From Book to Book: A Meredithian Reading of To the Lighthouse


George Meredith as caricatured by Max Beerbohm in Vanity Fair, September 1896

by Andre Gerard

I hope that, like me, you enjoy reading other people’s letters, as this essay depends heavily on personal correspondence. By means of letters I want to make a case that the conception of Mr. Carmichael in To the Lighthouse owes a great deal to George Meredith. Indeed, in some ways Woolf’s novel can be read as a tribute to Meredith, and reading it as such can generate new insights as to characterisations, plot, and themes.

My starting point for this exploration is the following quotation from Jane Marcus: “I often think how much Woolf’s poet Carmichael in To The Light­house is Meredith.” The quotation comes from “Clio in Calliope”: History and Myth in Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways”, a 1976 paper by Marcus published in the Bulletin of the New York Public Library.

Marcus goes on to cite two letters by George Meredith. The first letter is one in which Meredith is strongly critical of Julia Stephen for signing and publically supporting Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s 1889 anti-suffrage petition (in the Nineteenth Century). Meredith begins this letter

Dear Mrs. Leslie, — I hope I have done right — I can scarcely doubt it. Leslie has a double, and I have had it proclaimed that the Mrs. L. Stephen in agitation against the suffrage for women, is the wife of the False Leslie. For it would be to accuse you of the fatuousness of a Liberal Unionist, to charge the true Mrs. Leslie with this irrational obstructiveness. (June 13th, 1889)

In the second letter quoted by Marcus, Meredith is again critical of Mrs. Stephen. In it, he writes

How much I should like to be with him, you and the children on your dazzling blue borders of sea, and observe Thoby’s first recreancy! — before his father has taught him that he must act the superior, and you have schooled the little maids to accept the fact supposed: for it is largely (I expect you to dissent) a matter of training. Courage is proper to women, if it is trained, as with the infant man. (August 23rd, 1884)

Marcus’ point is that just as Mr. Carmichael sees through Mrs. Ramsay’s earth-mother pose and is critical of her, so too George Meredith was critical of Mrs. Leslie Stephen. Busy as she was exploring Meredith’s use of myth and history in Diana of the Crossways, Marcus does not further develop the Meredith Carmichael associations. In what follows, I want to extend and elaborate on Jane Marcus’s insights, and like her I want to begin with the Letters of George Meredith.

The Letters of George Meredith, collected and edited by his son, were published in October of 1912. On November 8th, 1912, Lytton Strachey wrote the following to Virginia:

Will you at any rate write to me? I hardly think so. You always say you love writing letters, but you never do it. The inconsistency of your sex, I suppose. Yours would be more soothing to read than George Meredith’s. What do you think? I opened that volume just before I left Belsize yesterday, and was so nauseated by the few sentences that met my eye, that I shut it up, put it down, and deliberately left it behind, so if you want it you must ask them to send it you. Nothing will induce me to read another word the man wrote. Is it prejudice, do you think, that makes us hate the Victorians, or is it the truth of the case? They seem to me a set of mouthing bungling hypocrites; but perhaps really there is a baroque charm about them which will be discovered by our great-great-grandchildren, as we have discovered the charm of Donne, who seemed intolerable to the 18th century. Only I don’t believe it, Thackeray and G. Meredith will go the way of Calprenede & Scudery; they’ll be curious relics in 50 years.
(Virginia Woolf and Lyton Strachey: Letters, 1956, Letter from Lytton Strachey to Virginia Woolf, Nov. 8th, 1912)

Lytton’s letter did not deter Virginia from reading the letters for herself. Some six months after receiving Strachey’s letter, on April 11th, 1913, she wrote a letter to Violet Dickinson, and in it she commented:

I’ve never met a writer who didn’t nurse an enormous vanity, which at last made him unapproachable like Meredith, whose letters I am reading—who seems to me as hard as an old crab at the bottom of the sea.

Like Strachey’s, Virginia’s letter seems disparaging of Meredith, yet it is also likely that Virginia, as she so often was, is being disingenuous, that she is hiding or cloaking deeper feelings behind a mask of criticism.

