The bare bones of Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel sound a little unprepossessing: it begins shortly before the first world war with a young boy, James Ramsay, asking his parents if they can visit the lighthouse near the family’s summer house on the Isle of Skye, after which a discussion about the weather ensues. It goes on to chronicle a day in the life of the Ramsay parents, their eight children and their gaggle of house guests, who include a young artist, Lily Briscoe, who is painting Mrs Ramsay’s portrait; a prickly young philosopher, Charles Tansley, who announces “women can’t write, women can’t paint”; and the kindly Mr Bankes, a botanist who Mrs Ramsay hopes will marry Lily.
The narrator is the actor Ruth Wilson, who moves seamlessly between the multiple viewpoints and captures the subtle rhythms of Woolf’s prose, which, vivid and poetic, provides a window into the inner lives of her characters. Mrs Ramsay is forever tending to the needs of others, including those of her husband, a scholar, whose tyrannical ways mask a deeper anxiousness. Lily Briscoe embodies a more progressive point of view in her resistance to marriage and her devotion to her work, even though self-doubt threatens to derail her.
There is no great drama here even though, as time passes and war ends, everything changes: characters grow, others die, the house slowly decays. A strange and determinedly experimental work, To the Lighthouse is a moving reflection on time, memory and the ebb and flow of human emotion.
• Available from Penguin Audio, 9hr 2min
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