“I was not so bad as Carlyle, was I?”

by Eric Byrd

Edgar_Degas_Portrait_of_DurantyReading To the Lighthouse I was especially struck by her treatment of what Henry James calls, in his preface to The Tragic Muse, “the artist-life,” as a “human complication and social stumbling block.” The tension of contemplative withdrawal and selfless attention, the janicular simultaneity of egoism – egoism as a revelation of spirit, egoism as a spiritual imposition — struck James, and it seems to have struck Woolf, “as one of the half-dozen great primary motives.” Both James and Woolf were children of voluminous Victorians, would-be sages attended by disciples but fundamentally dependent on their wives; philosophers who had to be supported while they wrote and brooded. On patriarchal needs, the memoirs seem to intersect:

He needed always a woman to sympathize, to flatter, to console. Why? Because he was conscious of his failure as a philosopher, as a writer. But his creed made him ashamed to confess this need of sympathy to men. The attitude that his intellect made him adopt with men, made him the most modest, most reasonable of men. Vanessa, on Wednesdays, was the recipient of much discontent that he had suppressed; and her refusal to accept her role, part slave, part angel of sympathy, exacerbated him so that he was probably unconscious of his own barbarous violence…

(“A Sketch of the Past”)

We simply lived by her, in proportion as we lived spontaneously, with an equanimity of confidence…which left us free for detachments of thought and flights of mind, experiments, so to speak, on the assumption of our genius and our intrinsic interest, that I look back upon as to a luxury of the unworried that is scarce of this world. This was a support on which my father rested with the absolute whole of his weight…

All which is imaged for me while I see our mother listen, at her work, to the full music of the 'papers.' She could do that by the mere force of her complete availability, and could do it with a smoothness of surrender that was like an array of all the perceptions.

(Notes of a Son and Brother)

Mr. Ramsay rests on his wife with the absolute whole of his weight. He imposes his hunger for sympathy tactlessly, childishly, to the rage and impatience of the actual children. Mrs. Ramsay wonders if her husband thinks he would have written better books had he not married (Nietzsche said the married philosopher “belongs in a comedy”).

A bachelor Ramsay would appear less ridiculous and tyrannical, if only for lack of alienated witnesses and resentful victims. Mr. Ramsay is that awkward figure, the ascetic turned householder, divested “of all those glories of isolation and austerity which crowned him in his youth to cumber himself definitely with fluttering wings and clucking domesticities”; “venerable and laughable at one and the same time,” the grand chords of his philosophic style — gleeful grimness, saturnine humor, a facilely apocalyptic phrasemaking — condemned to sound deranged or merely churlish in the voice of a father speaking to his wife and children.

“Poor little place,” he murmured with a sigh. She heard him. He said the most melancholy things, but she noticed that directly he had said them he always seemed more cheerful than usual. All this phrase-making was a game, she thought, for if she had said half what he said, she would have blown her brains out by now.

In 1878 Henry James met Woolf's newlywed parents, Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Stephen, and wrote Alice of his surprise that so charming a woman had “consented to become, matrimonially,” the receptacle of Stephen's “ineffable and impossible taciturnity and dreariness.”

The “artist-life” is a deeper “complication and social stumbling block” for the woman who would claim that exemption from domestic regard granted her society's artistic and intellectual men. Lily Briscoe is deeply moved by Mrs. Ramsay as the Angel in the House. She sees in that performance something artful and time-arresting; and, in the great dinner scene, she briefly tries the role herself, smoothing and supporting the awkward blurtings of Mr. Ramsay's disciple Charles Tansley. But Lily needs to paint. She needs solitude to get down to her depths and “make the shapes square up,” to tunnel her way “into her picture, into the past.” She needs the hermitical aloofness claimed by Mr. Ramsay but most radically exemplified by the poet Augustus Carmichael, another holiday houseguest from before the war, a slipper-shod fin de siècle opium taker turned Great War elegist with whom Lily shares a spell of incommunicable communion in the last hours of the book, out on the terrace, Carmichael reptilianly basking, dangling a French novel, “gorged on existence,” Lily silent at her easel, still struggling to translate Mrs. Ramsay into the “color content” by which the dead mother will resume what Rilke in the Letters on Cézanne calls “a new existence in a beyond of color, without any previous memories.” In the seasons of the book Lily and Augustus were aloof but intense, wallflowers on whom nothing was lost, and both bear, after the lapse of years and many lives, eloquent images of the family's dead—Lily Mrs. Ramsay, Carmichael young Andrew lost in the trenches. “The artist secretes nostalgia around life,” Cyril Connolly said.