The re-issue of these four books in handsome bindings answers no urgent need; three of them are already available in less expensive editions. Nevertheless, it is an occasion to reread several of Mrs. Woolf’s books at the same time. Inevitably, I found the spell of the old enchantment considerably diminished. Inevitable, in part, because we are at that awkward distance which prevents either a fresh reading of her work of an impersonal detachment. In so far as our disaffection is caused by a temporary impatience with the elaborate, the playful, the idiosyncratic, we are the losers.
Orlando has always seemed to me embarrassingly frivolous. Of course, it is a very ingenious joke, very “literary” and scholarly, and the frivolity mocks itself, as when, after exercising a few lines in an archaic manner, the author breaks off: “(and so on for six pages if you will, but the style is tedious and may well be dropped).” It would have been delightful as one of her shorter, light pieces, but in this form the joke is stretched beyond the fun in it, and the fun was always more for the writer than for the reader.
The Waves is a serious novel, of course, about six children who are brought up together and whose lives are interwoven until the book leaves them in middle age. They reveal themselves (and one another) in alternating interior monologues. Never has Mrs. Woolf (or any other writer, for that matter, in quite this way) employed this technique so exclusively. It is not an attempt to imitate the processes of the unconscious or of involuntary association, but a determined concentration on the self, expressed in a formal poetic style: “’Now let me try,’ said Louis, ‘before we rise, before we go to tea, to fix the moment in one supreme endeavor. This will endure.’”
In this sort of fixity, consciousness is a continual surrender to a stream of sense-impressions and related memories. It is an end in itself; sensitivity is the supreme value. The result is often very lovely; nevertheless, the rhythm of monologue is finally monotonous and the characters of the novel are apt to fade into the anonymity of mere sensitized plates. Any continuity or interrelation of their reveries is too frequently only a trick of composition. The Waves (like most of its author’s work) has been compared to music—a useful simile, as it suggests a thematic structure unusual in English fiction. But literature is no more music than music is literature, and the obtrusion of a formal scheme risks the chilling or even paralysis of a novel.
Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse are Virginia Woolf’s most successful novels. The former is brilliant; it originates on the surface of things—“the silver, the chairs”; “there was a beating, a stirring of galloping ponies, tapping of cricket bats”—and the impulse of these impressions to the reflective mind constructs the sense of “life; London; this moment in June.” Appropriately in this world of surfaces, “the supreme mystery . . . was simply this: here was one room, there another.” It is a rare creative stroke that recognizes the mood, despite the flash and gayety, as one of ineffable sadness and futility: “This late age of the world’s experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears.” The most Clarissa Dalloway can do is give a party.
So far, the work is a triumph of the visual imagination; the following reference to Clarissa’s courageous and inane high-mindedness is another matter: “Not for a moment did she believe in God; but all the more, she thought, . . . must one repay in daily life to servants, yes, to dogs and canaries, above all to Richard her husband, who was the foundation of it.” And again: “Thank you, thank you, she went on saying in gratitude to her servants generally for helping her to be like this, to be what she wanted, gentle, generous-hearted.” There is here, at the very least, an ambiguity; at most, a failure of the ironic intelligence. How can one judge the passages quoted above? There are too few clues. This failure, if it is failure, is all the more baffling because it is intermittent; Sir William Bradshaw and Hugh Whitbread are disposed of swiftly and keenly.
That is not to say that Clarissa goes scot-free. Peter Walsh, her old love, recognizes in her something “timid; hard; something arrogant; unimaginative; prudish.” And “Clarissa had grown . . . a trifle sentimental into the bargain, he suspected.” She herself “could see what she lacked. . . . It was something central which permeated; something warm. . . .”
Thus, she is diminished as thoroughly as ruthless honestly could demand; in fact, she is diminished until she scarcely fills her place in the center of the book. But what we miss are values other than Clarissa’s own by which she can be placed. In their absence, and with Clarissa reduced, contracted, the book tends to lapse in places, then to race a bit, and here and there to gush slightly: words like “delicious,” “enchanting,” “extraordinary” are not infrequent.
At this point, all previous reservations must be suspended: To the Lighthouse seems to me among few near perfect novels in the language. If Mrs. Dalloway is dazzling, this book is luminous. It is unique among Virginia Woolf’s writing for its warmth and sympathy. It contains her two most substantial characters: Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. Its theme, which fills every page with vitality, is expressed by Lily Briscoe, at their summer house in the Hebrides, “staying with the Ramsays. Directly she looked up and saw them, what she called ‘being in love’ flooded them. They became a part of that unreal but penetrating and exciting universe which is the world seen through the eyes of love . . . life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash, on the beach.”
The theme of the book is “love”; the word itself recurs persistently, but with such subtle variations in meaning that one might not recognize its presence. Mrs. Ramsay herself, the central character, personifies the numerous aspects of love. In more general, suggestive terms, there is “the astonishing power that Mrs. Ramsay had over one.” Again: “Knowledge and wisdom were stored up in [her] heart.” In another place, she is beautifully compared to a bee-hive: “Like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch or taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive.” “Her capacity to surround and protect” her eight children extends in a wider maternalism: “She had the whole of the other sex under her protection.” And like some humble, domestic goddess of love, she is forever match-making: “She was driven on, too quickly she knew, almost as if it were an escape for her too, to say that people must marry; people must have children.” She and Mr. Ramsay are themselves “the symbols of marriage, husband and wife.” Finally, she is identified, after her death, with “the fertility, the insensibility of nature.”
What aerates and lightens this pervasive theme, this almost oppressive love, is the stirring life of the book: the natural summer life of the garden, the dunes, the bay; the quick, sly humor; the gigantic figure of Mr. Ramsay; the gayety of the holiday; the odd assortment of visitors; the many children. Nothing suggests the domestic scene better than the following: “The great clangor of the gong announced solemnly, authoritatively, that all those scattered about, in attics, in bedrooms, on little perches of their own, reading, writing, putting the last smooth to their hair, or fastening dresses, must leave all that, and the little odds and ends on their washing-tables and dressing-tables, and the novels on the bed tables, and the diaries which were so private, and assemble in the dining-room for dinner”—the wonderful dinner, most festive of the many parties in Virginia Woolf’s books, the dinner of the Boeuf en Daube.
But if Mrs. Ramsay is the source and repository of love, she is complemented by Lily Briscoe, the artist, whose homage and devotion reflect that life and so create the book: “Love had a thousand shapes. There might be loves whose gift it was to choose out the elements of things and place them together and so, giving them a wholeness not theirs in life, make of some scene, or meeting of people (all now gone and separate) one of those globed compacted things over which thought lingers, and love plays.”