must now expound another simile that has been rolling itself round in my mind for many days past. This is that I am a Norseman bound on some long voyage. The ship now is frozen in the drift ice; slowly we are drifting towards home. I have taken with me after anxious thought all the provisions for my mind that are necessary during the voyage. The seals & walruses that I shoot during my excursions on the ice (rummaging in the hold) are the books that I discover here & read.

A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals 1897-1909
August 1899

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Blog #197: George Meredith and Virginia Woolf: The Lark Ascending To the Lighthouse

The Lark Ascending

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
All intervolv’d and spreading wide,
Like water-dimples down a tide
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls;
A press of hurried notes that run
So fleet they scarce are more than one,
Yet changingly the trills repeat
And linger ringing while they fleet,
Sweet to the quick o’ the ear, and dear
To her beyond the handmaid ear,
Who sits beside our inner springs,
Too often dry for this he brings,
Which seems the very jet of earth
At sight of sun, her music’s mirth,
As up he wings the spiral stair,
A song of light, and pierces air
With fountain ardor, fountain play,
To reach the shining tops of day,
And drink in everything discern’d
An ecstasy to music turn’d,
Impell’d by what his happy bill
Disperses; drinking, showering still,
Unthinking save that he may give
His voice the outlet, there to live
Renew’d in endless notes of glee,
So thirsty of his voice is he,
For all to hear and all to know
That he is joy, awake, aglow,
The tumult of the heart to hear
Through pureness filter’d crystal-clear,
And know the pleasure sprinkled bright
By simple singing of delight,
Shrill, irreflective, unrestrain’d,
Rapt, ringing, on the jet sustain’d
Without a break, without a fall,
Sweet-silvery, sheer lyrical,
Perennial, quavering up the chord
Like myriad dews of sunny sward
That trembling into fulness shine,
And sparkle dropping argentine;
Such wooing as the ear receives
From zephyr caught in choric leaves
Of aspens when their chattering net
Is flush’d to white with shivers wet;
And such the water-spirit’s chime
On mountain heights in morning’s prime,
Too freshly sweet to seem excess,
Too animate to need a stress;
But wider over many heads
The starry voice ascending spreads,
Awakening, as it waxes thin,
The best in us to him akin;
And every face to watch him rais’d,
Puts on the light of children prais’d,
So rich our human pleasure ripes
When sweetness on sincereness pipes,
Though nought be promis’d from the seas,
But only a soft-ruffling breeze
Sweep glittering on a still content,
Serenity in ravishment.

For singing till his heaven fills,
’T is love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes:
The woods and brooks, the sheep and kine
He is, the hills, the human line,
The meadows green, the fallows brown,
The dreams of labor in the town;
He sings the sap, the quicken’d veins;
The wedding song of sun and rains
He is, the dance of children, thanks
Of sowers, shout of primrose-banks,
And eye of violets while they breathe;
All these the circling song will wreathe,
And you shall hear the herb and tree,
The better heart of men shall see,
Shall feel celestially, as long
As you crave nothing save the song.
Was never voice of ours could say
Our inmost in the sweetest way,
Like yonder voice aloft, and link
All hearers in the song they drink:
Our wisdom speaks from failing blood,
Our passion is too full in flood,
We want the key of his wild note
Of truthful in a tuneful throat,
The song seraphically free
Of taint of personality,
So pure that it salutes the suns
The voice of one for millions,
In whom the millions rejoice
For giving their one spirit voice.

Yet men have we, whom we revere,
Now names, and men still housing here,
Whose lives, by many a battle-dint
Defaced, and grinding wheels on flint,
Yield substance, though they sing not, sweet
For song our highest heaven to greet:
Whom heavenly singing gives us new,
Enspheres them brilliant in our blue,
From firmest base to farthest leap,
Because their love of Earth is deep,
And they are warriors in accord
With life to serve and pass reward,
So touching purest and so heard
In the brain’s reflex of yon bird;
Wherefore their soul in me, or mine,
Through self-forgetfulness divine,
In them, that song aloft maintains,
To fill the sky and thrill the plains
With showerings drawn from human stores,
As he to silence nearer soars,
Extends the world at wings and dome,
More spacious making more our home,
Till lost on his aërial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

George Meredith, 1881

Meredith again. In an earlier blog, I connected the opening of To the Lighthouse to Shelley’s “To a Skylark.” Now, with my latest discoveries, Mrs. Ramsay’s “You’ll have to be up with the lark” also gives of Meredith. All is changed–subtly, yet utterly changed, as my reading of the novel shifts to accommodate Meredith’s poem and the ripples it raises.

If anything, the novel becomes even more celebratory, more lyrical than previous internal versions. I feel it more as a triumphant ascent, a singing of the sap and of “the better hearts of men”; a ripening of “human pleasure” and an instilling of “love of earth.” The filter of the poem subtly corrects and counterbalances more sombre or ponderously philosophical readings of the novel. To the Lighthouse contains a lot of darkness, yet ultimately it, too, extends the world and helps the fancy sing. Polyphony. Meredith on top of Shelley reminds me of that.

Of course Meredith’s poem also sounds darker notes, and these too contribute to a revision of To the Lighthouse’s score. The lark links “all hearers in the song they drink,” including those whose lives are defaced “by many a battle-dint” and by “grinding wheels on flint.” Their lives yield substance for the lark’s song, just as countless scientists, poets, philosophers and novels provide the substance out of which Virginia composed To the Lighthouse. And also, as with Woolf’s novel, a major key to the accomplishment is “self-forgetfulness,” an abandonment and rejection of the solipsistic, egoistic “I,” and a steady soaring towards increased silence so as to leave the reader’s fancy free to sing. The Charles Tansley “taint of personality” is left behind. Like Meredith’s lark, Woolf’s lighthouse draws on collective “human stores” and, in so doing, shines as a beacon opposed to the primal darkness and savagery also to be found in man.

