“Mrs. Woolf’s New Novel.” Times Literary Supplement. May 5, 1927, p.315.


(The Hogarth Press. 7s. 6d. net.)

Each of Mrs. Woolf’s novels has inspired a lively curiosity as to the next. One wonderedwhat would follow “Mrs. Dalloway”; and itssuccessor, with certain points of likeness, isyet a different thing. It is still more differentfrom most other stories. A case like Mrs. Woolf’s makes one feel the difficulty of gettinga common measure to estimate fiction; for herwork, so adventurous and intellectually imaginative, really invites a higher test thanis applied to most novels.

In form “To the Lighthouse” is as elasticas a novel can be. It has no plot, though it has a scheme and a motive; it shows characters in outline rather than in the round; andwhile it depends almost entirely on the passingof time, it expands or contracts the timesense very freely. The first and longest partof the book is almost stationary, and describesa party of people gathered in the summer at a house on the Scottish coast. James, theyoungest of the Ramsay children, is thwartedof a visit to the lighthouse. In the next part,much briefer, sea-winds and caretakers arehaving their way with the house while oneyear follows another; Mrs. Ramsay and hereldest daughter have died, a son is killed in the war, and the place is forsaken. In the lastpart the house is alive again with the surviving Ramsays and two of the former guests.Mr. Ramsay, the philosopher, grimly magnificent, heads an expedition to the lighthouse; and James, now sixteen, accomplishes hisdream, though all the family have a sense of paternal tyranny.

Such are the bare bones of theframework; but one feels they are nomore like the whole story than theskeleton carved in a medieval tomb is to the robed and comely effigy above it. For thebook has its own motion: a soft stir and lightof perceptions, meeting or crossing, of the gestures and attitudes, the feelings andthoughts of people: of instants in which theseare radiant or absurd, have the burden of sadness or of the inexplicable. It is a reflectivebook, with an ironical or wistful questioning oflife and reality. Somehow this steals into the pages, whether there is a sunny peace in the garden, or Mrs. Ramsay is interrupted in a fairy-tale, or a couple is late for dinner, sothat one is inclined to say that this questionof the meaning of things, however masked,is not only the essence but the real protagonistin the story. One is hardly surprised when it emerges openly now and again towards the end:—

What was it then? What did it mean? Could things thrust their hands up and grip one; couldthe blade cut; the fist grasp? Was there nosafety? No learning by heart of the ways of theworld? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle,and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into theair? Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life?—startling, unexpected, unknown? Forone moment she felt that if they both got up, here,now on the lawn, and demanded an explanation,why it was so short, why it was so inexplicable,said it with violence, as two fully-equipped humanbeings from whom nothing should be hid mightspeak, then, beauty would roll itself up; the space would fill; those empty flourishes would form into shape; if they said it loud enough Mrs. Ramsay would return. “Mrs. Ramsay!” she said aloud,“Mrs. Ramsay!” The tears ran down her face.

Perhaps this is one reason why you are lessconscious of Mrs. Woolf’s characters thanthey are of each other. They have an acuteconsciousness which reminds you of the peoplein Henry James, but with a difference. Thecharacters of Henry James are so absorbed ineach other that they have no problem beyondthe truth, or otherwise, of their relations; andthey are so intensely seen as persons that theyare real. But the people in Mrs. Woolf’s bookseem to be looking through each other at somefarther question; and, although they interactvividly, they are not completely real. No doubt, as Lily Briscoe the painter thinks in the novel, to know people in outline is oneway of knowing them. And they are seen herein the way they are meant to be seen. But the result is that, while you know quitewell the kind of people represented in the story, they lack something as individuals.Mr. Ramsay, certainly—masterful and helpless, egotist and hero—does leave a deep markby the end. His wife, with her calm beauty,her sympathy and swift decided actions, ismore of a type, though her personality issubtly pervasive even when she has ceased tolive. But there is a significant curtness in theparenthesis which (surely with a slip inpunctuation) announces her death:—

Mr. Ramsay stumbling along a passagestretched his arms out one dark morning, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the nightbefore he stretched his arms out. They remained empty.

Here Mrs. Woolf’s detachment seems a littlestrained, and, in fact, this transitional part ofthe book is not its strongest part.

One comes back, however, to the charm andpleasure of her design. It is carried throughwith a rare subtlety. Every little thread in it—Mr. Ramsay writing a book, Lily Briscoestruggling with her picture, the lights in thebay, the pathos and the absurdity—is woven in one texture, which has piquancy and poetryby turns. A sad book in the main, with allits entertainment, it is one to return to; forit has that power of leaving a vision which isless often found, perhaps, in novels than in ashort story. This springs from a real emotion,best described in words of Mrs. Woolf’s own: —

There might be lovers whose gift it was to chooseout the elements of things and place them togetherand so, giving them a wholeness not theirs in life,make of some scene, or meeting of people (all nowgone and separate), one of those globed compactedthings over which thought lingers, and love plays.