Certainly, within Meredith’s letters there were many to move and affect her very deeply. Three letters, in particular, printed sequentially, would have been hard for Virginia to read. The first, written just a few days before his death, is by Leslie Stephen to George Meredith:

My very dear Friend, — I must make the effort to write to you once more with my own hand. I cannot trust to anybody else to say how much I value your friendship, and I must send you a message, perhaps it may be my last, of my satisfaction and pride in thinking of your affection for me. Your last bunch of violets is deliciously scenting my prisonhouse.
— Always your  L. Stephen  (early February 1904)

Meredith’s answering letter, dated Feb 14th, 1904, reads:

My dearest Leslie, — Your letter gave me one of the few remaining pleasures that I can have. I rejoice in your courage and energy. Of the latter I have nothing left. Since last September I have not held a pen, except perforce to sign my name. It seems that I was near the end — ‘within view,’ my London doctor said. A meddlesome fellow thought himself professionally bound to practise an injection on my arm, and the heart was roused to resume its labours. So here I am, of no use to any one — even unable to take the chance of seeing you. I have been at Givons with Mariette for four months and more, and return to Box Hill in March. Vanessa’s reports of you have kept me in touch with the house. We who have loved the motion of 1egs and the sweep of the winds, we come to this. But for myself, I will own that it is the Natural order. There is no irony in Nature. God bless and sustain you, my friend. — George Meredith.

That letter is then followed by one from Meredith to Vanessa Stephen. It is dated February 24th, two days after Leslie’s death:

My Dearest Vanessa, — Heaven has blest us by making the end painless. It was inevitable, I knew, and I had the shock of my grief when I was told of the malady. One of the most beloved of my friends has gone from sight, and though I feel that he remains with me and has his lasting place in our literature, this day’s news darkens my mind. Last Autumn I was near to going. The loss of my friend spurs the wish that I had preceded him. He was the one man in my knowledge worthy of being mated with your mother. I could not say more of any man’s nobility. If it were possible for me to move I would be among you to-morrow. May you be sustained. My prayers are with you all. — George Meredith

The letters between Leslie and Meredith testify to a deep and long lasting friendship. The two men were close friends for just over 36 years. They first met in Vienna in 1866. At the time, Meredith, who was thirty-eight, was scraping a living as a journalist and as a literary adviser for the publishing firm of Chapman and Hall, a position he was to hold until 1894. He had already achieved some literary success with his oriental romance, The Shaving of Shagpat, his novel, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, and his psychological sonnet sequence, “Modern Love.” The latter, as was The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, was based on Meredith’s unhappy and rather tragic marriage to Mary Ellen Peacock, daughter of Thomas Love Peacock.

It was perhaps this marriage, as much as the shared love of literature, nature and hiking which brought the two men together. Meredith’s marriage to Mary Ellen Peacock had ended badly, and he was now two years remarried, but no doubt he would have been intrigued to discover that his new acquaintance was, as it were, walking in his romantic footprints. Just before coming to Vienna, Leslie Stephen had spent three delightful days in the Alps, busy hiking and falling in love with Harriet Minnie Thackeray, daughter of William Makepeace, and before the end of the year Harriet and Leslie would be engaged.

Leslie was over four years younger than Meredith, and he was just feeling his way towards a literary career by working as a journalist and essayist. His only significant publication at that point was The Times and the American War, a sharp critique of the reporting on the American Civil War.  Likely, Leslie already knew about Meredith and his poetry. In later life, at any rate, he could recite great chunks of Meredith.

Over the years, the friendship between the two men deepened, so much so that when Meredith wrote The Egoist in 1879, he paid homage to Leslie by using him as the model of the major minor character Vernon Whitford, who is described as “a lean long walker and scholar,” and, who in his thirties, wins Clara Middleton’s heart by having “a temper honestly coltish and manfully open” and by being a man “who would not flatter and could not be flattered.” He was also an Alpinist and has spent several months in America. In short, the portrait of Vernon Whitford is so like the younger Leslie Stephen that in 1932, when Virginia Woolf wrote her patremoir essay “My Father: Leslie Stephen,” she quoted from The Egoist, saying that “Meredith saw him as ‘Phoebus Apollo turned fasting friar’ in his younger days.”

