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Woman as Artist

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who seem to make of the head only a 
handmaiden. Although, outside of
Shakespeare, there is no more exciting
reading for her than Dostoievsky, it is
characteristic of her—characteristically 
English—that it is Tolstoy whom
she really likes. It is also characteristic
of her, as it is characteristic of the particular 
English intellectual class to
which she belongs, that she has almost
no prejudices.

To write of any novel of hers without 
taking her critical powers into account 
is impossible. For hers is the
critical mind turned on to fiction. She
is in a way like one of those graceful
French précieuses of the eighteenth
century who turned an investigating
mind on life and letters. In this new
book of hers, “To the Lighthouse,” she
has invented a way of writing fiction
that is a cross between Mme. de
Sevigne’s Letters and Addison’s de
Coverley Papers. So frequently are
the characters of her books intellectuals, 
or people whose main interests 
are intellectual, that we get the
same impression as we get when we
read her criticism, of the flashlight of
the intellect being turned on life and
on a few human beings, which are
then revealed to us with a bright reality. 
Her people, in spite of their 
domesticity and their large families,
seem hardly at all concerned in that
major occupation of humanity, passing 
on life to other people, or even 
with the minor occupations that are
incident to this. They seem to be concerned 
chiefly with something that is
happening in their minds. Her women
characters are all intellectuals, even
when they aren’t in the least erudite,
passing their lives in reverie, as intellectual 
women so frequently do in old
countries, dreaming their lives away,
not bustling on to some sort of achievement 
as they do in America. For this
reason her women are all fascinating,
with a fascination that the intellectual
woman has always had in real life 
when her intellect and her learning are
an integral, unassumed part of her and
do not stand out with the obviousness
and the prickliness of quills on a porcupine. 
She can portray as no other living 
writer can these charming modern
intellectual women, mysteriously sunk
into themselves, revolving within their
minds the mysteriousness of life, like
Mrs. Ramsay in “To the Lighthouse,”
feeling “alone with her old protagonist
—life.” All of them are disappointed
in some way, all unhappy in some way,
as perhaps everybody is in this world
who is not a clod of earth. They can be
affectionate mothers, absorbed mothers,
but they seem to be mothers, incidentally, 
in spite of the children who
are forever hanging to their skirts, being 
read to, being soothed, being petted.
Virginia Woolf can create like no other
writer an atmosphere of cultivated
English domesticity, that family life
which is so different from American
family life and which is in so many 
respects common to all old countries—
that English family life where every-
body is a distinct and separate individuality, 
with his own reserves, his
own private happinesses and unhappinesses, 
his own interior life, his own
loneliness—a household where there
are doors to every room that close
tightly and where people do not 
casually call each other by their Christian 
names. Within this family life
her people are all natural and have no
attitudes. “But we who have a private
life and hold it infinitely the dearest
of our possessions,” she writes in one
of her critical essays, “suspect nothing
so much as an attitude. Directly we
begin to protest, to attitudinize, to lay

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down laws, we perish. We are living 
for others, not for ourselves.”

In this new book of hers, “To the
Lighthouse,” she takes the family of 
the Ramsays in their summer home in 
the Hebrides and displays them in their
everyday lives and occupations. There
is their guest, Lily Briscoe; there is 
their guest Mr. Tansley, who used to 
keep saying, “Women can’t write,
women can’t paint;” there is old Mr.
Carmichael, who knew strange Oriental 
languages and had written poetry
about the desert and the camel to
which nobody had paid any attention 
for forty years, and then suddenly
everybody began to talk about it. Then
there are the eight Ramsay children and
Mr. Ramsay, all of whom seem somehow 
to be intolerable interruptions to
the reveries of Mrs. Ramsay. There is
James, who always wanted to stick a
knife in his father; Prue, who was so
beautiful; Rose, who was so wonderful
with her hands; Jasper, who would 
shoot the birds; Nancy and Roger, who 
were so wild; Andrew, who had a talent
for mathematics; Cam, who was always
made happy by a tenpenny doll’s tea
set. There was Mr. Ramsay himself,
who, when he was young, had written
one little book that was a contribution 
to human thought, and since that many 
books which were not quite so good,
so that he was forever harassed with
the fear that nothing he wrote would
live after him. We see him in the
eyes of his children an egoist; in the
eyes of Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe
always looking for sympathy.

