The Trespasser in the Lighthouse: Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence


Georges Seurat, The Lighthouse at Honfleur, 1886 (detail)

by Andre Gerard

Only for a moment; but it was enough. It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world come closer, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores! Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed. But the close withdrew; the hard softened. It was over–the moment.

— Mrs. Dalloway

I’ve uncovered a new, entirely unexpected Lighthouse tunnel. Think about occasional passages of eroticised prose and the deep, dark unknowability of self and other. Think about James standing stiff between Mrs. Ramsay’s knees, Lily scorched by the heat, horror, cruelty and unscrupulosity of Paul and Minta’s love, and think about the silent struggle between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, with his mind shadowing her mind. Though dark and difficult to follow, such elements suggest the presence of a Lawrence tunnel, a tunnel which, when fully explored, might yield all manner of rich, suggestive material. Earl Ingersoll, Suzanne Henig and, most recently, Benjamin Hagen (The Sensuous Pedagogies of Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence, 2020) have already worked Lawrencian seams in Woolf, yet new drifts are possible. What follows is my attempt to open up a new Lawrence tunnel, starting with excerpts from Virginia Woolf’s letters, diaries and essays. If nothing else, the excerpts show how aware and interested Woolf was in Lawrence.

While there is no record of Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence ever meeting, on two occasions Woolf did glimpse Lawrence. The first time she saw him, he was “swinging a spirit lamp in a shop” at St. Ives (L IV 166-67). The second glimpse came in a moment worthy of Thomas Hardy or Henry James, or, for that matter, of D.H. Lawrence or Virginia Woolf. In a letter to Vanessa Bell from Palermo, on April 9th, 1927, less than a month before the publication of To the Lighthouse, and at a time when Lawrence was working on the final drafts of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Woolf wrote:

Looking out of the carriage window at Civita Vecchia, whom should we see, sitting side by side on a bench, but D.H. Lawrence and Norman Douglas—unmistakable: Lawrence pierced and penetrated; Douglas hog-like and brindled—They were swept off by train one way and we went on to Rome.

[L III 361]

The glimpse was fleeting, yet Virginia was positive in her identification.

If Woolf recognised Lawrence, it was because she had a strong interest in him, an interest both literary and personal. On the personal side Virginia had several friends in common with Lawrence. Most important among these were Katherine Mansfield, Ottoline Morrell and Samuel Koteliansky. Given the closeness of the friendships, it is indeed more than a little surprising that Lawrence and Woolf never met. Koteliansky, for one, brought them into close proximity on several occasions. He and Lawrence co-translated Bunin’s “Gentleman from San Francisco,” which Hogarth Press published in a volume titled The Gentleman From San Francisco and Other Stories (1922). Lawrence, however, did not meet the Woolfs in the process of publication and owing to some confusion his name did not appear on the original title page; whereas Leonard Woolf, who had helped translate the other three stories in the book, was credited.

Already in 1918, Koteliansky had tried to get the Woolf’s to meet Lawrence. In a letter to Vanessa, Woolf wrote:

We met Koteliansky in London, who wanted us to come and meet Lawrence. I’m in two minds–tempted, but alarmed. I sometimes wonder why the intelligent people are so made that one can’t see them without quarrelling—but it seems to be a law. I’m thinking of the Murry’s and Lawrence, not of you and me!

[L II   264]

The following year, again through Koteliansky, the Woolfs were briefly tempted to take Lawrence’s cottages in Zennor and Leonard and Lawrence corresponded on the subject [L II 340 n2].

Whether Woolf ever came close to meeting Lawrence through Mansfield and Murry – close friends who even lived with Lawrence in Cornwall for a couple of months in 1918 – is not known. Similarly, no evidence exists to suggest that Lawrence and Woolf ever came close to meeting through Ottoline Morrell, even if, on November 27th, 1917, Woolf wrote to Vanessa Bell to describe a visit to Garsington where Ottoline “quoted long passages from L.’s novel [The Rainbow], and was very discreet about Katherine” [L II 198].

