To the Lighthouse | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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To the Lighthouse | 10 Things You Didn't Know


English writer Virginia Woolf called her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse "easily the best of my books," and Modern Library ranked it 15th on their list of the best novels of the 20th century. Time magazine also included it on their list of the best 100 novels since 1923.

Following the success of her previous novel, Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf continued to develop her signature stream-of-consciousness style in To the Lighthouse, her fifth novel. To the Lighthouse focuses on the Ramsay family—a family inspired by Woolf's own—and their summer visits to the Isle of Skye, an island off the coast of Scotland.

Breaking from the tradition of plot-driven Victorian novels, To The Lighthouse contains hardly any action. Most of the book is written as thoughts and memories, the events of a single afternoon composing more than half the novel. Rather than dwelling on plot, Woolf was more interested in exploring the nature of life, relationships, the passing of time, and human consciousness. To The Lighthouse is considered Woolf's most autobiographical novel and one of her most experimental works.

1. Virginia Woolf likely modeled the character of Lily Briscoe on herself.

Some think the character of Lily Briscoe was influenced by Woolf's sister since both were painters, but most critics believe Woolf modeled Lily on herself. One critic called Lily a "silhouette" of Woolf who thinks in terms of painting, whereas Woolf thought in terms of writing. Another connected Lily's "bifurcated feelings" with Woolf's own struggle with bipolar disorder.

Virginia Woolf

Portrait of Virginia Woolf George Charles Beresford

2. The summer home in the Hebrides in To the Lighthouse is based on Woolf's childhood summer home in Cornwall.

Virginia Woolf's family spent the summers between 1881 and 1895 at Talland House in Cornwall, England. Like the fictional house in To the Lighthouse, Talland House faced the sea and had a view of a lighthouse. Woolf's first 13 summers in Cornwall made a lasting impression on her. She wrote in her diary,

Why am I so incredibly and incurably romantic about Cornwall? One's past, I suppose ... almost forty years of life, all built on that, permeated by that: so much I could never explain.

3. Residents of the Hebrides were upset that Woolf portrayed the region's plant life inaccurately in To the Lighthouse.

Woolf wrote in a letter to an old friend, "People in the Hebrides are very angry." Apparently, some Scots had pointed out that dahlias, rooks, elms, and carnations are not found in the Hebrides. Woolf's response: "Dear me, what's to be done about it?"

4. Woolf wrote To the Lighthouse partly as a way of dealing with unresolved issues concerning her own parents.

In adulthood, Woolf still was dealing with issues surrounding the deaths of her parents, and it is thought she tried to work through these unresolved traumas in the novel. She explained:

I wrote the book very quickly; and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her. I suppose that I did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.

5. Woolf's sister said that reading about Mrs. Ramsay was like seeing their mother raised from the dead.

Woolf asked her sister, Vanessa, if she thought the characterization of the Ramsays was true to their parents. Vanessa wrote in response:

You have given a portrait of mother which is more like her to me than anything I could ever have conceived of as possible. It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead. ... It was like meeting her again with oneself grown up & on equal terms.

6. An early review said To the Lighthouse has "particles of failure in it."

The review was not all bad. Louis Kronenberger, the reviewer for the New York Times, did call To The Lighthouse a "brilliantly ambitious analysis of domestic psychology" and noted the great beauty of Woolf's prose. However, he spent most of his review comparing it to Mrs. Dalloway, concluding that it "has not the formal perfection, the cohesiveness, the intense vividness of characterization" of Woolf's earlier novel.

7. To the Lighthouse outsold all of Woolf's previous novels.

It sold 3,873 copies in the first year. Her next book, Orlando, did even better, selling 8,104 copies in the first six months. But neither book came close in sales to Woolf's final novel, The Years, which sold 43,909 copies in its first six months. Now, To The Lighthouse is remembered as one of Woolf's finest novels, while The Years has almost been forgotten.

8. The Woolfs used the proceeds from To the Lighthouse to buy their first car.

Based on Woolf's description of the car, it was probably a 1927 Singer Senior or a 1927 Singer Junior. Her husband, Leonard, learned to drive quickly. Virginia, on the other hand, hit a child as she was learning. Fortunately, the child was unhurt, but Virginia decided to leave the driving to her husband after that.

9. Woolf once called an award she won for To the Lighthouse "the most insignificant and ridiculous of prizes."

In 1928 she won the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse-Bookman Prize, a which was awarded in both England and France for the purpose of recognizing works that informed one culture about the other. While Woolf wanted the award, which she learned about from a newspaper, her low self-esteem and her mixed reviews abroad led her to discredit her accomplishment.

10. Admirers and family members of Virginia Woolf fought real estate developers to save the view that inspired To the Lighthouse.

In 2015 many people who admired Woolf's literary achievements tried—unsuccessfully—to stop developers from building a block of apartments that would destroy the view from Talland House across the Cornish sea to the famous Godrevy Lighthouse. One person involved in the campaign to stop development, a professor at East London University, called the construction project "an appalling act of vandalism." Woolf's great-niece called it a "short-sighted move." Supporting the developers, Town Councillor Tim Andrewes mentioned an old saying that "no one's got a right to a view," and the apartments were built.

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