Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Classic Novel and the Perfect Setting

Happy September!

What books are on your wish list for fall? Do the books you read change with the seasons? When the weather turns cooler I often want to read a classic novel and this month I chose "To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf. Have you read it? If you haven't, you might want to give it a try.

You may ask, why read it now?

Well, there are so many good reasons. Interest in Bloomsbury and Virginia Woolf seems to be at an all-time high. Here is what has been going on recently, as well as what is coming up:

Charleston Farmhouse, the country retreat of the Bloomsbury Group, will have its 100th birthday next year. It was rented by Vanessa Bell in 1916 so that conscientious objectors Duncan Grant and David Garnett would have a place to work the land. Record crowds have visited this summer. I am sure that something special will be happening to celebrate the big anniversary next year!

This is also the 100th anniversary of the publication of Virginia Woolf's first novel The Voyage Out.  After all this time, she continues to be considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. She inspires writers, artists, readers and even ballet choreographers with her writing. Many works of art have been created as a result. For example:

A new ballet, Woolf Works, based on her fiction premiered last May at the Royal Opera House in London. It played to rave reviews. I saw this and it was truly amazing --  an original and beautiful ballet.

Last year the National Portrait Gallery in London hosted its first-ever Woolf exhibition which combined portraiture with biography. I was lucky enough to see this one also. It was an amazing visual experience and captured this multi-faceted woman so well. The most moving objects in the exhibition were the letters she wrote her sister and her husband before committing suicide and her walking stick which was found on the bank of the River Ouse near her Sussex home. 

This summer the BBC aired a drama about Bloomsbury, Life in Squares. I hope it reaches the U.S. sometime soon. Larger groups than ever visited Charleston this summer to see the setting for many of the scenes.

Priya Parmar wrote a biographical novel, Vanessa and Her Sister, about the early days of the Bloomsbury Group with a focus on Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf. It is excellent. Luckily for those of us in Los Angeles, she will be speaking about Vanessa and Her Sister in October at the Beverly Hills Literary Escape. Go here to learn more.

And in the New York Times By the Book column this past weekend, in answer to the question "who is your favorite fictional heroine," the novelist Anne Beattie answered Mrs. Ramsay from To the Lighthouse. All of this made me realize that it was time to take a second look at this classic novel by Virginia Woolf.


To the Lighthouse is considered Virginia Woolf's masterpiece. She wrote it in 1925, shortly after finishing Mrs. Dalloway. Just as modernist artists like Cezanne were trying to do something different in painting, Woolf was trying to do something different in the novel. Her goal was to change its form and push the boundaries beyond what had been done in the past. She wanted to write a novel that could incorporate the disorder and haphazardness of life, the ebb and flow of our thoughts and feelings, and at the same time tell a good story.

And so we are in the heads of the main characters Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their family and friends, as we follow their thoughts and actions during their stay at the Ramsays' summer retreat. Woolf is exploring ideas and issues that were important to her and that many of us can relate to: the passage of time, the relation of the present to the past, memory, creativity, art, marriage, family, career versus motherhood, place as a muse, and the power of women. One critic at the time wrote about the book, "Nothing happens...and yet all of life happens." As always with Woolf, the language is beautiful.

She modeled the characters Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay on her own parents. The book revolves around the Ramsays' annual family gathering on the Isle of Skye off the coast of Scotland. Virginia wanted to evoke the ambiance of her childhood summers in Cornwall. With the character Lily Briscoe she explored the struggle within women to be artist, wife and mother. Was it possible to have it all? This was a question that haunted Virginia for most of her life. Mrs. Ramsay exemplifies the Victorian ideal of motherhood. Lily Briscoe represents the modern concept of the woman artist.

There are so many beautiful passages --

As Lily Briscoe struggles to finish her painting, she thinks:

"One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that's a chair, that's a table, and yet at the same time, It's a miracle, it's an ecstasy."

When one of the house guests returns for dinner, Mrs. Ramsay thinks:

It must have happened then, thought Mrs. Ramsay; they are engaged. And for a moment she felt what she had never expected to feel again -- jealousy. For he, her husband, felt it too -- Minta's glow; he liked these girls, these golden-redish girls, with something flying, something a little wild and harum-scarum about them, who didn't 'scrape their hair off,' weren't, as he said about poor Lily Briscoe, '...skimpy.' There was some quality which she herself had not, some lustre, some richness, which attracted him, amused him, led him to make favourites of girls like Minta. They might cut his hair for him, plait his watch-chains, or interrupt him at his work, hailing him (she heard them now), 'Come along, Mr. Ramsay; it's our turn to beat them now,' and out he came to play tennis." 

Everyone, including Lily, is in love with Mrs. Ramsay. She wields power as the matriarch of the family and is based on Virginia's own mother Julia Stephen.

 Upon finishing the book, Virginia's sister Vanessa Bell wrote:

"...in the first part of the book you have given 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."

In what is probably the most famous scene in the book, the family and guests gather around the dinner table to eat Mrs. Ramsay's famous Boeuf en Daube.

"Now all the candles were lit up, and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the candlelight, and composed, as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round a table, for the night was now shut off by panes of glass, which, far from giving any accurate view of the outside world, rippled it so strangely that here, inside the room, seemed to be order and dry land; there, outside, a reflection in which things waved and vanished, waterily."

