One doesn’t think of Virginia Woolf as a war novelist, but reading To the Lighthouse shortly after Mrs Dalloway, it seems reasonable to consider whether she, above any other writer, best understood the effect the First World War had on the English. In the latter, we clearly see the damage caused to the individual mind in the character of Septimus Smith (and Woolf is certainly a novelist of the mind); in the former, the novel’s three-part structure is built around the war’s interruption, and the house’s decay and Mrs Ramsay’s death cannot help but seem connected to the conflict, though only the death of her son, Andrew, is directly caused by the war.
To the Lighthouse is largely about social change, of course, but social change was also a result of the war’s casualties, and the emergency conditions at home. In it Woolf’s recreates her parents’ marriage in the Ramsays: the needy, moody Mr Ramsay – “if his little finger ached the whole world must come to an end” – and the nurturing, giving Mrs Ramsay, mother of eight children, who, according to Lily Briscoe “gave him what he asked too easily.” The great fascination of the novel is that we see its characters through the eyes of so many other characters and the Ramsays are no exception. Lily describes Mr Ramsay as follows:
“…he is absorbed in himself, he is tyrannical, he is unjust…”
Even she must admit, however, that as a couple:
“Directly one looked up and saw them, what she called ‘being in love’ flooded them.”
We see this for ourselves as the novel opens: Mrs Ramsay, aware her husband is upset, watches him as she read her son James a story:
“She stroked James’ head, she transferred to him what she felt for her husband…”
James, on the other hand, has been put out since his father dashed his hopes of a trip to the lighthouse the next morning by insisting the weather would not allow it:
“Had there been an ax handy, a poker, or any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, then and there, James would have seized it.”
Such fierce feelings, though childish in this case, are not unusual, as Woolf explores the way our emotions rise and fall from moment to moment. Though little happens in her novels they are never still: like the flat surface of the sea, her plots conceal the restlessness beneath.
To the Lighthouse opens on a rather unconvincing Skye where the Ramsays regularly holiday, inviting a plethora of friends and acquaintances. When she is not mothering her children (and husband), Mrs Ramsay spends her time considering which couples might suitably marry – and indeed, there will be an engagement before the night is over. “Why is it that one wants people to marry?” she asks herself – presumably because so much of her life is invested in her marriage and her role as a wife.
Woolf’s portrait of her marriage is more nuanced than any relationship in Mrs Dalloway: we see its tensions and shifting moods in remarkable depth considering we have only a few hours exposure. The couple’s loyalty to each other is unquestionable, though heavily reliant on Mrs Ramsay accepting that her role is secondary to Mr Ramsay’s career, and includes assuaging his every self-doubt. Consider their final moments together in the novel:
“She knew what he was thinking. You are more beautiful than ever. And she felt very beautiful. Will you not tell me just for once that you love me?”
In the novel’s second section, Time Passes, the war prevents them from returning to the house. Important events are dealt with in brackets, like stage directions:
“Mr Ramsay, stumbling along a passage, stretched his arms out one dark morning, but, Mrs Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, he stretched his arms out. They remained empty.”
After the war, the party is reassembled at the house and the trip to the lighthouse takes place. Much is as it was: Mr Ramsay stalks around in a foul mood; James is angry at his father; and Lily resumes the painting she had abandoned. However, in insisting on a trip to the lighthouse, Mr Ramsay, consciously or unconsciously, is enacting his wife’s wishes, and perhaps, in some small way, admitting he has been an impediment to her.
When I began To the Lighthouse I feared I would not love it like Mrs Dalloway, where the stories of the two main characters collide to create something greater. However, this was simply because one must read the whole of To the Lighthouse to appreciate the achievement of its structure: the first half on its own is a masterful picture of a marriage, but it is the addition of parts two and three which make the novel something special. Woolf’s skill with stream of consciousness is exquisite, but it is her constant questioning that is to be most admired. “What was the value, the meaning of things?” wonders Mrs Ramsay at the end of The Window; while Lily Briscoe at the beginning of The Lighthouse asks:
“What does it mean, then, what can it all mean?”