Contemporary Reviews of To the Lighthouse

Updated June 5, 2002
Created August 14, 1997

Majumdar, Robin, and Allen McLaurin.  Virginia Woolf:  The Critical 
Heritage.  London; Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975.

1.  Unsigned review, Times Literary Supplement—5 May 1927
"In form To the Lighthouse is as elastic as a novel can be… while it 
depends almost on the passing of time, it expands or contracts the 
time-sense very freely…It is a book, with an ironical or wistful 
questioning of life and reality…the people in Mrs.Woolf’s book seem to be 
looking through each other at some farther question; and,although they 
interact vividly, they are not completely real…to know people in outline 
is one way of knowing them.  And they are seen here in the way they are 
meant to be seen.  But the result is that, while you know quite well the 
kind of people represented in the story, they lack something as 
individuals . . . A sad book in the main , with all its entertainment, it 
is one to return to" (193-195).

2.  Louis Kronenberger, review, New York Times—8 May 1927
To the Lighthouse . . .is a book of interrelationships among people, and 
though there are  major and minor characters the major ones…[are] more 
truly the means for giving to the story its harmony and unity, its focal 
points. Those who reject To the Lighthouse as inferior to Mrs. Dalloway 
because it offers no one with half the memorable lucidity of Clarissa 
Dalloway must fail to perceive its larger and, artistically, more 
difficult aims.  They must fail to notice the richer qualities of mind and 
imagination and emotion which Mrs. Woolf, perhaps not wanting them, 
omitted from Mrs. Dalloway…the story which opens brilliantly and carries 
on through a magnificent interlude ends with too little force and 
expressiveness.  At any rate the rest of the book has its excellencies . . .
Mrs. Woolf makes use of her remarkable method of characterization, a 
method not based on observation or personal experience, but purely 
synthetic, purely creational…Neither Clarissa nor Mrs. Ramsay has 
anything autobiographical about her…It is, I think, in the superb 
interlude called ‘Time Passes’ that Mrs. Woolf reaches the most impressive 
height of the book . . .  It is inferior to Mrs. Dalloway in the degree to 
which its aims are achieved; it is superior in the magnitude of the aims 
themselves" (195-198).

3.  Rachel A. Taylor, review, Spectator—14 May, 1927
"To the Lighthouse is rather violently broken, while the parts of the book 
seem disproportionate.  But it is even more wistfully human, perhaps.  
Nothing happens, and everything happens…indeed more beauty and penetrative 
characterization than can here be described resides within this book. . .
[Mrs. Ramsay] is whimsical, extravagant in speech, absurd a little, versed 
in all tender ways of loving.  She bewitches you…She is sorrowful for 
something lost out of Time—something that, found, would illuminate 
eternity" (198-200). 

4.  Arnold Bennet, review, Evening Standard—23 June 1927
"…I must say, despite my notorious grave reservations concerning Virginia 
Woolf, that the most original of the bunch is To the Lighthouse.  It is 
the best book of hers that I know.  Her character drawing has improved.  
Mrs. Ramsay almost amounts to a complete person.  Unfortunately she goes 
and dies, and her decease cuts the book in two…The middle part, entitled 
‘Time Passes’, shows a novel device to give the reader the impression of 
the passing of time…In my opinion it does not succeed.  It is a short cut, 
but a short cut that does not get you anywhere.  I have heard a good deal 
about the wonders of Mrs. Woolf’s style.  She sometimes discovers a truly 
brilliant simile…The form of her sentences is rather tryingly monotonous, 
and the distance between her nominatives and her verbs is steadily 
increasing.  Still, To the Lighthouse has stuff in it strong enough to 
withstand quite a lot of adverse criticism" (200-201).

5.  Orlo Williams, review, Monthly Criterion—July 1927
Mrs. Woolf is not an inventive writer:  but then—what time or need has she 
for inventing, when she cannot overtake all that she sees and feels and 
observes that other people see and feel?…The average novel-reader, mainly 
interested in ‘story’ and characterization, will probably judge the first 
section of To the Lighthouse, where Mrs. Ramsay is alive, the most 
successful.  After her death the book becomes more lyrical in intonation. . .
Yet the whole, with its greater emotional concentration, its sharper 
focusing, the fuller stature of its characters, and the complete 
resolution of its material into a mediation in images, or symbols . . .
shows the mark at which, with ever increasing power and sureness, Mrs. 
Woolf is aiming.  Her mastery increases with each book, but, I fear, it 
will always fall short of her vision" (201-205).

