Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse–St Ives Weekend Study


“What is the meaning of life? That was all- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”

― Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf spent much of her childhood in St. Ives. The London Literary Salon invites you to join us in St Ives to explore this lovely coastal town and have it serve as a prism through which we will explore Woolf’s perspectives on landscape, domesticity and identity in her novel To The Lighthouse. We have already completed two magical weekends in this book in the environment that inspired it– this is an incredible experience!

You will have the opportunity to visit the iconic Tate St. Ives gallery overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, built between 1988 and 1993 on the site of an old gasworks, and there will be an optional boat trip to Godrevy Lighthouse. We may also look at Talland House, now privately owned, her childhood summer home.  For several months of the year the elegant house overlooking St. Ives Bay would be the Stephens’ family home until 1895 when Virginia’s mother Julia Stephen died.  Although the complete family never returned to St. Ives following their mother’s death, her children travellled back in 1905 following the death of their father in 1904.

This is something I have dreamed of doing since I first read Woolf’s magical book To the Lighthouse–it has haunted me always. The opportunity to study this work with a keen group of minds in the place that is so crucial to the writing is simply delicious.

“If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills – then my bowl without doubt stands upon this memory.  It is of lying in bed, half-asleep, haf awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one two, behind a yellow blind. . . . If I were a painter I should paint these impressions in pale yellow, silver, and green.  There was the pale yellow blind; the green sea; and the silver of the passion flowers.”

“Here is the past and all its inhabitants miraculously sealed as in a magic tank.”

“The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surace of a deep river.  Then one sees through the surface to the depths.  The past sometimes presses so close that you can feel nothing else.”

—Virginia Woolf, “Sketch of the Past,” begun in June 1939.


Salonsitas going to the Lighthouse


  • Friday – Sunday weekend  in St. Ives with one Monday preparation meeting in London.
  • Recommended edition: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf, with introduction by Hermione Lee; Penguin Classics; (ISBN 0-14-118341-1)

More on the study:   

As one of the primary modernist works, To the Lighthouse demonstrates Woolf at play with language; testing the ability of language to truly reflect human experience by recording the life of the mind not just action. One of the characteristics of Modernist writing is a shifting centre of narrative perspective reflecting a questioning of ultimate and moral authority that characterized the time with the dissolution of Imperialism and absolute values.

Writing from the edge of the violent shift from Victorian to Modernist era, Woolf’s ambivalence is demonstrated in work. She struggles against the boundaries and structures of the Victorian era while holding a great longing and nostalgia for the noble traditions of the time. Her model, Mrs. Ramsey, (Queen-like) holds her daughters to the awe of the noble men that surround her and allows them to “sport with infidel ideas…of a life different…in Paris perhaps; …for there was in all their minds a mute questioning of deference and chivalry…though to them all there was something in this of the essence of beauty, which called out the manliness in their girlish hearts…” (TtL, pgs. 10-11)

This quote also demonstrates the Modernist reworking of absolute truth…it is not a question of either this (a male-dominated world) or that (a world of female emancipation): the apparently rigid gender roles borrow from each other—“manliness in their girlish hearts” , “Indeed, she had the whole of the other sex under her protection…”: there is another Imperialism her, an intimate Imperialism of female over male. The truth in this work is not rigid (although Mr. R would like it to be) but can be permeated, blended…seen from another view.

Re-reading Hermione Lee’s biography (review quoted below) this reading has me turning over the search one makes for lost childhood—often for a place that might hold a time—but of course, never does. For Woolf, that search included a grappling with the impact & idealization of the parent figures—especially the lost mother, whose influence and contradictions continue to wrap around the child inside. VW and a few of her siblings returned to the house in St. Ives (that we are lucky enough to visit) years after her mother’s death and the sale of the house. They were like ghosts, sneaking around the gardens, peering in the windows: as though searching for their lost selves and a past that can never be re-captured. That visit—and the need to lay to rest her grief enwrapped memories of her mother—were the catalyst for TtL.

For those who want to go further, here is an excerpt of a review of Hermione Lee’s wonderful biography. The book, Virginia Woolf is a great read.

From ‘This Loose, Drifting Material of Life’ by Daphne Merkin“Ms. Lee documents the evolving perception of her subject from ”the delicate lady authoress of a few experimental novels and sketches, some essays and a ‘writer’s’ diary, to one of the most professional, perfectionist, energetic, courageous and committed writers in the language.” She does this without recourse to the politicized agendas of the academy or special pleading (all of Woolf’s flaws are on display here); this account sets itself above the fray, the better to home in on the glittery and elusive creature at its center — the prize catch in what one critic has described as the Bloomsbury pond.From its very first page Ms. Lee’s book is informed by current thinking on how to approach the writing of someone’s life: “There is no such thing as an objective biography, particularly not in this case. Positions have been taken, myths have been made.” But it is also infused with a very personal passion for her subject, which enables the author to cut crisply through the labyrinth of theories that have sprung up…”

Although To the Lighthouse is not autobiographical, many critics & readers have found close parallels between Woolf’s early life and the world presented in the book. It may help you to have a sense of Virginia Woolf and her precarious position as a visionary on the edge of violently changing world, as we go into the read. I will have more biographical notes for you when we start.

If you would like to request this study or have any questions about it, please contact us.



Posted on

September 12, 2017