For Virginia growing up, Meredith was a constant and rather important figure. He was a regular visitor, both in London and St. Ives, and in 1887 he even rented a St. Ives house for a whole month so as to be close to the Stephens. The Stephen family would also visit him at Box Hill. In “A Sketch of the Past”, Virginia remembers:

the way in which both father and mother conveyed that a visit to Meredith was something altogether out of the way. Both shared a reverence for genius. The reverence impressed me. And the eccentricity, the individuality: how Meredith dropped rounds of lemon into his tea. (Moments of Being, p.136)

Reading Meredith’s letters would have revived many personal memories for Virginia. Meredith took a keen interest in the Stephen children, and at least half a dozen letters to Julia or to Leslie refer to them. Take, for instance, this one dated September 3rd, 1885:

To-day is a procession in heaven of the whole army of clouds, from your quarter, and I have a vision of tyrant Thoby and protesting Nessa on the sands, with the remoter philosopher’s expression of his profoundest thoughts in pipe-smoke. Would I were near and unburdened! Our love to you all.   — Your faithful George Meredith.  Or this one, dated December 25th, 1892My dear Mrs. Leslie, — You would rejoice us by coming. But I am concerned to think of the dulness here, and would propose February for you, when also poor Cole is prouder of his garden, and the journey by rail is not a probation. There must be no thought of subjecting Thoby to it. Let him send me a compliment now and come when we can amuse him a little. I have to confess that my heart is fast going to Virginia.

The picture we get of Meredith is of a close family friend, one who took a deep and generous interest in all aspects of the Stephen family’s life. He was in many ways an uncle to the family, close to both the parents and the children. Just how close is evident upon Thoby’s death.

George Meredith to W. M. Meredith, Nov. 23, 1906

The death of Thoby Stephen has much clouded me. —

Four days later, on November 27th, writing to his friend Edward Clodd, Meredith wrote:

I am distressed by the death of Thoby Stephen, Leslie’s eldest son, a bright young fellow — poisoned by something in Greece, hence enteric, then peritonitis.

Though not included in Meredith’s published letters, Virginia also had in her possession a letter which Meredith had sent to her on November 22, two days after Thoby’s death:

Dearest Virginia,

You will know that among your friends I am one, with my whole heart close to you in your present great affliction. The loss of this bright young life is felt by me as if it had been a part of mine. I cannot pretend to offer consolation, for much sad experience tells me that it deals in this world to sufferer incapable of understanding it. Fortitude you will have inherited from father and mother. The sense that the hearts of your friends are about you may help; it will be warm with you later. Vanessa’s recovery is a flying gleam in our darkness. I cannot be near you personally in the last offices. My mind you will have then and always. Speak of me to Vanessa and Adrian.

–George Meredith
(Selected Letters of George Meredith, ed. Mohammad Shaheen, 1997)

At this point in my exploration, I want to step back a little. One of the aims of this paper is to make the case that Mr. Carmichael owes a lot to Meredith, and I think I am now in a position to sum up the evidence:

1) Mr. Carmichael and Mr. Ramsay, like Meredith and Leslie Stephen are old friends.

2) Mr. Carmichael, like Meredith, occasionally joins his friend’s family for their summer holiday.

3) Mr. Carmichael, like Meredith, is a poet.

4) Mr. Carmichael’s occasionally testy relationship with Mrs. Ramsay parallels Meredith’s occasionally critical relationship with Julia Stephen.

5) The deep loss felt by Mr. Carmichael on learning of Andrew’s sudden death corresponds to what Meredith felt on hearing about Thoby’s death from typhoid.

