Virginia Woolf - To the Lighthouse (1927)
- Katie Gould
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Virginia Woolf is not a name immediately synonymous with Scottish writing. However, her evocation of the Hebrides as a place in which 'the sea is stretched like silk across the bay' should not be denied a position on the list. Conceived at the height of Woolf's affair with Vita Sackville-West, the opening chapters of To the Lighthouse stretch across a single day of deliberations about the weather and its suitability for a trip across the bay to the lighthouse. In this sense it's a parody of the particular British preoccupation with the weather, seeming to provide the characters with little more motivation than the forecast.
Yet beneath such seemingly banal concerns lie ghosts of Woolf's past - her mother and father as Mr and Mrs Ramsay acting as tools for her strategy of 'writing things out' - and sometimes harsh social comment cushioned in the dunes. Relationship dynamics meander among women who long to give sympathy, support and understanding to the unspoken desires of men who regard them at once with adoration and disdain: 'Women made civilisation impossible with all their charm, all their silliness.' Yet though the Ramsays lose their son on the battlefields of World War I, Woolf's novel is no anti-war treatise. Instead, she depicts their quiet despair, set blindingly against the bright Hebridean morning 'as if sails were struck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea'.
Woolf's writing - though it is often dancing and playful - is not always accessible; her approach to punctuation can give the impression of semicolons and commas being scattered through the text and her choice of words - ardent love as 'helpful', for instance - is sometimes baffling. Yet as the depiction of a place passionately longed for, Woolf's novel resounds with the echoes of the Hebridean landscape.
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