A Letter to Virginia Woolf On To the Lighthouse

Dear Virginia,

For a long while, I’ve wanted to write to you to express my admiration and sheer delight in your novel To the Lighthouse. It’s a beautiful book that always seems fresh each time I open it. I can think of no better definition of a classic, and I hope you’ll not mind if I offer some reflections on it. 

I recently read an account of the methods and aims of the cubist painters in which the writer says, “they no longer painted an object viewed from one perspective, but rather layered views from many angles in order to capture the subject from all sides.”1 And this struck me as an apt description of your work. For you created a narrative that flits like a wren from person to person, enabling us to walk around the story’s events and take their full measure. 

But perhaps it is not so much the events we measure as the people. For in one sense, nothing much happens in your story. 

In the first part, set shortly before the First World War, the Ramsays come for a holiday to their cottage on the Isle of Skye. Mr. Ramsay, an academic philosopher, has brought his protege with them, and they are joined by a penumbra of guests, including the painter Lily Briscoe. The youngest of the Ramsay children, James, passionately desires to go on an expedition to visit the nearby Lighthouse, but his father tells them bluntly that the weather will not permit it. The artist works on her painting while the younger adults set out on an expedition to the shore: a dinner party and an engagement cap off the day’s events. 

In the second section, which you once likened to a hall connecting two rooms, the house stands empty during the war years.2 You focus on the minute depredations of nature while the characters’ marriages, births, and deaths are set out coldly in a bracketed commentary. 

Finally, in the third part, the “much-changed” Ramseys return to the house. Again, Lily paints and reminisces while the father takes his now teenage children on their long-delayed voyage out to the Lighthouse. 

But into this seemingly simple framework, you poured the magic of your art. In your diary, you wrote, “This theme may be sentimental; father and mother and child in the garden; the death; the sail to the Lighthouse. I think, though, that when I begin it, I shall enrich it in all sorts of ways; thicken it; give it branches-roots which I do not perceive now.”3 And that you certainly did. 

For we get to know your people from the inside – through their interior monologues – as well as seeing them reflected in the minds of others. To return to the metaphor of painting, you treat us to “layered views from many angles in order to capture the subject from all sides.”   

And knowing your characters, we come to love them. We cannot help cherish the sympathetic portrait of the passionate Mr. Ramsay with his spasms of rage and self-pity mixed with that fierce other-worldliness and quixotic charm. And what shall we say of Mrs. Ramsay, who reigns like a queen over the entire work? Despite, or perhaps because of her quirks – her bouts of melancholy, her mania for matchmaking and letter writing – she leaves an indelible impression on everyone around her. But perhaps it is Lily Briscoe that will always be closest to our hearts. Her determination to paint, even though she knows her work will be “hung in the servants’ bedrooms” or “rolled up and stuffed under a sofa,” raises her above the rest. As the outsider who does not fit with Victorian ideals, her love for the Ramsays and feminist ardor unify the novel and elevate it beyond its time.

In one of my favorite passages, Lily, who has been listening to someone disparage Mr. Ramsay thinks, “You have greatness, but Mr. Ramsay has none of it. He is petty, selfish, vain, egotistical; he is spoilt; he is a tyrant; he wears Mrs. Ramsay to death; but he has what you have not; a fiery unworldliness; he knows nothing about trifles; he loves dogs and his children. Did he not come down in two coats the other night and let Mrs. Ramsay trim his hair into a pudding basin? All of this danced up and down, like a company of gnats, each separate, but all marvelously controlled in an invisible elastic net – danced up and down in Lily’s mind, in and about the branches of the pear tree, until her thought which had spun quicker and quicker exploded of its own intensity; she felt released.”4

I’ve read that this work may have some autobiographical element, that the Ramsays were based closely on your own parents.5 And certainly, Lily Briscoe might be inspired by your sister Vanessa, who was a painter of some note.6 Doubtless, some of the warmth and charm of these portraits can be attributed to this aspect of your material. But To the Lighthouse transcends the typical roman a clef in style, form, and substance. 

It’s not merely the people that we view from all sides in your novel. The Lighthouse itself, which almost becomes a character in its own right, is glimpsed from multiple angles and even across the wastes of time. For James as a child, it is “a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye that opened suddenly and softly in the evening.”7

The Lighthouse seems to affect Mrs. Ramsay in a similar way. In one of her fits of moodiness, she finds catharsis in gazing at its light. “But for all that she thought, watching with fascination, hypnotized, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly as daylight faded.”8

In the third part, James, coming to his childhood dream as a young man, finds it quite changed. “He could see the whitewashed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread out on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?” And we might anticipate that this has all been leading us to some trite conclusion that our childhood visions never match reality. But in an unexpected turn, you give us the opposite, for then James thinks, “No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other was the Lighthouse too. It was sometimes hardly to be seen across the bay. In the evening, one looked up and saw the eye opening and shutting, and the light seemed to reach them in that airy, sunny garden where they sat.”9

You once said that the Lighthouse was not a symbol, that it was simply “a line down the middle of the book to hold the design together.”10 But it seems that at least we may say that it represents something to the characters in your book. For James, the Lighthouse was a source of wonder and awe in his boyhood, and even the dull, prosaic reality he encounters upon finally visiting it cannot dispel its glamor. And if he is able to make such an affirmation of beauty, perhaps we may too.

Yours Faithfully,


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  1. Eimert, Dorothea, Podoksik, Anatoli, Apollinaire, Guillaume, Cubism, Parkstone Press International, p.352
  2. Fernald, Anne E. To the Lighthouse in the Context of Virginia Woolf’s Diaries and Life, The Cambridge Companion to To the Lighthouse, Allison Pease ed. Cambridge University Press, p.17
  3. Woolf, Virginia, A Writer’s Diary, The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf, My Books Classics, p.3465
  4. Woolf, Virginia, To the Lighthouse, The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf, p.1245
  5. Fernald, p.6 
  6. Fernald, p.14
  7. Woolf, Lighthouse, p.1355
  8. Woolf, Lighthouse, p.1272
  9. Woolf, Lighthouse, p.1355
  10. Goldman, Jane, To the Lighthouse’s Use of Language and Form, Cambridge Companion to To the Lighthouse, p.37

A Letter to Virginia Woolf: Copyright 2022 Jonathan Golding. All Rights Reserved

Artwork: Simultaneous Windows on the City by Robert Delaunay, 1912. Public Domain, United States Public Domain

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