6) Meredith wrote Leslie Stephen into The Egoist as the selfless, upright, honourable Vernon Whitford. Virginia must have relished returning the compliment by playfully writing Meredith into To the Lighthouse as the august, inscrutable, shamanistic figure of Mr. Carmichael.

In addition to these six parallels, at least two more that can be made. First, like Meredith in his first marriage, Mr. Carmichael is struggling with a difficult marriage. He seemingly has been kicked out of his home.

Secondly, and more playfully, Mr. Carmichael’s ability to speak Persian connects to Meredith’s first novel, The Shaving of Shagpat, which tells the story of how Shibli Bagarag, nephew to the renowned Baba Mustapha, chief barber to the Court of Persia, came to shave Shagpat.

To see Mr. Carmichael as a tribute to George Meredith invites a reappraisal of To the Lighthouse. I would argue that Virginia’s engagement with him was far more than biographical. In To the Lighthouse, Meredith is also thematically and stylistically important. Although space limitations don’t allow me to explore all Meredithian elements in detail, before concluding I want to look at a few more allusive traces which, when identified, add to our understanding and enjoyment of Virginia’s novel.

The first and strongest trace is found in Minta Doyle’s name. Almost every name in To the Lighthouse has at least one, if not several, historical or literary connections. William Bankes, for instance, can plausibly be seen as referencing the historic Joseph Bankes, the owner of Kingston Lacy; Sir Joseph Bankes, the botanist; Macbeth’s Banquo; and the river banks between which the lily wavers in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. In the case of Minta, the likely connection is to Lord Ormont and His Aminta, a late Meredithian novel in which the heroine abandons a demeaning marriage to find fulfilment in an adulterous relationship.

The second trace is a Shakespearian one. Both To the Lighthouse and “Modern Love’ include strong echoes of Macbeth, and there is a strong probability that Meredith is at least partly responsible for the To the Lighthouse Macbeth presence. Mr and Mrs. Ramsay looking “at each other down the long table sending these questions and answers across, each knowing exactly what the other felt,” are close kin to “Modern Love’s” painfully disaffected, married couple whose warm-lighted looks in stanza 17 “[s]hoot gaily o’er the dishes and the wine.”

To see Macbeth filtered through Meredith expands and reshapes Macbeth implications in To the Lighthouse. Beyond its tragic Shakespearean aspect, Macbeth now acquires an ironic charge and invites deeper thought about conceptions and perceptions of marriage. Far more attention must be paid to the skeletons a marriage hides, and to the ways in which a marriage knot can bind. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay thoughts and actions need to be scrutinized against the ironies of “Modern Love.”

My third and concluding trace is found is found in Mrs. Ramsay’s “But you’ll have to be up with the lark.” The idiom is so ubiquitous and ordinary as to seem incidental. However, almost nothing in Virginia’s writing is incidental. Always remembering that at the end of the novel Mr. Carmichael stands godlike beside Lily, and indeed seems to her to crown the occasion, it is very probable that the lark reference was subtly meant to invoke George Meredith’s famous poem, “The Lark Ascending,” as well as Shelley’s “To a Skylark.”

Read against “The Lark Ascending”, for me the novel becomes even more celebratory, more lyrical than previous internal versions. I feel it more as a triumphant ascent, a singing of the sap and of “the better hearts of men”; a ripening of “human pleasure” and an instilling of “love of earth.” The filter of the poem subtly corrects and counterbalances more sombre or ponderously philosophical readings of the novel. To the Lighthouse contains a lot of darkness, yet ultimately it, too, extends the world and helps the fancy sing.

Of course Meredith’s poem also sounds darker notes, and these too contribute to a revision of To the Lighthouse’s score. The lark links “all hearers in the song they drink,” including those whose lives are defaced “by many a battle-dint” and by “grinding wheels on flint.” Their lives yield substance for the lark’s song, just as countless scientists, poets, philosophers and novelists provide the substance out of which Virginia composed To the Lighthouse. And also in the poem, as with Woolf’s novel, a major key to the accomplishment is “self-forgetfulness,” an abandonment and rejection of the solipsistic, egoistic “I,” and a steady soaring towards increased silence so as to leave the reader’s fancy free to sing. The Charles Tansley “taint of personality” is left behind. Like Meredith’s lark, Woolf’s lighthouse draws on collective “human stores” and, in so doing, shines as a beacon opposed to the primal darkness and savagery also to be found in man.

