Charles R. Walker, “Civilized People in Life and Fiction.” The Independent. May 28, 1927, p.567.

Woolf. New York: Harcourt, Brace
& Co. $2.50

LUCKILY, even a reviewer does not
construct his picture of contemporary 
life solely from fiction. If he
did, it would be monotonously barbaric.
One has the impression from the bulk of
recent novels, that the civilized man, or
woman, has ceased to exist. Certainly man
as a conventional being has lost his entrails 
and all the hæmoglobin in his blood.
He has been reduced to a kind of eunuch,
or fanaticized into a fundamentalist
against whom released egos, with or without 
psychology, disport. Yet it is a fact
patent to observation that despite war
and every variety of disintegration,
thousands of persons preserve civilized
values, and millions, conventional ones.
Mrs. Woolf is interesting and significant
for a number of reasons. One of them is
that she writes about the souls of such
people. She writes about them with a 
freshness of technique and a critical 
vitality that has won her a place with the
moderns. With Joyce and with Proust!
One might say this Englishwoman is the
“leading novelist” of the civilized mind
—especially the British variety. Think of
the long procession of her men and women
who possess brain fibre. Of the Greek professor 
in “The Voyage Out,” who continued 
to edit Pindar methodically in the
tropics, of the young lady in “Night and
Day,” daughter of a famous English poet,
who solved Calculus problems secretly
in her room. Recall the conventionally
and unconventionally cultured men and
women who move in out of Mrs.
Dalloway’s drawing-room. And now, in
“To the Lighthouse,” there is, as we 
would expect, the defiant and embarrassed
student, Charles Tansley, who “writes
dissertations,” Lily Briscoe, who paints—
to be sure somewhat secretly and badly—
and Mr. Ramsay himself admirable and
half pitiable, who made a “contribution
to human knowledge” when he was
twenty-five years old. (His later books
haven’t been “quite as good.”) He has a 
magnificent mind, but, unfortunately,
eight children.

IT is a mark of a novelist of the first
rank that his work can be intensively
identified with a single group, class, or
countryside, and yet not limited by it.
Human emotions generally, and yours and
mine, seem the more universal when seen
through such an author because of the
very narrowing of his material. It is of
course a narrowing to the utterly, the

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instinctively known. It was so with Jane
Austen. It is so with Virginia Woolf.

How, then, is this woman with her fresh
and hardy delicacy of style, and with her 
themes about professors and cabinet
ministers’ wives and philosophy, a modern? 
Where is her kinship with the Irishman, 
James Joyce, and the Frenchman,
Marcel Proust? First, she is a modern in
subject matter; her intellectuals are

[image of Woolf, captioned:]
Courtesy Harcourt, Brace & Co.

modern, even when old-fashioned, and
their creator infinitely aware of all the
most contemporary things of the modern
world. It is very hard to find any kind of
thought or feeling of which Virginia Woolf
through her characters is not intensely
and very freshly aware. And in her manner 
of writing, she dives as Proust and 
Joyce have done into the clear and turgid
stream of mental consciousness. She 
brings up a different assortment of “wish 
thoughts” and sea shells in her net, however, 
and she translates them into a 
peculiarly personal language. A girl’s
falling out of love with a man, a baby’s 
universe suffering coloration under the
influence of the voice tones of the mother,
the quality of intellectual courage, the
feeling one has after a dance, the feeling
one has after finishing the writing of a 
history of English literature, the love of
two lonely people who love and continue 
lonely—these are some of the shells in 
the net.

For all her writing in the modern way,
in the stream-of-consciousness school, in
every novel there is a story,—not always
told but always implicit,—there are 
characters, poetry, and suspense. For always 
there runs in Mrs. Woolf’s blood the
long tradition of English novel writing.
She takes into her technique—or finds
existent in it—fragments of Dickens’
mind and Jane Austen’s. Yet she is also

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in debt and rather heavily to the author of

“To the Lighthouse” is done with 
roughly the same blend of technique that
was employed in “Mrs. Dalloway.”
The author succeeds almost uncannily in
dipping into the deepest streams of revery,
as Proust might, yet moving the story
faster, coming up oftener, and looking
rapidly into one person’s revery and then
into another’s—often on the same page
as Joyce almost never does—and coming
up completely every now and then for air
and a declarative sentence.

The first half of the book is the story of
the Ramsays and their guests, Lily Briscoe 
who paints, and Charles Tansley who 
writes dissertations, and William Bankes,
a bachelor luxuriating in celibate egoism,
and all the eight children: Prue, for example, 
who was so beautiful, and Andrew,
who was good at mathematics. They are
all summering in a ramshackle house in
the Hebrides; they are all planning a trip
to the lighthouse—the entire book hinges
around this essential triviality—and
they all move in and out of each other’s
lives by means of trivial events tiny and
important. Chiefly, however, the first
part of the book is concerned with the
inner life of Mr. Ramsay, who wrestles
with intellectual problems while looking
at the geraniums, and is interrupted by
his children, though comforted by his 
wife, and remains lonely and somewhat
pitiable. And by the inner life of Mrs. 
Ramsay who knits, and reads aloud to
James, and worries over debts, and comforts 
Mr. Ramsay; she is worshiped by 
all her guests, finds herself disturbingly
superior to her husband, is lonely, and
possesses qualities that are inexpressible,
but can be rudely translated as heroic.

THE second part of the book, with an
exquisite interlude between, is concerned 
largely with Lily Briscoe’s revery.
Ten years have passed, Mrs. Ramsay has
suddenly died, Andrew has been killed in
the war; these events are told briefly in
short sentences, inclosed in brackets. The
main narrative becomes the inner life of
Lily Briscoe with glimpses, too, into the
inner life of Mr. Ramsay, more lonely in
one way since his wife’s death but somehow 
less pitiable. The book is really the
story of several people facing life—and
death—alone, as everyone in a measure
ultimately does face it.

To find some other woman writer with
whom to compare Mrs. Woolf’s achievement 
in fiction, it is necessary, I believe,
to go back to the Brontës or to the immortal 
Jane Austen, herself.