The first part of the book is the
reverie of Mrs. Ramsay, the last part
the reverie of Lily Briscoe, and the
difference between the content of the
minds of these two women, of their
types of mentality, is really a triumph
of creative skill. Lily Briscoe is so 
kind hearted, in love with all the Ramsays, 
a little in love with every one, 
all her mental processes commonplace
with the occasional high-falutin’ intellectualities 
of the intelligent common-
place mind. Lily is always trying to 
paint, struggling for some raison
d’être for her painting, “one wanted
to be on a level with ordinary experience, 
to feel simply that’s a chair,
that’s a table, and at the same time
it’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.” So
mumbles Lily to herself, and we are
made to know, as if the knowledge was
wafted to us on air, that nothing ever
was or ever will be a miracle to Lily.
We see her complacently laying down 
her brush at the end, saying to herself: 
“I have had my vision.” It is
the very last sentence in the book,
and Mrs. Ramsay has been dead for 
years and years, for over half the 
book, but that last sentence of Lily’s
more than anything else, makes us
realize the marvelous distinction of
Mrs. Ramsay and fills us with an intolerable 
loneliness for that rare and 
beautiful mind of Mrs. Ramsay, who,
with all the eight children around her,
had that habit of saying to herself,
“What have I done with my life,” and
that other habit of “feeling alone with 
her old protagonist—life.”

The actual happenings of “To the
Lighthouse,” such as the death of Mrs.
Ramsay or Andrew being killed in the
war, are related in short sentences in
brackets to avoid, as it were, interrupting 
the flow of the reveries and 
the stream of life which, as in our
actual daily existence, goes on somehow, 
no matter what happens. The 
life of the Ramsays seems to be all 
Mrs. Ramsay, and then, with Mrs. 
Ramsay dead, life somehow goes on—
incredibly goes on without her.

The middle section of the book,
called “Time Passes,” is so exquisitely
written that it is, as it were, spun out
of fire and air, out of wind and water,
and has the intangible beauty of a 
long, highly sustained poem. Take the
description of the little winds of night-

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time that roam through the Ramsay
household when all are in bed and

Nothing stirred in the drawing
room or in the dining room or on
the staircase. Only through the 
rusty hinges and swollen sea-
moistened woodwork certain airs
detached from the body of the wind
(the house was ramshackle after
all) crept round corners and ventured 
indoors. Almost one might
imagine them, as they entered the
drawing room questioning and wondering, 
toying with the flap of hanging 
wallpaper, asking would it hang
much longer, when would it fall?
Then smoothly brushing the walls,
they passed on musingly as if asking 
the red and yellow roses on the
wall paper whether they would fade.
… So some random light directing
them with its pale footfall upon the
stair and mat, from some uncovered
star or wandering ship, or the lighthouse 
even, the little airs mounted
the staircase and nosed round the 
bedroom doors…. Upon which 
wearily, ghostily, as if they had
feather-light fingers and the light 
persistency of feathers, they would 
look once on the shut eyes and the
loosely clasping fingers and fold
their garments wearily and disappear….  
At length, desisting,
all ceased together, gathered together, 
all sighed together; all together gave 
off an aimless gust of
lamentation to which some door in
the kitchen replied; swung wide, 
admitted nothing and slammed to.

“Everything is the proper stuff of
fiction,” she says in her book of criticism, 
“The Common Reader,” “every
feeling, every thought; every quality
of brain”—and so, out of every feeling, 
every thought, even out of the
little airs; the little winds of night-
time she makes her fiction. She writes 
the subtle English of one whose ancestors 
for generations had made the language 
an easy garment with which to
clothe their minds’ expression. There
are few living writers whose prose is
so full of charm and whimsicality, and,
at the same time, so direct and sincere
because of her mind’s reality—that
reality which is, perhaps, the rarest
of all mental endowments—and which
makes her mind so peculiarly the mind
of a critic.