It is worth noting that the lark reference in To the Lighthouse may also encompass a reference to Vaughan Williams’ use of Meredith’s poem. Most people today, if they know of “The Lark Ascending,” know of it through Vaughan Williams’ symphonic piece with the same name. First produced in Shirehampton in 1920, it was premiered in London on June 14, 1921, by the British Symphony Orchestra under a still young Adrian Boult, and over the years it won an ever larger audience, until, in the second half of the 20th Century, it became what it is today, one of the most, if not the most, popular pieces of classical music in Britain.

The composition history of “The Lark Ascending” is most interesting. Supposedly, Vaughan Williams was working on the piece when WWI started and, though 41 at the time, he put it and much of his music aside to take on an active part in the war effort. After first enlisting in the Special Constabulary of the Metropolitan Police Service, he then became a Wagon Orderly with the Royal Army Medical Corps with whom he served as an ambulance driver in France and Greece. In 1917 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. At the end of the war, he became director of music for the British First Army, a position which he filled until he was demobilized early in 1919. It was only on his return to civilian life that Vaughan Williams completed his “Romance for Violin and Orchestra.” In 1926 the piece was published by Oxford University Press under the title of “The Lark Ascending,” and the score was prefaced with the following 12 lines from Meredith’s poem:

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In cherrup, whistle, slur and shake. …..
For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes. …..
‘Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

Intriguingly, Virginia was related to Vaughan Williams through her cousin Adeline Fisher, who became Williams’ first wife. Hermione Lee records that Adeline was also the closest friend of Stella Duckworth, Virginia’s half-sister and, briefly, surrogate mother. On June 10th, 1897, the fifteen-year old Virginia records the excitement attendant on the engagement of Adeline and Ralph, an engagement happening just two months after the marriage of Stella and Jack Hills; and then on June 17th, along with further details, she writes “Poor Ralph is a calf—according to her–& also, I am afraid, to us—-However they are very much in love, & there is a chance that he has genius” (A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals 1897-1910, p. 101).  Ralph and Adeline were married on October 9th, 1897, at all Saints Church in Hove, and, while Virginia did not attend, her only diary entry for the 4th of October to the 15th of October is dated October 10th, and consists of the words: “Adeline and Ralph are being married as I write.”      Almost certainly, both the gap in Virginia’s diary and her failure to be at Adeline and Ralph’s marriage can be attributed to the tragedy of Stella’s death on July 19th. Also, just as Prue’s sudden death in To the Lighthouse recalls the death of Stella, possibly, just possibly, Ralph and Adeline’s courtship and marriage fused with Stella and Jack’s to plant seeds for Virginia’s treatment of Minta and Paul.

Virginia was also connected to Vaughan Williams through friends. Gwen Raverat, for example. As a Darwin, Gwen was a first cousin of Ralph. Not only that, in 1930 and 1931 Gwen and Ralph worked together to help produce the ballet “Job: A Masque for Dancing,” with Ralph writing the music and Gwen producing the set designs. While there is no mention of Vaughan Williams in the many letters between the Raverats and Virginia, very likely they would have spoken of him.

