I Actually Went to the Lighthouse

Searching for Virginia Woolf on the Isle of Skye

Photo of a person in a coat and hat scrambling along steep, grassy dunes next to a broad, sandy beach
Robbie Lawrence

To the Lighthouse, from the first word of its title, is a novel that moves. Here it comes striding across the lawn, with its hair in long, curving crimps and a deerstalker hat on its head, with a bag in one hand and a child trailing from the other. It is coming to find you, its face lights up, there is something in this world for you to do.

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I had met Virginia Woolf before I ever opened her books. I knew what she looked like and what had happened to her; I knew that her books took place inside the human mind and that I had my whole life to enter them. My premonitory sense of what her novels were about—Mrs. Dalloway is about some lady, The Waves is about … waves, To the Lighthouse is about going to a lighthouse—turned out to be basically accurate. Yet I put off To the Lighthouse for a long time, in order to live in delicious anticipation of it. There is a pleasure to be had in putting off the classics; as soon as you open Bleak House, you foreclose all other possibilities of what it could be, and there sits Mr. Krook in his unchanging grease spot, always to look the same, never to raise a hand differently. As long as it remains unread, the story can be anything—free, immortal, drowsing between white sheets. Yet if you are a reader, this pleasure can be drawn out for only so long.

I have beliefs about Mrs. Dalloway—that Clarissa Dalloway should have been the one to kill herself, for example. I have sometimes, picturing all the characters in black leotards, found myself laughing at the first 10 pages of The Waves. But I never have the sense, opening To the Lighthouse, that it could have been anything else. It begins with the weather, just like a real day. It rises to some occasion, wakes with the lark to meet the weekend—moves “with an indescribable air of expectation” because it is going to meet someone around the corner, and, with the shock of encounter you sometimes feel in reading, you find that it is you.

“This is going to be fairly short,” Woolf wrote in 1925, “to have father’s character done complete in it; & mothers; & St Ives; & childhood; & all the usual things I try to put in—life, death &c.” A maniac’s claim, “life, death &c.,” but she actually did it. Virginia Woolf, being one of those who can turn the Earth with one finger, picked up her own childhood summers in Cornwall and set them down intact in the Hebrides, on the Isle of Skye.

When I first read this book, I had not seen this place; now I have been over every inch of it, eating its butter and eggs in the morning, blinking like a light at its lakes at night, getting backed up the road by the dense yellow sponge of its sheep in the afternoon. We spent a few days on the island in the spring of 2019, my mother, my husband, and I. At dawn we drove around the whole perimeter of the novel, over the heather that keeps a footprint, down by the rock pools where something might be lost. I felt I could have been riding in the car that the royalties of To the Lighthouse bought Virginia and her husband, Leonard, as she drove me past all points, on the wrong side of the road and under threat of rain, so that the real scenes blurred with the ones she had transposed on them. Virginia saw the Godrevy Lighthouse in St. Ives Bay when she closed her eyes, though Skye, too, has a famous one. She saw her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, scholar, writer, and mountain climber, and her mother, Julia Stephen, the tallest thing on the island, painted here in the black-and-white stripes of someone called just Mrs. Ramsay.

It is Mrs. Ramsay herself we are going to meet; it is she who could not have been different. She is the human holiday, the dinner table laid with everything in season, and she herself rotating in the center of it—her own face in season, a fruit. She has little time for books, not even books like this (and there is only one of those). She has no foreknowledge, but she has intuitions: an impulse of terror when her family ceases to wash her with the sound of their talk, or when the line “stormed at with shot and shell” is carried for a moment into her ear by her husband, the thunderer. Her 6-year-old, James, wants to go to the Lighthouse tomorrow, but it seems there will be weather.

“ ‘Yes, of course, if it’s fine to-morrow,’ said Mrs. Ramsay … ‘But,’ said his father, stopping in front of the drawing-room window, ‘it won’t be fine.’ ”

“ ‘But it may be fine—I expect it will be fine,’ said Mrs. Ramsay, making some little twist of the reddish-brown stocking she was knitting, impatiently.” Along with James, from the first page of the book, you may wish to kill Mr. Ramsay. And along with James, looking into the possibility and plenitude of his mother’s face, you may feel that paradise is a refrigerator.

