“That was the country he liked best, over there; those sandhills dwindling away into darkness. One could walk all day without meeting a soul. There was not a house scarcely, not a single village for miles on end. One could worry things out alone. There were little sandy beaches where no one had been since the beginning of time. The seals sat up and looked at you.” p 64.
I began reading To the Lighthouse about a month ago, with the expectation that it would be a difficult read. Written in Woolf’s characteristic stream-of-consciousness style, with no real plot and a lot of introspection, it sounded like a nightmare. But I was inevitably drawn to it, for the challenge, for its praise, and for my fascination with Virginia Woolf’s prose.
I’m 19 years old. The wonderful Margaret Atwood also read To the Lighthouse for the first time when she was 19, for an English course on the “The Twentieth Century Novel”. To put it lightly, her first impression was somewhat similar to my own:
“Why go to the lighthouse at all, and why make such a fuss about going or not going? What was the book about? Why was everyone so stuck on Mrs Ramsay, who went around in floppy old hats and fooled around in her garden, and indulged her husband with spoonfuls of tactful acquiescence…Why would anyone put up with Mr Ramsay, that Tennyson-quoting tyrant, eccentric disappointed genius though he might be?…And what about Lily Briscoe, who wanted to be an artist and made much of this desire, but who didn’t seem to be able to paint very well, or not to her own satisfaction? In Woolfland, things were so tenuous. They were so elusive. They were so inconclusive. They were so deeply unfathomable.” – Margaret Atwood 2002.
So it’s easy to see why some people begin to read To the Lighthouse, and put it down in baffled disinterest. A WTF attitude, if you will. To be honest, I read the first 40 or so pages of the book then didn’t touch it for weeks. A change came with my visit to the UK, my birthplace. It took a few weeks of time by the sea, amid hedges and rugged coastline, and fields of wildflowers, and suddenly I was in a headspace to tackle this violently vivid world Woolf had conjured. A very impractical and expensive way to get in to a novel, but I digress.