All you need to know about the books you meant to read

This week: TO THE LIGHTHOUSE by Virginia Woolf

Plot: A dizzying impressionistic novel that seems to abolish the archaic conventions of linear plot and stable character to replace them with the nervy fluctuations of mental and sensory experience. It is divided into three sections.

I) The Window. The Ramsay family are staying in their holiday house on the West Coast of Scotland.

Mrs Ramsay is the heroine of the book. Intelligent and intuitive, she values kindness and sensitivity, searching for harmony in social relations.

Her husband, a professional academic philosopher, honours truth at the expanse of feeling. He is both touchy and self-absorbed, possessed of talent rather than genius.

They have eight children including the child James who pleads with his father to be taken to the lighthouse. The weather is poor: Mr Ramsay refuses on rational grounds.

Among the house guests are Lily Briscoe, a painter of questionable ability, and Augustus Carmichael, an amateur poet.

This section climaxes with a dinner party where Mrs Ramsay unites her guests and family, achieving a moment of rest and eternity, finding "the still space that lies about the heart of things".

II) Time Passes. A bleak interlude that corresponds to the years of the First World War. With desolately beautiful prose, Woolf describes the pitiless decay of the empty house; in a series of abrupt parentheses we learn of the deaths of two of the Ramsay children and of Mrs Ramsay herself. Carmichael and Briscoe return after the war to clear up the debris.

III) The Lighthouse. James, now a young man, is at last reconciled with his father and they finally undertake their journey to the lighthouse. As they reach their goal, Lily Briscoe finishes her picture, creating aesthetically the unity and balance that Mrs Ramsay sought in social relations.

Theme: Mrs Ramsay and Lily Briscoe offer alternative "lives" for the modern woman. Mrs Ramsay is a social artist striving to arrest the destructive onslaught of Time; Lily Briscoe seeks to organise the chaotic stuff of life into paintings that reveal an underpinning pattern.

In a godless universe, Time is the enemy that ridicules humanity's attempts to create stability and exposes the frailty of any form of communication.

Style: Self-consciously poetic. When dubbed "stream of consciousness", Woolf's language remains assiduously remote from everyday usage: its hermetic perfection is ideally suited for registering the darting flights of the mind, though it reinforces a sense of isolation.

Chief stengths: Despite Woolf's dislike of old-fashioned characters, Mr and Mrs Ramsay emerge as two of the most memorable figures in 20th- century fiction. They are both faithfully individualised, yet representative of certain types of male and female consciousness. The book also turns Time into a palpable force.

Chief weaknesses: Mental life seems almost too nteresting. Unlike Joyce, Woolf finds it hard to admit the trivial or the banal into her novel. Everything quivers with intensity. The ironic touch is insecure and therefore the status of Lily Briscoe remains uncertain.

What they thought of it then: Early critics were taken by the poetic writing and wasted space trying to reclassify the book as something other than a novel. Q.D. Leavis and others were unsympathetic, believing Woolf to be self-indulgent and accusing her of abandoning the traditional role of the novelist as social analyst.

What we think of it now: The rise of feminist crticism has reversed Q.D. Leavis's judgement and Woolf is now seen as a brilliant polemicist who manages with tact and wit to puncture the male conception of art and artist. Her feminine style is seen as a riposte to those men who want books full of hectoring opinions.

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