5 Reasons to Love To The Lighthouse

10th May 2012

Godrevy Lighthouse

I first read To The Lighthouse when I was sixteen. At the time, I didn’t read it because it is a modern classic, because of its place as a milestone in the stream-of-consciousness school of thought.

I’ll be honest. I read it because I’d heard that Virginia Woolf was known for her bisexuality and I was looking for a Sapphic role model a little more intellectual than Nicky from Bad Girls.

But despite my motives, I loved the book. To The Lighthouse lives up to my definition of ‘the good book’ we all say we’d like to curl up with.

Opening it is like unfurling an old blanket and crawling in. It’s a book that never seems outdated, even eighty-five years after it was first published. Here are my reasons why I love it, and why I think you should too.

1. The Window

This happens to be the title of the first part of the book, but it’s also one of my favourite things about it. The time when this book was written fascinates me. The early twentieth century, when so many changes took place within such a small time, is a time I will never get to experience first hand. But when I’m reading To The Lighthouse, I feel like I don’t need to.

The description is so detailed, so involving, that I can smell the furniture that Mrs Ramsay describes as having retired from its active service in London. The character portraits constructed show us a cross-section of society, the dialogue an image of the relationships between husband and wife.

It’s a small slice of life from the period, but this small slice makes returning to the world of televisions and Macbooks and Kindles feel slightly jarring, like leaving another world behind.

2. Inside The Mind

Woolf’s inimitable brand of stream of consciousness is blissful to read. Whilst modern writing strives for concise sentences, reading the inner mutterings of Mrs Ramsay – even if they do span several sentences without even a hint of a full stop – is remarkably soothing. If you read for relaxation, these passages have to be among the most soothing and beautiful ever written.

3. You Can’t Choose Your Family

Poor little James. When Mr Ramsay tells him he cannot go to the lighthouse, you feel the disappointment hit him. It brings back those feelings of being a small child and desperately wanting something that isn’t, in itself, a big thing but that feels enormous.

You understand why, in that second, he hates his father. It gives you that precious feeling of really caring for a character. Work it out with your dad, James, before it’s too late.

4. The Heartbreak Is Real

In the second part of the book, we learn how much this family has been affected by loss. The First World War and a tragic childbirth death have left the parents of this family carrying on after their children have died.

The order of things has been bypassed, and you feel the efforts of the family to carry on, to get over their heartbreak. There is a palpable sadness from this that just makes the whole book even more beautiful.

5. A Nice Escape

Ultimately, all of the above lead to a narrative that is all encompassing. The reader is drawn in from every angle, making the moment when you look up from the page or tuck your bookmark in like taking a breath from swimming against the current. To The Lighthouse is a book you can lose yourself in, even eighty-five years after it was written. Surely, if nothing else, its longevity makes it worth a read.

Guest feature by writer and poet Helen Dring. For more from Helen, check out her website, or follow her on Twitter. And stay tuned for another tribute To The Lighthouse, coming up later today.

(Image via Neil Page)


  • Sarah says:

    This has made me want to reread it!

  • LonerGrrrl says:

    I love Virginia Woolf, and you’re right, To The Lighthouse is a sad, but also beautiful and all-encompassing read. I really identify with the book’s portrayal of family dynamics and particularly with the character, Lily – “she liked to be alone, she liked to be herself’. I’ve often come across criticism of Woolf’s long sentences and over-use of semi-colons as being too ‘wordy’ and ‘difficult’, but I have to agree that I find her stream-of-consciousness style of writing soothing. There’s almost a musical quality to it that you can really get caught up in.