Woolf’s Lighthouse

On this date in 1927, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse was published by the Hogarth Press. Many of the earliest reviews were lukewarm, compared to the modern view that the novel is one of the century’s best, or to this praise from Conrad Aiken in the summer of ’27:

Nothing happens, in this houseful of odd nice people, and yet all of life happens. The tragic futility, the absurdity, the pathetic beauty, of life—we experience all of this in our sharing of seven hours of Mrs. Ramsay’s wasted or not wasted existence. We have seen through her, the world.

Woolf’s diary entries show that she had written at a record pace and with full confidence: “Never never have I written so easily, imagined so profusely.” While revising, she thought it “easily the best of my books,” and during later proofreading she was still impressed: “Dear me, how lovely some parts of To Lighthouse are! Soft & pliable, & I think deep, & never a word wrong for a page at a time.” But, as always, she was jittery while waiting for the reviews, fearing that she would be judged “soft, shallow, insipid and sentimental.”

Much of the book is autobiographical. Sister Vanessa was moved deeply by “a portrait of mother which is more like her to me than anything I could ever have conceived possible. It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead.” Later, Woolf wrote that the writing was a therapeutic act with an opposite effect upon her: “I ceased to be obsessed about my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.”

In 1928 To the Lighthouse was awarded the Prix Femina as best foreign book, and Woolf agreed to attend the ceremony to accept what she later called her “dog show prize.” Vanessa giggled at the picture in the Times of Virginia accepting her award from Hugh Walpole, as conventional a storyteller as Woolf was not: “Do tell us how you behaved — did your drawers drop off?”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.