Book of a Lifetime: To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

Meaghan Delahunt
Friday 18 April 2008 00:00
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It was a hot summer's day in Melbourne. I was a teenager, engrossed in To the Lighthouse, lying under a tree at a cricket match. Meanwhile, my boyfriend (a champion athlete) was bowling his way to victory. I was oblivious. His friends were perplexed. "How could you have missed it?" They shook their heads. "Something about a wolf?" My boyfriend would later chide me. "They said something about a wolf?"

To the Lighthouse begins with a family – the Ramsays – and a summer spent on the Isle of Skye before the start of the First World War. It is about Mrs Ramsay, the beautiful, enigmatic matriarch with her eight children, Mr Ramsay, her volatile "brilliant" husband, and the friends, acquaintances and servants who gather at the summerhouse. More deeply, it is about the passage of time: the fading of things, people, relationships; the gap between life and art. "The urgency of the moment always missed its mark. Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low."

It strikes me now that the summer I first read the novel– a young woman absorbed in her own world, the young men demanding she notice them – could be a scene from Woolf's book. It brings to mind not Mrs Ramsay, the maternal beacon always alert to others' needs – particularly men's – but Lily Briscoe. Lily is a guest of the Ramsays'. Struggling to find entitlement as a woman (unmarried, odd) and an artist. Drawn to Mrs Ramsay, yet resisting her injunction to: "Marry, marry!" Lily is also up against the boorish Mr Tansley: "Women can't write, women can't paint." Lily never quite responds as expected.

Woolf's language, so clear and pure, captivated me: "But something moved, flashed, turned a silver wing in the air." The way Woolf deals with time and the organic shape of her novel still inspires. The flow of consciousness – seamless, true, now in one mind, now in another. Deaths reported suddenly (in parentheses) with gunshot force. But it is also the great emotional undertow that pulls me in. My teenage self thrilled to the notion of fixing the moment for ever. "Life stand still here," says Mrs Ramsay. I'd had that longing ever since I was a child. It was To the Lighthouse that showed me the potential for art to do this.

By the novel's end, Lily Briscoe returns to the island and to the painting that she had abandoned a decade before. She eventually resolves the composition – a green slash across the canvas. The novel is about creativity, memory, imagination. Woolf's great act of imagination gave me – a small Australian girl – a sense of entitlement. It taught me to hold fast to my own slow process, no matter what. Through the nine-year gestation of The Red Book, it reminded me not to let go, not to go under.

Meaghan Delahunt's 'The Red Book' is published by Granta

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