Is it ridiculous that what I remember most about Skye is wandering the grocery store with my own mother, through the cold breath of the dairy aisle? My mother is no Mrs. Ramsay—she looks at you not with tenderness, but as if a volcano is exploding behind you—but she has the gift of putting newspaper headlines on the day, of setting Tomorrow before you as if it were something to eat. We walked up and down and we chose, as if we were choosing each other.

Ringed by water, things on an island have the halos that objects wear in still-life paintings. Everything familiar was a bit different there: fruit, flowers, ourselves. Randomly we bought a huge melon; maybe this was the place where we would finally be the people who would crack open a melon for breakfast. Rain began to spatter as we emerged into the parking lot, which should have worried us but didn’t—driving on the wrong side of the road through rough weather was an opportunity my mother had waited for her whole life. We pulled squealing out of the lot, and we talked of what we would do, as the melon rolled thunderously from one side of the car to the other. It was raining steadily now. The forecast said it would continue, but my mother drove us between drops, as if nothing that came from the sky could matter to us. Maybe she has some Mrs. Ramsay in her after all.

“I remember it a little less beautifully,” my husband said tactfully, as those who were not Virginia Woolf may have remembered those St. Ives summers. “We walked into the grocery store 15 minutes before it closed. We had never been so hungry in our lives, so time was of the essence, but your mother started to malfunction, trying to find midwestern treats and bags of ice so that she could formulate the liquid that kept her alive and that no one in this part of the world would acknowledge: iced tea. You were walking through the cold breath of the dairy aisle so that your mother could yell at the unpasteurized milk, which she considered dangerous. Both of you became deranged in the produce section and started grabbing fruits at random”—“That melon had meaning to me,” I interrupted, but he went on. “Everyone knew she was your mother, and everyone knew you were American.” Well. I have often called him my Leonard, but I feel he is a little harder on me.

You could write about Mrs. Ramsay for a long time; anyone could. That is how the world gets a Virginia Woolf, maybe. Woolf lays her out not like a figure but like a spectrum. Sitting knitting by the window in the shabby drawing room, Mrs. Ramsay feels waves, winds, pulses of suspicion about her own nature:

She looked out to meet that stroke of the Lighthouse, the long steady stroke, the last of the three, which was her stroke, for watching them in this mood always at this hour one could not help attaching oneself to one thing especially of the things one saw; and this thing, the long steady stroke, was her stroke. Often she found herself sitting and looking, sitting and looking, with her work in her hands until she became the thing she looked at—that light for example.

Her work was the shape of a stocking, and hospitals, and ensuring that the milk came to your doorstep still white and clean. And saying tomorrow may be fine; we may yet go to the Lighthouse.

You could write about Mr. Ramsay, too, the scholar and professor. The most generous woman of the age, as Woolf saw it, might be married to the most bottomless hole, who must regularly be assured “that he too lived in the heart of life; was needed; not here only, but all over the world.” Mr. Ramsay’s light strokes over something, but it is not the pageant of people that surrounds him; it is the alphabet of his own mind, which he fears goes up only to Q, while someone else’s might reach all the way to Z. Indeed, he might have made it to Z had he not married, he thinks. Well, a fool might count fruits in paradise.

“He is absorbed in himself, he is tyrannical, he is unjust,” thinks Lily Briscoe, a friend of the family, with her eyes down, because only when her eyes are down can she see the Ramsays clearly. “Directly one looked up and saw them, what she called ‘being in love’ flooded them. They became part of that unreal but penetrating and exciting universe which is the world seen through the eyes of love. The sky stuck to them; the birds sang through them.” Paradise, and a fool pacing through it with the sky stuck to him and the birds singing through him, thinking he would have written better books if he had not married.

The Ramsays come to Skye every summer with their eight children: Prue, Nancy, Rose, Cam, Andrew, Jasper, Roger, and that engine of desire, young James. They are surrounded as much by visitors as they are by the landscape, because Mrs. Ramsay requires attendants of varying colors and dispositions; she is a master in the flower-arranging of people, which likes a stem or two of something wild. And so we have the handful gathered here almost by chance—Lily, who wants to paint and never marry; the widowed botanist William Bankes; Charles Tansley, a student; the young couple Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle; Augustus Carmichael, the poet and almost afterthought. They could have been anyone. Even we, in the right time and place, could have been there.

