In Virginia Woolf’s famous novel To The Lighthouse we visit the Ramsay family at Talland House in St Ives, Cornwall. I remember a particular dinner scene in the novel, often used as an example of how subjective the sense of self is, as we float between dinner guest’s perspectives of the dinner and each other. Maggie Humm takes one of Talland House’s guests, Lily Briscoe, and weaves a tale of love and friendships across the turbulent decades at the beginning of the 20th Century. We start at the Royal Academy in 1919, when Lily has a painting on display and runs into her one time tutor Louis Grier. This meeting takes Lily back to a time when she attended a painting school in St Ives. Now Lily is a successful artist, and in the time since her student days has been a nurse and a suffragette. She is much more self-assured than back then, when she was lacking confidence and still struggled with the loss of her mother. At a student art show, Mrs Ramsay and her husband buy one of Lily’s paintings and the two women become close. Lily attends dinner at Talland House and asks if she might paint Mrs Ramsay’s portrait. Lily has become fascinated with her hostess who has all the elegance of the model she used to be, but also the soft calming nature integral to her role as hostess, wife and mother. With Mr Ramsay’s violent outbursts, Lily suspects she needs to be patient more often than not. As they meet Louis in 1919, Lily realises two things; she is still in love with Louis, and she must explore what happened to her beloved Mrs Ramsay, who has died suddenly without Lily knowing.
From a historical perspective this novel is fascinating. Not only is this an interesting time in history, but To The Lighthouse was a turning point in the history of the novel – showing a lean towards Modernism in its various perspectives and informal structure. Historically, this is a time when women start to become independent and we see this in Lily’s student years – she studies in Paris before Cornwall and now trudges around the Cornish coastline, sketching with her friend Emily at the weekends. She chooses how she spends her time and with whom, although there are some constraints within her class and gender. With the advent of WW1 women are working in men’s roles as they join up and go to the front, working in retail and in factories to ensure the country keeps running. Lily’s wartime job as a nurse further emphasises her competence and independence. It’s a time of huge change and upheaval for everyone, but on a personal level Lily is shocked to be told about the sudden death of her former friend Mrs Ramsay. Her mind is drawn back to those sudden outbursts of her friend’s husband when she was visiting. It is Lily’s interest in this mystery as well as her potential love story that kept me reading.
The pace is slow, full of beautiful detailed descriptions of surroundings and the art being created. The colours are vivid and I can almost see a particularly colourful part of the Ramsay’s garden where delphiniums flower in a blue haze in contrast to the purple hedge. I loved the descriptions of St Ives, especially the depiction of Pilchard Day with all its activity and noise. Although these descriptions slow the story down, they are very important. Humm is creating a painting with words. The difficulties of women’s roles in society are depicted beautifully in Lily; there is tension between her status as an independent woman and a woman in love. Can both of these roles exist in conjunction with one another? She has the example of Mrs Ramsay before her, a once celebrated model, with her role now confined to mother and wife. Any artistic sensibilities she had now restricted to making Talland House the perfect place to entertain her husband’s contacts. Every skill she has is now used to create the perfect back drop, making her husband more successful in society. Instead of furthering her own independent skills and interests. Does Lily want that same role? There is also the similarity Lily sees between Mrs Ramsay and her mother, whose loss seems to haunt her in some way. Is there a way in which these two women’s fates are linked and what does this mean for Lily?
This novel is a beautiful elegy to the world Virginia Woolf created at Talland House. There is something dreamlike about those early days in St Ives, as if this lifestyle has now been lost in the wake of WW1. This feeling also extends to the love story; can Lily’s infatuation with Louis survive all that has happened since they last met? Would the reality of their relationship be those traditional roles or would Lily be free to pursue her independent career? Everything that has happened gives her room to ask these questions. This is a thoughtful, leisurely novel with bags of historical detail and painterly descriptions. It was a perfect summer story, in the same way as LP Hartley’s The Go-Between. It drifts like a summer breeze, and captures its moment perfectly.