In Search of Virginia Woolf’s Lighthouse, Godrevy Light
By Lynne Weiss | On October 2, 2022 | Updated October 3, 2022 | Comments (0)
What is it that makes us long to see what the writers we love once saw? To stand in their footsteps? Do we imagine that some fairy dust will fall from nearby trees or rise from abandoned floorboards to bring us the wisdom or the art that flowed from their fingers to their manuscripts, whether through pens or pencils, typewriter keys, or pixels?
That’s what was on my mind on a visit to Cornwall, England, when I was determined to get to Godrevy Light, the lighthouse that inspired Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
Like the characters in Part I, “The Window,” I found getting to the lighthouse difficult. My spouse and I, Americans who drive as little as possible, don’t want to drive in the UK, where we would certainly be disoriented by the different positioning of steering wheels and road lanes.
Trains and buses get us to most of the places we want to go, but I could not find a way to get out to Godrevy Point, the nearest land to the lighthouse. Bus service is so infrequent that I (the travel agent in our household) could find no way to go out and return the same day.
I considered hiring a taxi but was dismayed to realize that while the lighthouse was only three miles from shore at Godrevy Point, the roads from any settlement served by a bus or a train were winding and indirect. The more I investigated, the more travel to the lighthouse seemed time-consuming and expensive.
The Godrevy Lighthouse stands on a small rocky island, inhabited today only by birds and seals. You can judge its beauty when I tell you that a photo of the lighthouse was the winner of the 2021 South West Coast Path photo competition. (For context, the South West Coast Path provides the gorgeous scenery for TV shows such as Poldark and Broadchurch.)
The white octagonal-shaped tower was built in 1859, after a steamer wrecked on the rocky reef known as the Stones and sank. Everyone on board drowned. After the lighthouse was built three keepers alternated month-long duties to staff the light.
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To the Lighthouse (1927)
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At the beginning of To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay prepares for the proposed visit by knitting a stocking for the Lighthouse keeper’s little boy. She also looks around for “old magazines, and some tobacco, indeed whatever she could find lying about … to give those poor fellows who must be bored to death sitting all day with nothing to do ….”
To explain why she wants to deliver these things to the Lighthouse, she asks her daughters, “How would you like to be shut up for a whole month at a time, and possibly more in stormy weather, upon a rock the size of a tennis lawn? … and to have no letters or newspapers, and … to see the same dreary waves breaking week after week?”
In 1934, some seven years after the publication of To the Lighthouse (but decades after the time in which it was set), the Godrevy Lighthouse became automatic. The keepers who had concerned Mrs. Ramsay were relieved of their dreary and boring duties as well as their livelihood. (For another perspective on lighthouse keepers see Jeanette Winterson’s Lighthousekeeping.)
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This photo and at top, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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Virginia Woolf’s most autobiographical novel
To the Lighthouse is regarded as Woolf’s most autobiographical novel. It describes two days, ten years apart, in the lives of the Ramsay family. While the story is set in the Scottish Hebrides, Woolf says in her diary that Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are closely modeled on Woolf’s parents, Leslie and Julia Stephen, and that the events in the book recall the family’s summers in St. Ives, Cornwall.
The book had therapeutic value for Woolf—her mother, like Mrs. Ramsay, died suddenly. Woolf was thirteen at the time of her mother’s death, and she says she was “obsessed” with her mother until she wrote To the Lighthouse. Afterward she wondered why it was that once she had described her mother that “my vision of her and my feeling for her” became “so much dimmer and weaker?”
The phenomenon of something becoming “dimmer and weaker” happens in the novel as well. In Part I, the Lighthouse is the object of six-year-old James’s longing and the intended recipient of Mrs. Ramsay’s charitable efforts.
It provides Mr. Ramsay with the power to disappoint (and thus to win his son’s hatred). It gives the Ramsay’s houseguest, Charles Tansley, (a man who whispers in painter Lily Briscoe’s ear, “Women can’t paint, women can’t write”) the opportunity to disparage dreams.
When James makes it to the Lighthouse in Part III, he is disappointed. “The Lighthouse was then [when he was six] a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye that opened suddenly and softly in the evening.” When he finally arrives, ten years later, he sees “the whitewashed rocks; the tower, stark and straight,” and he thinks, “So that was the Lighthouse, was it?”
He resolves the contradiction in the next paragraph. “The other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing.”
And that, I think, is how Woolf frees herself of her obsession with her mother. Like the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay dominates Part I. She is the close third-person narrator through which we see much of the section, and when she is not the narrator, she is the object of other people’s narrative thoughts.
Everyone in Part I is obsessed with Mrs. Ramsay: her beauty, her kindness, her ability to manage a household of children and guests and servants, and her skills as a matchmaker. She delights in bringing people together and through the force of her desire effects a marriage proposal. By simply looking at young Paul Rayley, Mrs. Ramsay makes him understand that she wants him to propose marriage to Mindy Doyle as she sends the two of them out for a walk together.