As we look down the list of her
books, from the first one called “The
Voyage Out,” which had a sort of
spontaneity which she never quite captured 
again, we see that in each of 
them she has attained some unique,
if quite ungaudy distinction. We 
wonder at how good they are, and at
the same time, we cannot help wondering 
why they are not even better. We 
wonder not quite so much at why Virginia 
Woolf’s books are not better—
we wonder really why womens’ books
in general are not better. How is it
that so few women writers have ever
climbed to that lofty peak where the 
greatest men writers are? “Women
can’t write, women can’t paint,” says
the cranky Mr. Tansley in this book
of Virginia Woolf’s. We know he is
wrong, of course, yet we are harassed
by his remark. Women can write,
women can paint. But why have only
two or three women in the history of
literature ever reached to the stars—
ever reached that height where
strength of intellect and strength of
feeling are so equally blended that
they become one—that plane where
heart and mind are both so powerful
and so powerfully in tune that what 
one wills the other wills—that combination 
of both which produces not 
only the colossal things like the Divine
Comedy and Antony and Cleopatra,
but which gives small things like Drayton’s 
sonnet, “The Parting,” and Cory’s
“Heraclitus,” and Landor’s “Past ruined
Ilion Helen lives” such lasting and
moving greatness? Why among women
poets is it only Sappho who has
achieved this thing—this sort of greatness 
which we recognize at once in the

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few lines of her verse that are left
to us—that something which made what
she wrote, not simply personal to herself, 
but so generally moving to all
mankind that she has survived the
ruin of Greece as Catullus has survived
the ruin of Rome? If women had never
entered the arts at all many convincing 
reasons could be given which would
entirely explain their abstention, but
the difficult thing to explain is why 
having entered the arts they have so 
seldom scaled the heights or sounded
the depths. They have achieved real
solidity a few times as in Jane Austen
and George Eliot. But how often have
the heights of ecstasy been attained 
by them? Perhaps only twice, once
by a Greek woman who if she had
lived among us would probably be 
an outcast sinner and the other a 
forlorn Celt in exile on the Yorkshire 
moors. Why, when they want to write 
a love poem, do they babble little
pseudo-pathetic verses like Christina
Rosetti’s “When I am dead, my dearest,” 
full of self-pity and egoistic infantile 
emotions, without genuine reality? 
“All the golden love-letters have
been written by women,” says Havelock
Ellis in one of his essays. This may
be true, but all the golden love poems,
nearly all the golden poems of any
kind ever written, have been written 
by men. After all, the explanation
may be simple—probably is simple:
that circumstances refused to permit
women to become adults emotionally 
and intellectually. No emotion is 
grown up if it is one which merely
turns you in on yourself—it is not
really grown up unless it gives you a 
clew to something in the universe.

Not very many grown human beings
are really adults; very few think like
adults, still fewer feel like adults. It
has been both the pain and the privilege 
of the great artists that they
were adults in both mind and heart—
that they had the potentiality of experiencing 
life to the full. What is experience 
of life for one person may not
be experience for another: however we
do know that while what are called 
the universal experiences may for one
sort of person mean exactly nothing at
all, for another, the simplest event,
like breaking a leg or reading a book
may be the clew to the mysteries of 
the universe. All the pathetically
adolescent, ungrown-up faces we see in
the subway or on the street, are the
faces of men and women who have
been through what are called the great
commonplaces of life; they may have
known them all, but life itself they
have never known. There is a substitute 
for almost everything else—a substitute 
for love, a substitute for happiness, 
a substitute for fame, but for
life itself there is no substitute.

Women have always been offered by
men the universal experiences, but it
is because these have too rarely meant
life that so few women have been great
artists. But what life is—that is the
secret that is so hard to know. But 
there is one thing we do know about
it—that when any man or woman captures 
it and gives it to us in the shape 
of a poem, or a story, or a picture, in
no matter what small degree, we respond 
to it with our whole being; when
it is given to us in a large degree
whole generations of men respond to
it and the giver is rewarded with immortal