Monday, 29 September 2014

To the Lighthouse

'She had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!'

My relationship with Woolf has been a rocky one. I spent the first twenty years of my life vowing to never read her novels because I questioned the sort of person who would write what I then wholeheartedly categorised as 'difficult' books. I first encountered her properly at A Level, but even then we were given the choice to read The Voyage Out or George Gissing's The Odd Women and the entire class chose the latter (which is, incidentally, a brilliant book). So Woolf again, unfortunate as it may be, stayed in her difficult box and I moved on without a second glance.

Fast forward a few years and I'm in my final year at uni studying a module on Modernism for which To the Lighthouse was a set text. Ignoring my many mumblings and grumblings, I started to read it. I read a few pages, then a few more. I met Mr and Mrs Ramsey, Lily Briscoe and Augustus Carmichael. I met the Ramsey brood and the two lovers flung together by Mrs Ramsey's matchmaking. Then I reached Time Passes and felt the war ravage the family and the house. And that was it, I was hooked. 

Since then I have read it numerous times for study and for my own enjoyment, taking something new from its pages every time. It was pretty much a given then a few weeks ago, when I was in dire need of a serious comfort read after finishing Crime and Punishment, that I'd pick it up again.

I have two copies of To the Lighthouse - one is a much annotated and very old Penguin classics which my Mum read in the eighties and passed on to me, the other is the mind-blowingly beautiful folio edition pictured. I stumbled upon this on Etsy and ordered it immediately. It's second hand and missing the slip case, but my goodness is it a work of art. This folio edition is the only one I have in London (I have a little display of my most beautiful books), so this time I re-read it without all my familiar notes and markings reminding me of passages I'd loved before or sections which link to various literary theories. I have to say, it was quite refreshing.

I think with Woolf, re-reads are almost obligatory. Her prose and the way she sees, interprets and describes life is so fluid and mutable that it seems to change as you change. I've now read To the Lighthouse at 20, 22 and 24 and, though the ages are not that disparate, each time I have been in an entirely different environment and situation: undergrad, postgrad and living in what is still a new city to me. This latest re-read has perhaps been the most interesting and the most inspiring.

Re-reading To the Lighthouse was the best decision I've made in a while. Sometimes you just need a book that is familiar and unfamiliar to reignite your spark for life. As Lily Briscoe puts down her paintbrush in the final moments of the novel, satisfied that she has had her 'vision', I felt a bit of a chill run down my spine. Maybe Woolf is the last person you would expect to remind you why life is wonderful, but that's what she does for me. Who knew a re-read of a book by an author who once terrified me could be so invigorating. I'd highly recommend it.

Do you have such a book? One that you've read so many times, but that each time gives you something new?


1 comment

  1. Ellie, you just made my day. To the Lighthouse is my favorite novel of all time and we seem to share similar experiences with it. This is one of those very special literary works that is deeply personal and has affected me more than anything I have ever read in my entire life. I really like how you say her work is "mutable" and couldn't agree more. No matter how many times I come back to it, the reading experience is always different; I am able to appreciate some subtle intricacy initially overlooked or take something new away from the text that can be applied to my own life. The novel speaks to me in such a profound way that is difficult to put into words.

    Wow, that edition you have is gorgeous. What year is it from? I have been trying to collect vintage editions of this novel for the longest while and the oldest copy I have is from the 1950's with a plain cover the same bluish color as yours (my dream is own the 1st edition but it usually goes for $6000+ at auctions!).

    I'm glad to see that you are still posting. :)


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