Whether or not Virginia ever talked or gossiped about Vaughan Williams with friends, she had a strong interest in Ralph’s music. On July 4th, 1897, she records hearing and enjoying a concert of Ralph’s music at St Barnabas Church, South Lambeth, where Ralph was organist. On March 9th 1905 Virginia went to the Aeolian Hall, “a beautiful new Music Hall on Bond Street” to hear Plunkett Greene singing Ralph’s songs. Again on March 13th, 1905, she mentions hearing Vaughan Williams’ music at the home of the Freshfield family. Though her letters and diaries do not specifically record attending other concerts featuring Vaughan Williams’ music, she and Leonard probably did attend such concerts, especially between 1926 and 1929, when Leonard was music critic for the Nation and the Athenaeum. Also in 1925 and 1926, Leonard and Virginia were active subscribing members of the National Gramophonic Society and, according to Emma Sutton (Virginia Woolf and Classical Music: Politics, Aesthetics, Form, 2013) this society did release recordings of works by Vaughan Williams.

Virginia did not attend the London premier of “The Lark Ascending” (after going to a concert on June 10th, 1921, she suffered a severe bout of ill health and spent 60 days enduring “all the horrors of the dark cupboard of illness”), but given her interest in Vaughan Williams, and her knowledge of his music, it is possible that if To the Lighthouse does indeed reference Meredith’s poem the reference also encompasses Vaughan Williams’ piece. Whatever Virginia knew or intended, my To the Lighthouse now includes Meredith’s “The Lark Ascending,” compounded with Vaughan Williams’ and, accordingly, it also brings with it thoughts of Vaughan Williams’ WWI experience. Intended or unintended, I find such thoughts enriching, and I am also pleased to know a little bit more about WWI and about Vaughan Williams.

But back to Meredith. Why did Virginia give her Meredith character the name of Augustus Carmichael? Augustus was never that common a Victorian name, and possibly Virginia intended it to be suggestive of the painter Augustus John. It also, however, connects at two points to Meredith. Firstly, Augustus was the first name of Meredith’s father. Secondly, and this was perhaps expressive of the difficult relationship he had with his father, Meredith used Augustus as the name for Diana’s unpleasant, controlling, first husband in Diana of the Crossways.

As for the use of Carmichael as a surname, a couple of years ago–on the strength of Marie’s notoriety in the 1920’s, as well as her purchasing the Portland lighthouse in 1923, and also because of the Mary Carmichael character in A Room of One’s Own–I speculated that the Carmichael name might be a veiled tribute to Marie Stopes’ strong feminist contribution to science, education and social engineering. Now, glimpsing George Meredith behind Mr. Carmichael, I am more convinced than ever that the Carmichael name was used to bring Marie Stopes to mind. In a January 19 , 1923 letter to Molly McCarthy, Virginia wrote:

I’ve been talking to the younger generation all afternoon. They are like crude hard green apples: no halo, mildew, or blight. Seduced at 15, life has no holes or corners for them. I admire, but deplore. Such an old maid, they make me feel. ‘And how do you manage not- not- not to have children?’ I ask. ‘Oh, we read Mary Stopes of course!’ Figure to yourself my dear Molly—before taking their virginity, the young men of our time produce marked copies of Stopes!’

The book Virginia was referring to was Stopes’ book on the subject of female sexuality, Married Love, and the subject of a notorious trial in 1923. The book’s title played off of Meredith’s “Modern Love,” and, to make the Meredith connection absolutely clear, as an epigraph for her book Stopes used a passage from Diana of the Crossways.

In taking the Carmichael name for her Meredith character, Virginia was confirming the parallel which Marie herself had drawn in Married Love. By so subtly attaching the web of her fiction to life, Virginia was linking past and present reformers. Further by having Mr. Carmichael crown the occasion with his godlike benediction, she was sounding a cautiously optimistic note for the future. The description of him “surging up” “looking like an old pagan god, shaggy, with weeds in his hair and the trident” evokes Meredith’s superb, lyrical scene where Aminta and Weyburn transcend Aminta’s married status and perform old Triton’s rites by swimming in the ocean together. To glimpse, even if “scarcely perceptible”, George Meredith and Marie Carmichael Stopes standing beside Lily Briscoe and Augustus at the end of the novel is to recognize the flashing light of the past, warning of present danger and, perhaps, helping the future to show.



About the Author:

Andre Gerard (@PatremoirPress) is the winner of the 2015 Berfrois Poetry Prize. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.