To the Lighthouse is a landmark work of English fiction. Virginia Woolf explores perception and meaning in some of the most beautiful prose ever written, minutely detailing the characters thoughts and impressions. This unabridged version is read by Juliet Stevenson.
"British actress Juliet Stevenson makes for a better reader of Woolf's words than Nicole Kidman's Oscar-winning turn as Woolf in The Hours...Her reading is quietly, carefully precise, and that precision is a solid complement to Woolf's own measured, inward-looking prose." (Publishers Weekly)
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A Stark Tower on a Bare Rock, or a Hanging Garden?
On the surface not much happens in Virginia Woolf's semi-autobiographical modernist masterpiece To the Lighthouse (1929). In Part I: The Window, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay (based on Woolf's own parents), their eight children, and several guests are vacationing at the Ramsays' summer house on the Isle of Skye in the early 20th century. Mrs. Ramsay, a meddling and kind fifty-year-old Greek-goddess, goes to town on errands, reads a fairy tale to her youngest child James, knits a stocking, presides over a dinner, communes without words with her husband, and holds the different people in the house together with the gravity of her charisma. Mr. Ramsay, an eccentric philosopher-academic, carries on with egotism, insecurity, and emotional tyranny. James' desire to visit the local lighthouse is thwarted by his father and the weather. Mr. Charles Tansley, an uptight disciple of Mr. Ramsay, asserts himself charmlessly. The somnolent and cat-eyed poet Mr. Carmichael reclines on the lawn. And independent, Chinese-eyed and pucker-faced Lily Briscoe works on a painting of Mrs. Ramsay and James and critically contemplates the family. In Part II: Time Passes, the forces of entropy besiege the house as it stands empty of people for ten years. And in Part III: The Lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay coerces his two youngest children--now moody teenagers—to accompany him to the lighthouse while Lily Briscoe--who partly represents Woolf herself as a writer--comes to terms with her feelings for Mrs. Ramsay as she tries to capture her vision in the painting she'd attempted ten years earlier.
Woolf is so good at sympathetically and honestly exposing people's minds and so good at revealing the beautiful and awful world we live in, and her writing is so beautiful, flowing, controlled, and poetic, that spending only a couple days with her characters is an indelibly rich experience. She employs a modernist stream of consciousness narration, and fluidly moves from one character to another. Her technique in the novel has been likened to that of the lighthouse beam moving across the benighted island world, briefly illuminating one mind and then another as it goes round, but Woolf's narration feels more organic than that. I relish her long, elegant sentences comprised of multiple clauses attached by semi-colons, her original and vivid metaphors, and her insights into human nature in a variety of vessels (male, female, old, young, educated, simple, etc.). I expected To the Lighthouse to be beautiful, philosophical, and sad, and it was, but I was surprised by its constant humor. At least as often as a poignant pang, I felt a flush of pleasure, similar to what Cam feels while sailing towards the lighthouse:
"From her hand, ice cold, held deep in the sea, there spurted up a fountain of joy at the change, at the escape, at the adventure (that she should be alive, that she should be there). And the drops falling from this sudden and unthinking fountain of joy fell here and there on the dark, the slumbrous shapes in her mind; shapes of a world not realised but turning in their darkness, catching here and there, a spark of light; Greece, Rome, Constantinople."
The dense novel explores the miraculous fragility and meaning (or lack thereof) of life; the varied and complex nature of love; the losses and gains involved in making families or living alone; the fraught relationships between children and parents; the confining roles of men and women; the surprising vividness and poignancy of memory; the complex nature of perception; the doomed but necessary attempt to understand other people; and the doomed but noble attempt through art to capture truth and to avoid entropy.
Juliet Stevenson was born to read Virginia Woolf! Her voice is lovely to listen to and full of understanding, irony, and sympathy, a perfect accompaniment to the text. With skillful subtlety, she modifies her voice for the thoughts of men and women and children and adults (and for the local Scottish workers who help the Ramsays). She carried me off To the Lighthouse. The only thing, perhaps, that is lost in the audiobook is Woolf's use of parentheses and brackets and semi-colons, which visually shape the reading of the text.
To the Lighthouse, like Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando, should be read by anyone interested in gender, art, love, life, modernism, beautiful prose, and early 20th century British culture.
Would you try another book from Virginia Woolf and/or Juliet Stevenson?
I seriously can't recommend Juliet Stevenson enough. This book was a difficult read, and I'm very sure if I had read it to myself I wouldn't have understood it nearly so well as having it read to me by JS. You won't regret the choice.