Virginia Woolf wrote about this famous scene:

The dinner party is the best thing I ever wrote: the one thing that I think justifies my faults as a writer... I don't think one could have reached those particular emotions in any other way."

Where would I love to read this book? Recently, while drooling over the interiors on my favorite design site House and Garden UK, I spotted this room at Ham Yard Hotel in London. It looks like the perfect bookish spot for settling in with a cup of tea and a good book. It has some of the artsy and bohemian spirit of the Bloomsbury set. Don't you love those lampshades and fabric on the couch and armchairs? I could easily while away a few hours in this delicious room!

What's on your list this fall?
And what is your dream setting for reading a classic book?


  1. I read To the Lighthouse for the second time last September (the first time was in college, decades ago!) and now I think it will be a regular September tradition for me. And yes, I would also love to read in that room1

    1. Audrey, what a great idea to make it a September tradition. I have been rereading Excellent Women by Barbara Pym and Howards End by E.M. Forster over the years and always find some new nugget of brilliance.

  2. We are kindred spirits Sunday!!!
    You wont be disappointed with Life in Squares.......it was wonderful!!!
    I have something for you that I know you will like.
    Upload this to your smart phone and go for a very long walk as I did and listen to this http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b066wqyv/episodes/player
    Please let me know if this link doesn't work and I'll send it another way.

    1. Anita, I will be uploading this to my smart phone. Thank you so much! It's so nice to discover kindred spirits. That is one of the best things about writing a blog!

  3. I can't think of a 'trend' that I am happier to see right now! I love everything Virginia and Bloomsbury. I am currently reading her diaries from 1925-26 when she was writing To the Lighthouse. I feel so fortunate that I was able to go to the exhibition last year, too - it was a highlight of my visit to London. I also like to read classics in the fall and just might have to read Lighthouse to commemorate myy trip. Thanks for another inspiring post!

  4. Such an inspiring post. I have never read To the Lighthouse, and will soon. I love reading classics in the fall as well, often starting with something I've read a few times, like One Hundred Years of Solitude or Tender is the Night. Maybe it's a sort of "going back to school" feeling, after a summer of "beach reads"?
    I like to read cozied up on my bed - feels so serene.

  5. I agree with what some of the others have said, we are true kindred spirits. I am so 'into' the Bloomsbury Group and have watched Life in Squares on YouTube. If you are eager to see it, as I was, try this link for the first episode.

    If it doesn't work, you can go to the YouTube site and find all 3 of them. It's not like being able to watch it on the wide screen, but better than having to wait to see it.

    Keep up the interesting posts.

    1. Doris, thanks so much for letting me know about the link for watching "Life in Squares." The comments on this blog post have been full of great information. It seems there are many Bloomsbury fans out there!

  6. What a great post from a fan of all things Bloomsbury. I saw Priya Parmar at the Cambridge book festival here in the UK and it was fascinating to hear her talk about her book. Also I would recommend the link from Let's Have Lunch above- it is a really good listen. I have booked to stay in the garden studio for a few days at Monk's House soon and can't wait. I can't decide whether to take To the Lighthouse or The Voyage Out to read- both would be first time reads- choices choices! Which tour did you do at Charleston? there is a 'sisters' tour which I have booked- I think it will be interesting to see the house from this point of view.

    1. Tara, how fabulous that you are staying at Monk's house! I didn't know this was a possibility. I did a general tour of Charleston, I missed out on the one with a special theme that day. The sisters one should be fascinating. And how lucky to see Priya at the Cambridge festival. I am looking forward to meeting her here in L.A.!

  7. Wow Sunday! This is a fabulous post. So much interesting information and you've certainly convinced me to go out and purchase Virginia's novel!! Oh, wouldn't it be wonderful to sit in one of Kit Kemp's beautiful drawing rooms in London (or New York) and read it with a glass of red! I've been lucky enough to stay in 3 of Kit's hotels and each one of them is like 'going to heaven'! So comfortable and luxurious in a very quirky kind of way! I'm about to order her new interior decorating book called "Every Room Tells a Story" as I so enjoyed her first ("A Living Space", I think!!!) a few years back.

    The 'Bloomsbury Set' have always been of interest to me....I remember years ago reading a biography on Nancy Mitford. Just recently I purchased Vivienne Westwood's autobiography....certainly a 21st century Bloomsbury-style gal!! I just love her style and zest for the Arts.

    Love you posts Sunday so thank you very much for all the excellent info and pics.



    1. Oh how lucky you were to stay at her hotels! I am off to order her book right now.

  8. Lovely post, Sunday! I tried to buy tickets to see Woolf Works while in London last May but they were sold out. Life in Squares was a breath of fresh air when so much of what's available on television doesn't interest me all that much. As for autumnal reading, it really is all about the swish of silk for me! I started a read-along of Fingersmith with my colleagues and something by George Gissing is also on my list. I think you might enjoy his writing!

  9. You've talked me into it! I will re-read To The Lighthouse. Lovely post.

  10. Inasmuch as I dislike Hemingway for his clipped style, I can't get past her long run on sentences. Maybe I need to give it another try, especially if set on the Isle of Skye.