Lily Briscoe, determined to remain unmarried, resents Mrs. Ramsay’s power, and yet she longs to bask in her light.
Yes, her light.
For Mrs. Ramsay is the Lighthouse. See how she is described here, for example, half turning “to pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, … as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating…” Later, her husband thinks, “it hurt him that she should look so distant, and he could not reach her” (just as they cannot reach the distant lighthouse).
Mrs. Ramsay herself thinks she would like to go with some of the others as they set out on a walk. “Of course it was impossible for her to go with them. But she would have liked to go, had it not been for the other thing.” The “other thing” is never named, and I would say Mrs. Ramsay cannot go with them because she is the Lighthouse, the point that guides the others in their travels.
She is a manipulative and powerful woman who embodies beauty and warmth. She epitomizes maternal love and at the same time, a cold, unreachable distance. Like the Lighthouse in the eyes of sixteen-year-old James, she is not simply one thing.
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St. Ives and the Lighthouse
I couldn’t figure out how we would get to the Godrevy Light. I wasn’t sure we would even be able to see the lighthouse from St. Ives (as opposed to the Godrevy Headlands a few miles away), and so when our bus rounded a curve and began its steep descent into the village and I caught a glimpse of the tower, surprisingly close, my hand flew to my chest.
My heart really did give a little leap. I was so thrilled to see the light that had inspired one of my favorite novels that when the bus arrived at the outskirts of St. Ives (the roads being too narrow for it to continue into the town), I scrambled off eagerly, realizing only once we were walking in the village that I had left my hat on my seat.
It was a hat I had carried with me on many trips, one of the few I had ever worn that I thought flattered my face, a crushable thing that opened out to a wide-brimmed sunhat to shade my pale complexion. Yet unlike other losses, I was not dismayed to have forgotten it. It had served me well for many years, and I was certain it could be replaced quite easily. I was excited to be in St. Ives and within sight of the lighthouse.
Crowded beachside restaurants offered views of the gleaming structure on its stony perch. I imagined that we would eventually have lunch at one of those tables, though I suspected the menus would be heavy on fried foods and not to my taste. As we navigated the winding streets and alleys of St. Ives, buildings blocked our view of the bay.
Nonetheless, we made our way to the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden. Hepworth was a contemporary of Woolf’s, about twenty years younger, and like Woolf, brought a modernist sensibility to her creative work. Both women were inspired by Cornwall and St. Ives—for Hepworth, as for so many other visual artists, it was the quality of the light reflected off water, rugged land, and crushed shells.
Woolf saw that light as well, “wave after wave shedding again and again smoothly a film of mother-of-pearl,” and she also saw that other light from across the waves, “first two quick strokes and then one long steady stroke.” In other words, the light of the Lighthouse.
Hepworth’s stone constructions were partially inspired by Cornwall’s craggy landscape and its neolithic quoits, tors, and circles. From the sculpture garden, we climbed up and then down steep, cobbled paths to the Tate St. Ives and entered its domed portico. Hungry by then, we headed up to the top-floor cafe to find an outdoor table on the terrace where my heart leapt once again when confronted with a perfect view of (drumroll, please) the Lighthouse!
I gazed across the bay to that sober sentinel, white against the gray-blue sky and sea, and thought about Mrs. Ramsay as I enjoyed my parsnip soup garnished with roasted onion jam. There had to be a way to get to the island, and later, as we walked along the bustling harbor promenade, the way appeared. Posters on the seawall offered seal- and bird-watching trips to Godrevy Island. I booked passage for the two of us the day after the next (our last in Cornwall).
Everything was working out perfectly, and when the bus arrived to take us back to Penzance, I was delighted to find my old friend, my hat, sitting on a ledge next to the driver.
Just as in To the Lighthouse, the day of the planned boat trip dawned stormily, and a message on my phone told me our cruise had been canceled and my money refunded. Just as in the novel, the weather would interfere with our effort to reach the Lighthouse.
Perhaps in ten years, I will return to Cornwall to visit the lighthouse.
Or perhaps it is enough that, like Lily Briscoe, the painter who concludes Woolf’s book and who never goes to the Lighthouse, I have had my vision: I have seen the Lighthouse not only as it appears off the coast of St. Ives, but as Woolf herself portrayed it.
The Lighthouse is more than one thing, after all. It is the thing that inspires and the thing that stands guard. It is the thing that comforts and the thing that cannot be reached. Like my hat, perhaps, it is the thing that is lost and the thing that is found.
Contributed by Lynne Weiss: Lynne’s writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review; Brain, Child; The Common OnLine; the Ploughshares blog; the [PANK] blog; Wild Musette; Main Street Rag; and Radcliffe Magazine. She received an MFA from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has won grants and residency awards from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Millay Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, and Yaddo. She loves history, theater, and literature, and for many years, has earned her living by developing history and social studies materials for educational publishers. She lives outside Boston, where she is working on a novel set in Cornwall and London in the early 1930s. You can see more of her work at LynneWeiss.