Review 1310: Classics Club Spin Review! To the Lighthouse

Cover from To the LighthouseWhen the Classics Club Spin chose To the Lighthouse for me from my list, I wasn’t sure how pleased I was. I first read it in college and remembered very little of it except that it wasn’t my favorite. On the other hand, our tastes change as we grow, and I had enjoyed Mrs. Dalloway.

The novel is divided into three sections. The first is about a day in the life of the Ramsey family, as they vacation on the Isle of Skye with their friends. The second is about the house and the passage of time. The third takes place there again ten or eleven years later.

Young James Ramsey has been begging for a trip the next day to the lighthouse, and both he and Mrs. Ramsey are irritated with Mr. Ramsey for so assuredly stating that the weather will be too stormy. The novel revolves around the presence of Mrs. Ramsey, a beautiful, quiet, assured mother of eight. Although we briefly see things from other characters’ points of view, the most prevalent are those of Mrs. Ramsey and of Lily Briscoe, a painter.

Nothing much happens in this part of the novel. The family doesn’t go to the lighthouse; Lily has difficulty with her painting, and although she has insight during dinner, she doesn’t finish it; Minta loses her brooch on the beach and accepts a proposal from Paul; Lily resists Mrs. Ramsey’s old-fashioned idea that she must marry and her attempts to pair her off with William Bankes. The action of the novel isn’t really the point, though, it’s the complex relationships between friends and family.

At times the narrative is a little hard to follow, because Woolf switches time and pronouns so that you don’t always know whether something takes place in the novel’s present or past or who is being referred to. The novel is impressionistic in its approach, both in its descriptions of characters’ thoughts and of the settings. Over everything is the strong presence of Mrs. Ramsey.

Time passes, the war intervenes, and the family does not return for more than 10 years. When it does, things have changed.

I enjoyed reading this novel, although I’m sure I missed a lot. I think it could be food for study and contemplation, but I did not have time to do so.

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Day 1299: Flush: A Biography

Cover for FlushI admit to feeling rather perplexed by Flush, which seems to be a light-hearted biography of Elizabeth Barrett’s pet dog. It was clear to me that a lot more was going on than a story about a dog. The introduction to my Persephone edition by Sally Beauman draws parallels between Flush’s life and Barrett’s—and Virginia Woolf’s own life.

Flush is a cocker spaniel, a hunting dog, given to Elizabeth Barrett as a gift. Woolf is clear about how Flush’s life on Wimpole Street becomes one of constraint and even neuroticism as the lap dog of a constrained, restricted, and hypochondriacal Elizabeth Barrett.

The slant the novel puts on the famous romance between Barrett and Robert Browning is also very interesting. Flush is immediately jealous of Browning and tries to bite him twice. From being loved and terrifically spoiled by Barrett, he learns he has to take second place.

Now to get to the source of my perplexity. Just in terms of mistreatment of dogs, this novel was not, to me, the one fondly referred to by others over the years. Woolf’s doggy hero is restricted by Elizabeth just as she was by her father. To add interest, though, there are sly digs at social strata and Victorian life throughout.

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Day 551: Mrs. Dalloway

Cover for Mrs. DallowayMrs. Dalloway is preparing for a party at her home. She goes out herself in the morning to pick up the flowers.

Clarissa Dalloway enjoys her walk. She loves the air, the invigorating city of London, the people. As she walks, she thinks about events from her past, particularly a summer when she was being courted by Peter Walsh at her home of Bourton.

On her walk, Mrs. Dalloway briefly encounters an old friend and we follow him and his thoughts for awhile. So through the day, the novel moves from the consciousness of one character to another, culminating in Mrs. Dalloway’s party. Thoughts and memories are triggered by random images, as Woolf tries to replicate human consciousness.

Woolf’s express purpose in writing this novel was to depict one day in a woman’s life. She also does a turn on the marriage plot—for we see thirty-some years later how that plot worked out.

Mrs. Dalloway harks back to her youth, when it seemed possible she would marry Peter. They argued a lot, though, and it seemed to her that he criticized her. We learn from Peter’s memories that he suddenly had the flash of a thought that she would marry Richard Dalloway. Convinced of this, he left for India. Now, he has returned to tell her he is in love again—with a much younger married woman who has children and is not of his class. Still, by the end of the novel it is as if he has forgotten his new love.

Clarissa married comfort and stability in Richard Dalloway. Instead of a challenging and more bohemian existence with Peter, she has a very structured life. But she is recovering from illness and sleeps in a narrow, prim bed in the attic. It is unclear whether she is happy, except in the delight of living she feels by her nature.

Septimus and Rezia Smith are a couple unknown to Clarissa who are also important to the novel. Septimus is suffering from a delayed shell shock and hallucinations from his experiences in World War I. Rezia, the wife he brought back from Italy, is taking him to see Sir William Bradshaw. Bradshaw is a Harley Street specialist who appears later at Mrs. Dalloway’s party.

As with other modernist novels, I sometimes felt I was missing something. At other times, though, I felt that my reaction was supposed to be something like “This is what life is.”

Having recently read The Hours (wrong way around, I know), Michael Cunningham’s tribute to the novel, I was fascinated by how, with slight adjustments of character and by breaking the novel into three time periods, he invokes even stronger feelings and gives us a fresh look at the material.

Day 539: The Hours

Cover for The HoursBest Book of the Week!
One of our Pandora channels repeatedly plays Philip Glass’s music from the movie soundtrack of The Hours. So, as soon as I began reading it, the intricate notes of the score became a mental accompaniment to the novel. That is, I got an ear worm.

I came to the novel with the slight disadvantage of being unfamiliar with Mrs. Dalloway, having been traumatized by To the Lighthouse in a college English class. But you don’t have to be familiar with it to appreciate this lovely, cleverly constructed novel, an homage to Woolf’s own.

The novel begins with Virginia Woolf’s suicide. But later it returns to 20 years before, when she is writing Mrs. Dalloway.

First, though, we meet a middle-aged woman, Clarissa Vaughn, whose best friend calls her Mrs. Dalloway. Like her namesake, Clarissa is eagerly going out into a crisp, clear morning to buy flowers for her party. This is New York, though, in the late 1990’s, and Clarissa’s party is for her dearest friend Richard, a poet who is dying of AIDS. He has recently been chosen to receive a prestigious prize for poetry, and the ceremony is that night.

Back in 1920’s Richmond, England, Virginia Woolf is trying to decide the plot of Mrs. Dalloway. Someone will die, she thinks, but will it be Mrs. Dalloway herself? Woolf also copes with her own fears about her mental state, her yearning to return to living in London, and a visit from her sister Vanessa Bell.

In 1950’s Los Angeles, Laura Brown struggles with being a suburban housewife and mother. Although she loves her husband and small son, she feels unsuited to this life.

Cunningham presents us with three stories, and a theme of threes recurs. Woolf has bouts of mental illness, Richard suffers from dementia caused by his illness, and Laura is struggling with depression. The jellyfish shapes and voices of Woolf’s migraine visions appear in Richard’s episodes of dementia. And Laura briefly sees a grayish jellyfish cloud floating over her son’s head. A forbidden kiss and the color mustard feature in more than one story. And other links that I will not name are more intrinsic to the plot. The three stories are so cleverly interwoven, we’re not sure if the events of one cause the events of the other.

This is a novel of astonishing beauty, cleverly constructed and entertaining. I’m going to find a copy of Mrs. Dalloway.