Importance of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse Lies in its Feminine Sensibility

Virginia Woolf comes after a long line of eminent Victorians of her own sex, who have joined the immortals of English literature- George Eliot, Jane Austen and the two Bronte’s. She was not of their stature but only against their background can her peculiar feminine contribution to English novel be fully assessed or appreciated.

George Eliot was no elemental genius like Dickens but her first novels were full of healthy fun and bitter pathos. A cool sparkling humour ran through her best novels with a strong sense of substantial character that did not lose itself in the blind alley of pseudo-psychology. And there is a great deal of wisdom in her book, particularly about woman. Her defect was that although she could see people clearly, she failed to see them through an atmosphere. Her peculiar isolation generated for her some mysterious conceptions, one of them being her deep-rooted idea that “there are really demons and angles behind men.” This peculiar notion betrayed her predecessor, Jane Austen born much before the particular bonds that protected woman from truth and “were burst by the Bronte’s or elaborately united by George  Eliot” (G.K. Chesterton). And yet as Chesterton in his Victorian Age in English Literature aptly says, “the fact remains that Jane Austen knew much more about men than either of them.” And then Chesterton in the course of discussion adds these pregnant words, “Jane Austen, of course, covered an infinitely smaller field than any of her later rivals; but I have always believed in the victory of small nationalities.” As against Jane Austen’s sensible balance and roundedness in a narrow field and George Eliot’s bright and intellectually exciting air of a cloudiness day, the Bronte’s brought in to the arena of English fiction the blast of the mysticism of the North. Emily Bronte was a very original person with a very strong imagination that was superhuman and perhaps sometimes inhuman as in some places of her great Wuthering Heights. She very often made the other sex a monster by invoking her almost magical imaginary powers and as a result, “Heath cliff fails as a man catastrophically as he succeeds as a demon.” Charlotte Bronte on the other hand achieved the effect of the highest romance through the lowest realism and to her goes the credit of finding out the secret of hiding the sensational in the commonplace. Jana Eyre, her best book, is a human document written in blood, which at the same time is world’s one of the best blunder-and-thunder detective tales.

All these seemingly distant references are made here only to enlighten the pint of feminine sensibility in general in English fiction to render more clearly the effect of such sensibilities in Virginia Woolf. In the resounding words of G.K. Chesterton:” But while Emily Bronte was as unsociable as a storm at midnight, and while Charlotte Bronte was at best like that warmer and more domestic thing, a house on fire-thy do connect themselves with the calm of George Eliot, as the forerunners of may later developments of the feminine advance.”

Virginia Woolf
That feminine advance came in later times with Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf in their post-first –world-War novels. It was in connation with the review of Dorothy Richardson’s novel that Mary Sinclair in 1918 first used the term ‘stream of consciousness’ and it is Virginia Woolf, a great champion and theorist of this method that with certain changes in technique launched her alternative kind of novel after virulently denigrating the vile Edwardians. Now that nobody is afraid of Virginia Woolf and some are rather uncharitable to this minor master of English fiction, it is necessary to consider how far reaction was a peculiarly female one. And in doing so those related questions need to be studied: (a) her attitude towards the male sex, (b) her attitude towards her own sex and (c) her particular feminine accent in expression.

In the novel To The Lighthouse we have the male characters of Mr. Ramsay and his James, Tansley and Carmichael. Mr. Ramsay stands as the symbol of sterility and destructiveness in human relationship. He stands “lean as knife, narrow as the blade “representing male hardness, narrowness, cruelty, isolation and cutting intellect. His son James in childhood feels his father’s obstructing presence and this later arouse a wish for patricide. Cruelty begets revenge in the male Charles Tansley, the atheist philosopher making his dissertations (not understood by Mr. Ramsey) shows again the sterility and barrenness off human intellect and male concern for acquisition of knowledge which after all is not wisdom. The only soft male is Carmichael, the poet but then he just in the periphery and his is only mind we never enter.
While that was Woolf’s view about the male, the eternal feminine gets a more sympathetic treatment in To The Lighthouse almost to the point of partiality. Her greatest triumphs in characterization also lie there. She does not fail to portray the essential qualities of female experience of early twentieth century, of course of a close circle of sophisticated womanhood. In rendering this experience she takes care to mark the wavering and uncertain nature of the dividing line between the sexes and notes the qualities common to the sexes. Despite that, however, “she discerns more clearly, perhaps, than any other novelist, the peculiar nature of typically feminine modes of thought and apprehension, and their peculiar value as the complement of masculine modes” (Joan Benet). Her woman in general and Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe in particular in share this essential feminineness, although they are quite distinguished from each other I their attitudes. One element of this essential femininity is the female failure to retain or distinguish between facts. Mrs. Ramsay fails, therefore, to appreciate Tinsley’s dissertations And looks askance at all knowledge. Tinsley gives the male reply in the novel when he says, “woman can’t paint; woman can’t write.” The women are shown as a vague, muddleheaded lot indifferent to facts. But still they are superior for they are not only complementary to male existence but actually harmonies the whole. The power of harmony, creation and fertility are in them. They bring and keep happiness at home like Mrs. Ramsay and create works of art like Lily Briscoe. The complementary no doubt but the major component of the whole of human existence comes of female contribution. This is so because the fair sex seems to possess a special honesty which proceeds from self-knowledge and the peculiar intuition of distinguishing between the essential and the nonessential. This is Woolf’s view which is almost a short of female partisanship  and which again is contrary to her earlier description of Mrs. Ramsay as failing to distinguish between  facts, a common feminine weakness.

As for Virginia Woolf’s peculiarly female gift of expression and accent it is never quite so finely felt as in the language of To The Lighthouse, which unites the world of prose with the world of poetry. But like almost all women, she indulges here in a sort of nagging portentousness and one cannot escape the feeling that exercise so sensibility has become an end in itself. Her moments of illumination as a consequence fail on most occasions to convince and appear rather as “a succession of short, sharp female gasps of ecstasy” (Allen).  And this particularly female characteristic is heightened by Woolf’s use of the semi-colon where a comma suffices. The result of this female ecstasy arouses in the male critic very natural reaction as when Arnold Kettle asks, “Is it right to resist the temptation, after one has finished To The Lighthouse and remained for a whole sensitive to its spell, to slam it with as vulgar a gesture as one can master and permit to fall the brutal words: ‘So what?’ “But when another male critic comes to her aid and remembering her essential femininity say, “All the same it is difficult not to believe that future will see her as an indubitable minor master in the novel, who expressed with lyrical intensity her apprehension of the beauty and terror of life.” (Walter Allen).

All in this Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is a fruitful study I feminine sensibility whether in her attitude to life in general or her particular poetic power of expression. Her field was confined and narrows as that to Jane Austen. Her difference was that she was the emancipated women while Austen was protected from truth which, however, did not prevent Austen from creating rounder characters true to life. Her affinity with George Eliot was that she also saw either demons or angels in men as in Ramsay of Carmichael. She had something of the lyric as intensity of Emile Bronte. And she was much the feeblest genius of them all but that did not deter her from making a determined advance in the direction of the new novel and so shall she be remembered as a shining mile post in feminine tradition of the English novel. 

Ref: 1. A Readers’ Guide to the Contemporary English Novel- F. R. Karl
         2. History of English Literature- Albert