One of the attendant delights of tunneling To the Lighthouse is breaking into passages possibly unintended by or even unknown to Virginia. “The Lark Ascending” tunnel is a powerful example of this. Most people today, if they know of “The Lark Ascending,” know of it through Vaughan Williams’ symphonic piece with the same name. First produced in Shirehampton in 1920 , on June 14, 1921, it was premiered in London by the British Symphony Orchestra under a still young Adrian Boult, and over the years it won an ever larger audience, until, in the second half of the 20th century, it became what it is today, one of the most, if not the most, popular pieces of classical music in Britain.

The composition history of “The Lark Ascending” is most interesting. Supposedly, Vaughan Williams was working on the piece when World War 1 started and, though 41 at the time, he put it and much of his music aside to take on an active part in the war effort. After first enlisting in the Special Constabulary of the Metropolitan Police Service, he then became a Wagon Orderly with the Royal Army Medical Corps with whom he served as an ambulance driver in France and Greece. In 1917 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. At the end of the war, he became director of music for the British First Army, a position which he filled until he was demobilized early in 1919. It was only on his return to civilian life that Vaughan Williams completed his “Romance for Violin and Orchestra.” In 1926 the piece was published by Oxford University Press under the title of “The Lark Ascending,” and the score was prefaced with the following 12 lines from Meredith’s poem:

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In cherrup, whistle, slur and shake. …..
For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes. …..
‘Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

Intriguingly, Virginia was related to Vaughan Williams through her cousin Adeline Fisher, who became Vaughan Williams’ first wife. Hermione Lee records that Adeline was also the closest friend of Stella Duckworth, Virginia’s half-sister and, briefly, surrogate mother. On June 10th, 1897, the fifteen year old Virginia records the excitement attendant on the engagement of Adeline and Ralph, an engagement happening just two months after the marriage of Stella and Jack Hills; and then on June 17th, along with further details, she writes “Poor Ralph is a calf—according to her–& also, I am afraid, to us—-However they are very much in love, & there is a chance that he has genius.” Ralph and Adeline were married on October 9th, 1897, at all Saints Church in Hove, and, while Virginia did not attend, her only diary entry for the 4th of October to the 15th of October is dated October 10th, and consists of the words: “Adeline and Ralph are being married as I write.” Almost certainly, both the gap in Virginia’s diary and her failure to be at Adeline and Ralph’s marriage can be attributed to the tragedy of Stella’s death on July 19th. Also, just as Prue’s sudden death in To the Lighthouse recalls the death of Stella, possibly, just possibly, Ralph and Adeline’s courtship and marriage fused with Stella and Jack’s to plant seeds for Virginia’s treatment of Minta and Paul.

Virginia was also connected to Vaughan Williams through friends. Gwen Raverat, for example. As a Darwin, Gwen was a first cousin of Ralph. Not only that, in 1930 and 1931 Gwen and Ralph worked together to help produce the ballet “Job: A Masque for Dancing,” with Ralph writing the music and Gwen producing the set designs. While there is no mention of Vaughan Williams in the many letters between the Raverats and Virginia, very likely they would have spoken of him.

Whether or not Virginia ever talked or gossiped about Vaughan Williams with friends, she had a strong interest in Ralph’s music. On July 4th, 1897, she records hearing and enjoying a concert of Ralph’s music at St Barnabas Church , South Lambeth, where Ralph was organist. On March 9th 1905 Virginia went to the Aeolian Hall, “a beautiful new Music Hall on Bond Street” to hear Plunkett Greene singing Ralph’s songs. Again on March 13th, 1905, she mentions hearing Vaughan Williams’ music at the home of the Freshfield family. Though her letters and diaries do not specifically record attending other concerts featuring Vaughan Williams’ music, she and Leonard probably did attend such concerts, especially between 1926 and 1929, when Leonard was music critic for the Nation and the Athenaeum. Also in 1925 and 1926, Leonard and Virginia were active subscribing members of the National Gramophonic Society and, according to Emma Sutton (Virginia Woolf and Classical Music: Politics, Aesthetics, Form, 2013) this society did release recordings of works by Vaughan Williams.

Virginia did not attend the London premier of “The Lark Ascending” (after going to a concert on June 10th, 1921, she suffered a severe bout of ill health and spent 60 days enduring “all the horrors of the dark cupboard of illness”), but given her interest in Vaughan Williams, and her knowledge of his music, it is possible that if To the Lighthouse does indeed reference Meredith’s poem, the reference also encompasses Vaughan Williams’ piece. Whatever Virginia knew or intended, my To the Lighthouse–and yours, too–now includes Meredith’s “The Lark Ascending,” compounded with Vaughan Williams’ and, accordingly, it also brings with it thoughts of Vaughan Williams’ WW1 experience. Intended or unintended, I find such thoughts enriching, and I am also pleased to know a little bit more about WW1 and about Vaughan Williams.


Note to self: Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, Patience and access to more journals and archives…particularly the Nation and Athenaeum, National Gramophonic Society records, and Leonard Woolf’s diaries at the University of Sussex.

List of Matremoirs

List of Patremoirs

Children of Writers

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