To the Lighthouse, published in 1927, is Virginia Woolf’s partly autobiographical novel about the Ramsay family, who stay with various guests at their holiday home on the Isle of Skye one summer in the early twentieth century.
In many ways this book is difficult to classify as a novel. There’s no story as such. The first section describes a day of hanging about the Ramsay’s residence. The holiday group combines highbrow, sometimes extremely annoying men, eight lively Ramsay children, the maternal Mrs Ramsey, a young girl about to marry, and a frustrated woman with artistic ambitions, who has been told by one of the male guests that women can’t paint, or write. A boat trip to a nearby lighthouse is tentatively planned but abandoned because the weather is unsuitable. The second section, following family loss, is a description of the deserted holiday home slowly falling apart. And in the third section, surviving members of the original party make a nostalgic return after ten years, Mr Ramsay and two of his now adolescent children, finally taking a boat trip to the lighthouse. That’s it.
Mrs Ramsay’s youngest boy, James, likes to cut pictures out of catalogues. To keep James occupied for as long as possible, his mother tries to find him pictures of items such as rakes, which require plenty of time-consuming trimming around prongs. The adult men, who are university professors and the like, are grown-up versions of young James, cutting things out from experience to study. In contrast there is an approach more associated with women in the book. For them, experience is best understood in terms of how things work together rather than in isolation. There’s one scene describing a trout in a river. Take the trout out of the river and it won’t be a trout for long. The trout’s essential troutness is best understood as part of the river.
There is some amazing descriptive writing. My favourite part of the book was the second section where the abandoned house is slowly deteriorating. It’s haunting, almost post-apocalyptic. So much goes on that doesn’t involve people at all, great tracts of time and events. People see only a tiny piece, and maybe, in the end, that tiny piece is best considered as part of something bigger.