We are perhaps somewhat like Lily, striving and unformed, a tamer flower than she wants to be, who tomorrow may be able to make the paint move, who feels the agony of having her painting looked at. She is trying to capture the house, with Mrs. Ramsay and James in the window. She is required, through the long upright afternoon of the novel’s first section, to stand in one place in front of her easel so that she can register the passing of the horizontal through the vertical, the kitchen table through the pear tree, the march of time through Mrs. Ramsay. Tomorrow, Lily tells herself, thinking of her canvas, she must move the tree more toward the middle.

We are perhaps more like the “little atheist” and groveling admirer of Mr. Ramsay, Charles Tansley, who quite swiftly finds himself shunned by the children and in uncomfortable thrall to Mrs. Ramsay, under whose influence “he was coming to see himself, and everything he had ever known gone crooked a little. It was awfully strange.” He grew up without enough love or money and so, as a man, does not know how to cry out “Let us all go to the circus!” with any spontaneity, which causes Mrs. Ramsay considerable wonder. It is not difficult at all to go to the circus! It is not difficult to go to the Lighthouse. If other people would only stop saying it were not possible, she would carry them there.

Mrs. Ramsay’s work is to make people magnificent—to make them believe in themselves, make them think they can do anything, which is also how you get a Virginia Woolf. Mrs. Ramsay’s work is to make people fall in love with her, so that they can marry other people. “William must marry Lily,” she thinks, and such is the force of green sap in the thought that it almost comes to flower. (Not really, but there is a moment when we think, Maybe? )

Woolf’s mother, Julia Stephen, was an extraordinary woman, with eyes like cups and a mouth that turned down and a chin you have seen in a dozen paintings. She was a model for the artists Edward Burne-Jones and George Frederic Watts, and her aunt Julia Cameron, a photographer, made more than 50 portraits of her. In her pictures she presides, as if you are looking at her from the child end of a very long table. Her hair streams and a light glow sometimes comes from the top of her head. In the 1981 introduction to the book, Eudora Welty writes that “the novel’s conception has the strength of a Blake angel,” and it is hard to envision this angel without Julia Stephen’s face. If you have seen her, staring with compassion and without mercy in black-and-white, perhaps you imagine Mrs. Ramsay this way. Perhaps you picture your own mother.

It is the eyes from which Virginia proceeds, and the nose like an arrow. People really do come from other people, strange as it might seem. To her children, Mrs. Ramsay said, “You shall go through with it. To eight people she had said relentlessly that.” Julia and Leslie had four children. The Woolfs had none, yet to her countless readers Virginia said the same thing, and relentlessly that: You shall go through with it all.

If you have not read the book yet, stop here and come back later, because I am going to talk about the dinner party. No summary shall ever stand in place of the experience. Rereading the book, I had to pause a whole day before that scene, when the book’s first day and all the people in it come together. I was in an agony of anticipation, as if it were an actual party. I had to choose my jewels! Would I be able to converse? Would the boeuf en daube be overdone, or properly timed? Would the right words come to my lips? Then tomorrow came and the worst happened: I was reading it badly, in scraps and fragments, nothing coming together. I was failing—along with the little atheist, I wanted to get back to my work. But I had forgotten that this was how it was written, to make you feel this way. It was written so that when the candles were lit, “some change at once went through them all.” Suddenly,

they were all conscious of making a party together in a hollow, on an island; had their common cause against that fluidity out there. Mrs. Ramsay, who had been uneasy, waiting for Paul and Minta to come in, and unable, she felt, to settle to things, now felt her uneasiness change to expectation.

The dish of fruit, of people, is intact, the party all of a kind for a moment, until a hand reaches out to take a pear. And I was sad; I had not said what I’d wanted to say.

You cannot ever replicate your first reading of this scene. But once you have read it, you have it, and it goes on forever in a room inside of you: the low lights, the faces sparkling in their sugar, the carrying of the boeuf en daube to the table. It is where the movement of the title finally sweeps you up and makes you a part of it. You, too, were invited, despite your imperfections and your pretentious dress; your bad ideas about art and your inability to paint the world as you see it; your choice of husband or wife; the fact that you will never marry, that you will die in the war, that your mind cannot make it all the way through to Z. You were asked to come and you are there.