6.  Conrad Aiken, ‘The Novel a Work of Art’, Dial (Chicago) vol. 83, 
	41-4—July 1927
"Mrs. Woolf is no more modern that Jane Austen:  she breathes the same air 
of gentility, of sequestration, of tradition…Her people are ‘gentle’ 
people. . . .  Mrs. Woolf inevitably makes her readers think of Pride 
and Prejudice and Mansfield Park…She makes her Mrs. Ramsay—by giving us 
her stream of consciousness—amazingly alive; and she supplements this just 
sufficiently , from outside, as it were, by giving us also intermittently, 
the streams of consciousness of her husband, of her friend Lily Briscoe, 
of her children…The richness and copiousness and ease, with which this is 
done, are a delight…These people are astoundingly real…We live in that 
delicious house with them…Nothing happens, in this houseful of odd nice 
people, and yet all of life happens.  The tragic futility, the absurdity, 
the pathetic beauty, of life—we experience all of this in our sharing of 
seven hours of Mrs. Ramsay’s wasted or not wasted existence.  We have seen 
through her, the world" (205-208).

7.  Edwin Muir, review, Nation and Athenaeum—2 July 1927
"To the Lighthouse is a novel difficult to judge…The difficulties which 
the author surmounts in it are such as few contemporary novelists would 
even attempt.  Its positive merits are thus very high.  Yet as a whole, 
though showing an advance on many sides, it produces a less congruous and 
powerful effect than Mrs. Dalloway…the intermediary book called ‘Time 
Passes’, which, to add to the difficulty, is the best of the lot, and 
could only have been written by a writer of profound imagination" (209-10).

8.  E. M. Forster on Virginia Woolf and Sterne, from Aspects of the Novel—
"[Woolf] and Sterne are both fantasists.  They start with a little object, 
take a flutter from it, and settle on it again.  They combine a humorous 
appreciation of the muddle of life with a keen sense of its beauty…Sterne 
is a sentimentalist, Virginia Woolf (except perhaps in her latest work, 
To the Lighthouse) is extremely aloof" (210-211).

9.  J. -E. Blanche, from ‘An Interview with Virginia Woolf’, Les 
	Nouvelles Litteraires—13  August 1927
"This poet, this painter who is attentive to the ‘sad quotidian’ is the 
most amusing talker, full of scintillating humour and fun, just like 
Laforgue.  Anyone would love the opportunity of obtaining an audience with 
this magnetic personality…Nine short pieces make up this second part, 
entitled Time Passes…We did not even know that the beautiful Mrs. Ramsay 
had been ill. She is eclipsed…Dear Mrs. Woolf, do you wish to create an 
atmosphere?  Is there a hidden meaning there?…But all your characters go 
away like this after having entered upon the scene unannounced.  You 
assume that your readers are as intelligent as you and as accustomed to 
seeing into the obscurity and resolving mysteries…Lily Briscoe is 
undoubtedly Virginia Woolf herself" (212-214).

10. Jean-Jacques Mayoux, review, Revue Anglo-Americaine (Paris)—June 1928
"It is unfortunately only to the ‘happy few’ that Virginia Woolf has just 
given a definitive work which contains all her vision of the world, in 
which all the delicate beauty of her art is to be found…Her fictional 
method…is dominated by her sensibility and grace, which are unique. . .
To the Lighthouse is a long contemplation, a harmonious unwinding of 
images and emotions, of sentiments and thoughts in an interior world. . . 
Virginia Woolf makes us feel the parallel permanence of the outer and 
inner worlds, their quite separate continuities…Woolf’s characters live an 
astonishingly normal life for themselves, and not for our benefit, and do 
not even have hidden turpitudes to reveal to us…they do not liberate 
enough of themselves in order to embrace things entirely…everything takes 
place between brackets, with a sentence for each happening…This work which 
has no apparent articulations, we have found to be totally coherent, a 
combination of equilibrium and subtle correspondences.  It makes one think 
at first of Classical music, with its perfect balance of emotion and of 
form, its subtle but perfectly clear interweaving of themes, and its 
motifs which return, sometimes at very long intervals, but which one 
recognizes with a delicate pleasure . . . She is Lily Briscoe making a 
work of art with the substance of Mrs. Ramsay" (214-221).

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