I am a little late reviewing February’s classic, and was late finishing it despite the extra day in February. But, after three failed attempts, I have finally read To The Lighthouse. After all that I am slightly ashamed to say I feel very underwhelmed by it.
Virginia Woolf’s prose is beautiful and the stream of consciousness narration which flits from the mind of one character to the next is masterful. Woolf captures what it means to be human in this book and some scenes really spoke to me, such as this one showing Mrs Ramsey’s thoughts at the end of the day when her children no longer demand anything of her:
“For now she need not think about anybody…All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.”
Woolf perfectly captures the pettiness and squabbles of life, especially in the way that people never seem to say what they mean. The book is full of warmth and humour, such as Lily’s reflection on Mr Bankes:
“…you live for science (involuntarily, sections of potatoes rose before her eyes)…”
The characters feel as though they have stepped out of the pages and are living in amongst us and, especially as this book was first published nearly ninety years ago, that is some feat.
Yet despite all this I did not enjoy the book.
It always pains me when I do not like something I’ve read, which may sound silly but is magnified when that book is a classic by one of the literary greats. I know I am not alone in my dislike of Woolf, as other friends who are prolific readers have not got on with her either. But admitting that I haven’t enjoyed it (to myself more than anyone else) makes me feel inadequate, as though I have missed the whole point of the book somehow or am not sophisticated enough to enjoy it. I am left feeling as though I have missed out.
Enjoyment of literature is of course a matter of personal taste, and there are a number of reasons why I did not enjoy this book. One of them is the lack of action in the book. Although the narrative spans many years, most of the events of the novel take place in the gap between the two sections of time that the novel crosses. The actual narrative deals with an evening before a planned trip to the lighthouse (which never goes ahead due to poor weather) and the actual trip there many years later (although the preamble and journey there rather than the actual visit). The dinner of the night before the trip in the first section is the part I have never managed to get past before (and I struggled again this time – it goes on for pages and pages), and I found the final section interminably long. A twenty page description of an empty house is the kind of thing to expect here. I am not saying I need a plot full of action, far from it, but I really had to force myself to carry on reading through parts of this book as I felt the plot had completely stagnated. Woolf does not put things succinctly.
The other was the stuffy nature of some of the characters, who are never able to say what they mean or want to and (to put it bluntly) I just found them dull. Mr Ramsey’s quest for greatness, which he measures in terms of letters of the alphabet, was neither here nor there for me. Mrs Ramsey just wanted everyone to get married, even though her experience didn’t seem especially pleasurable. Somehow these characters just didn’t illuminate any of the existential themes in the book for me, and Lily’s debate of whether or not her painting was any good and whether or not anyone should see it made me almost give up reading at several points.
But I made it to the end and, despite having not enjoyed it much, I always think that a sign of a good book is one which you have plenty to say about. I know a lot of people will disagree with my views here, and I would love to hear some reasons why people have enjoyed this particular book. But as I have stressed earlier, reading is a deeply personal journey and if everyone had the same tastes then the world would be a very dull place.
March’s classic is going to be The Awakening by Kate Chopin, which hopefully will be more to my taste. But in the meantime I would love to hear your thoughts on To The Lighthouse…