Woolf notes, after finishing To the Lighthouse, that hardly a word goes wrong in this scene, and it is true. The things of the Earth float in orbit around Woolf; they proceed one from the other in a montage of transformation. “It could not last,” Mrs. Ramsay knew, “but at the moment her eyes were so clear that they seemed to go round the table unveiling each of these people, and their thoughts and their feelings, without effort like a light stealing under water so that its ripples and the reeds in it and the minnows balancing themselves, and the sudden silent trout are all lit up hanging, trembling.”

Virginia Woolf is not like her mother, not like Mrs. Ramsay. But she has the center that holds, and you feel with full force what she declared in 1925, not long after she first saw To the Lighthouse in her mind, circling like a fin far out at sea, that she was “the only woman in England free to write what I like.” The churn of paint that will take over The Waves entirely begins here. To the Lighthouse asserts the abstract painting as figural: Here are the mother and child, a triangle on Lily Briscoe’s canvas, among curves and arabesques. What Lily wishes for is what Woolf must have wished for, what every artist must wish for before they begin: “that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it has been made anything.”

It is characteristic of Woolf that you could use nearly any elemental metaphor to describe her effects. Shall I speak of paint and canvas, or the tick of minutes in an empty room, or the wind in a hollow shell? Anything is possible. You have only to choose, as she chose from among her people. Shall I look now through the painter, the student, the child? It is she who likes a stem of something wild, she who has invited one of every kind to come to the table, in case she needs their eyes, their ears, the clear water running through their mind.

“I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant ‘novel,’ ” Woolf wrote in her diary while working on To the Lighthouse. “A new — by Virginia Woolf. But what? Elegy?”

In the novel’s short interlude—“Time Passes”—before the family returns to the island 10 years later, Mrs. Ramsay dies in brackets, Mr. Ramsay’s arms reaching out for her. Prue is given in marriage and dies in brackets. Andrew is blown sky-high in them; the brackets are the arms where we are not. The house is left empty, and molders. The skull of an old pig still hangs on the wall, and the shawl that Mrs. Ramsay wrapped around it to keep it from frightening Cam swings to and fro like Time. The war has happened, and Mr. Carmichael has written his poem. Lives—the Ramsays’, and our own—have eroded; a few more grains of us are gone, after we have finished reading.

By the time my mother and I had unloaded our armfuls of insane groceries at the Wee Croft House—we were actually staying at a place called the Wee Croft House, on a picturesque finger of land known as Sleat—it was too late to cook, so we found ourselves driving back into town, back again toward the sea. When we got to the restaurant, the rain had stopped and light and shadow moved in great mammalish shapes outside. The melon was still intact, as it would remain for the rest of the trip, never touched or tasted; we do not live the lives that we mean to live, in those elevated moments in the produce section when we reach out a hand to choose. It ended up in a Dumpster, in a chapter I like to call “Time Passes.”

When we sat down near the window that gathered up the view, a murmur rose all around us, so that the room was united in its theme and purpose. Fried fish and hamburgers in their halos were set down in front of people almost unnoticed. We looked around uneasily, not yet a part of things. It was the day when Notre Dame was burning, and at every table a child was showing the videos to his parents on his phone.

The fathers were impatient; either they were firefighters in their own minds, or else to them, Notre Dame had burned down a long time ago. The mothers took the phones and cradled them, lighting candles with their eyes. Perhaps they were not really hearing the news; perhaps the voices came to them as they came to Mrs. Ramsay that night when everything surrounded her, flowers and fruit and family: “very strangely, as if they were voices at a service in a cathedral.” I knew that if I showed my mother a video of a burning church, she would scream out loud—we don’t all have a Mrs. Ramsay—so at our table we sat listening to the wholeness of the scene, its color and its pattern and its music, while a single rhythm swept our faces from far out at sea. We talked of whether tomorrow would be fine, when we would rise, what we would do that day. Outside the window, at the end of a long spit, stood the Lighthouse.

This article was adapted from Patricia Lockwood’s foreword to a new edition of To the Lighthouse. It appears in the April 2023 print edition with the headline “We’re All Invited to the Lighthouse.”

By Virginia Woolf

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