FAQ: To the Lighthouse

Biographical References

Updated July 31, 1998
Created July 31, 1998 from material supplied by Suzanne Turner and Denise Brown Taylor.

Does Woolf base any characters in To the Lighthouse on real people?

Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay: The models for Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are Woolf’s parents, Leslie and Julia Stephen. Critics disagree as to Woolf’s intent in these portrayals. (See Hussey 223 for detailed comments.) What is obvious, however, is Woolf’s ambivalent feelings toward both of her parents, especially her father. Hussey cites Lilienfield’s view that both Ramsays are presented as "simultaneously good and bad" (223). Woolf herself said that Mrs. Ramsay is not Julia Stephen per se but perhaps a child’s memory of Julia Stephen (224). She also said that there is a good deal of her sister Vanessa inside Mrs. Ramsay. Mr. Ramsay is definitely modeled only on Leslie Stephen. It should be remembered that Woolf had access to her father’s biography and his mother’s diary. So a clear picture of him as younger man is possible. In addition, Hermione Lee writes, "The women in [Leslie Stephen’s] life . . . took the brunt of his sense of failure, his appeals for reassurance and his anxieties about money. The letters to Julia are sodden with the kinds of demands for reassurance which Mr. Ramsay is always making. Leslie, unlike Mr. Ramsay, knew he was doing it, but couldn’t stop himself. It provided (as To the Lighthouse brilliantly demonstrates) a form of sexual gratification: ‘I have a hideous trick of making myself out miserable in order to coax a little sympathy out of you, because I enjoy being petted by you so much.’" (Lee 73).

The Ramsay children: Although there were eight Ramsay children just as there were in the Stephen family, all the Ramsay children shared the same parents. Cam, the youngest Ramsay daughter, occupies the same position in the Ramsay family as Woolf in the Stephen family (Hussey 221). Elizabeth Abel, according to Hussey, notes that both Woolf and Cam had the run of their fathers’ libraries. James is the youngest Ramsay child. Leonard Woolf has suggested that James is partly modeled after Woolf’s brother Adrian. Like Adrian, James is thought by his mother to be the most sensitive of the Ramsay children. Others have suggested a possible connection to Henry James, a frequent visitor to the Stephen household (222). Prue is believed to be modeled after Stella Duckworth, Woolf’s half-sister. Prue’s death soon after her marriage, abruptly recorded in "Time Passes," recalls the death of Stella in 1897.

Lily Briscoe: Although certainly the fact that Lily is an artist relates her to Vanessa Stephen, Lily is generally considered a model of Woolf herself. Mitchell Leaska calls Lily a "silhouette" of Virginia Woolf who thinks in terms of painting where Woolf thought in terms of writing the novel (Hussey 143). Thomas Caramango connects Lily’s "bifurcated feelings" to Woolf’s own mood swings and suggests a connection between the interference of Lily’s mood swings with the ability to know her own feelings (Caramango 247). Hermione Lee points out that Lily acts out Virginia’s own difficulties (81). "The impossibility of [Woolf’s] translating her mother from the past in to the present is deep inside the story of Lily Briscoe and Mrs. Ramsay" (81). Hussey cites Mark Spilka’s observation that Woolf’s using Lily as a self-portrait explains Lily’s grief over Mrs. Ramsay at the end of the book (Hussey 309).

Charles Tansley: Roger Poole, in Hussey, relates Tansley to Leonard Woolf. Critics see the purpose of Tansley as taking some of the sharpness away from Mr. Ramsay.

Augustus Carmichael: Mr. Carmichael, like Lily Briscoe is in "The Window" and reappears in "The Lighthouse." Quentin Bell notes that Joseph Wolstenholme, a friend of Leslie Stephen's from Cambridge, spent the summers with the Stephens at St. Ives. The children called him "The Wooly One." He was a brilliant mathematician. He had an unhappy marriage and came to St. Ives to escape his wife. He, like Augustus Carmichael, used opium (I 32). One would also suspect that Mr. Carmichael's character was somewhat influenced by Lytton Strachey, although nothing was found that supports this.

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