[Still Life of Pears and Everlasting Flowers c1945 Vanessa Bell. There is an orchard in TL with a pear tree, and of course the many flowers in the book have become everlasting.]
I'm not sure why Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse are so often bracketed together (shades of A level questions and comparing and contrasting Mrs Dalloway and Mrs Ramsay maybe?), when in fact they are completely different. Even as I was reading TL, I kept stopping to admire, to check with myself just how much I was enjoying the fineness of the writing, the limpidity of the prose, the beautiful wash of light that suffuses the book. It's a very different reading experience to Mrs D..
The increase in Virginia Woolf's confidence in her writing and style is plain to see throughout (even before you read the diary entries that correpsond to the period of writing which reveal how well TL flowed for her). And you also realise how funny she could be, how witty and waspish (why is the humour in this book so often not mentioned?). It made me wonder how different her other novels could have been if she'd not been quite so writerly and controlled, but had allowed greater creative freedom to the VW we see in the much looser, more natural diaries and letters (the VW we get good glimpses of here).
[Studland Beach c1912 Vanessa bell. This was VB's breakthrough work and the image I had in mind when reading about Lily Briscoe's painting.]
This is also a very painterly novel. The shapes, the light, the rooms, the positioning of people, objects, passages, events, are like a series of modernist/post-Impressionist paintings. There is coolness and rhythm to the whole, and yet the undercurrents are tremendous. I was also astounded by VW's clever handling of changes in points of view, and her wonderful - often funny - cinematic cutting, editing, and tracking shots.
[Sea Treasures (1952) Winifred Nicholson. No animal skull, but painted in Scotland, and how I imagine the collections of the Ramsay children.]
Lest this all sound too abstract, TL is also a brilliant portrait of a family with eight children, a mother who knits throughout, an eccentric and demanding father, and practical worries about greenhouse bills and serving food on time. VW depicts the pell-mell of fanily life brilliantly and I loved the unruly, energetic mob of teenagers who are like mice scurrying around the attic or birds netted in fruit cages when finally in bed. She is remarkably perceptive when it comes to children, their experience of the world and how it differs from the adults around them. (I must have read TL before because I remember that I'd been struck by the way VW knew that it's possible to read a book aloud to child and think about something completely different at the same time, as Mrs Ramsay does when she reads a fairy tale to James).
[The sitting room at Monk's House, a much visited empty room.]
I also found many echoes of Chekhov, whom VW read and admired. Like Chekhov, she brings together a group of people in a soon-to-be-ended idyll (eg the cherry orchard, here a last summer before war and deaths) and like Chekhov she shows how little they reveal consciously of their true selves and feelings, how much they reveal despite this, how gauche and clumsy they are, how maddening, and how quickly their moods can change. She is also unafraid of pauses, gaps, and the empty stage; Chekhov dared to have silence on stage in his famous 'pauses' and even to allow all the actors to leave, just as VW does in the 'Time Passes' section.
TL is a book about evanescence and permanence, the broad passage of time set against minutely observed moments. It is experimental but readable, sad but funny, controlled but fluid. It is my favourite VW novel so far.