On the literary side, Woolf started reading Lawrence at least as far back as September, 1912. While honeymooning with Leonard in Spain, Woolf wrote to Ka Cox: “I have thrown aside Crime and Punishment to write to you, having already read the Antiquary, Trespassers, Yonder, the Heir of Redcliffe, not all this afternoon, but since I lost my virginity” [L II 6]. Hard not to marvel at the breadth of Woolf’s reading, hard not to smile at the appropriate irony of her reading the as yet unknown Lawrence on her honeymoon and hard not to laugh at the playful, if perhaps defensive, boldness of her virginity comment.

Though years later, in “Notes on D. H. Lawrence”, Woolf would refer to The Trespasser (1912) as “a hot, scented, overwrought piece of work”, it is likely that even at this relatively early stage in their respective careers she learnt something from Lawrence. For instance, a major stylistic feature of The Trespasser is Lawrence’s antiphonal use of Wagner and “The Ring Cycle”. In Night and Day (1919), Woolf, as Jane Marcus has pointed out (“Enchanted Organs, Magic Bells: Night and Day as Comic Opera,” 1980) , does something similar with Mozart and the “Magic Flute”, using Mozart’s comic opera as a template against which to write her own feminist celebration of love and marriage. Night and Day can even be read as an early rebuttal to Lawrence’s ideas. Where Lawrence embraces a tragic view of love and marriage, Woolf’s vision, even if critical of much in society, is life affirming. Her novel is day to the night of Lawrence’s. Where The Trespasser is a dark and troubled Wagnerian response to the crumbling structures of the patriarchy and the emergence of the “new woman”, Night and Day uses Mozart to joyfully help celebrate emerging possibilities for women.

Elements of The Trespasser also shimmer behind scenes in Mrs. Dalloway. Writing about London in 1928, Lawrence commented that “Twenty years ago, London was to me thrilling, thrilling, thrilling, the vast and throbbing heart of all adventure” and certainly his 1912 Trespasser description of London crackles with a thrilling, lyric intensity. The electricity and excitement of his description is vivid and memorable and there is no doubt in my mind that it stimulated Woolf in her presentation of Dalloway London. The kinetic exhilaration which Siegmund experiences on his return to London throbs repeatedly through Woolf’s descriptions of the bustling thoroughfares of Westminster and its environs. Where Lawrence has “The taxi-cabs, the wild cats of the town”, Woolf has the omnibus “reckless, unscrupulous, bearing down ruthlessly, circumventing dangerously”; where Lawrence has the motor-buses with “their hearts, as it seemed, beating with trepidation”, Woolf has the throb of the motor engines “like a pulse irregularly drumming through an entire body”; and where Lawrence has “the scampering of the traffic” and “the fluttering flame-warmth of soldiers and the quick brightness of women”, Woolf has “the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging”. In Woolf, Lawrence’s soldiers morph into Peter’s “boys in uniform, carrying guns” and Peter stalking the young woman with the red carnation is close kin to Siegfried walking the busy streets and feeling the women glance at him with approval. The erotic charge of Mrs. Dalloway’s London likely owes part of its pulse to the London of The Trespasser, to the “soft swaying and lapping of a poised candle-flame”, along with “the fluttering flame-warmth of soldiers and the quick brightness of women, like lights that clip sharply in a draught”. More soberly, Septimus, feeling the wonder of the world on his slow slide towards sudden suicide, reincarnates Siegmund and relives the London induced euphoria which the latter feels on the way to his own, more measured suicide.

A grave thort strike me: time to abandon scholarly caution and to trade on my amateur status; but, as a pre-emptive defence against a possible act of apophenia (how I love that word), I want to stress that even mistakes can be enlightening. So here I go…whether or not The Trespasser helped Woolf shape Night and Day, there may be glints of Lawrence’s novel in To the Lighthouse. The Isle of Wight setting of The Trespasser may have played a part, even if unconscious, in Woolf’s situating her novel on the Isle of Skye. An Isle for an Isle.

It should be noted that the Isle of Wight was an island well known to Woolf. It was an island to which she had an intense personal connection. Her step-aunt, the novelist Annie Ritchie, lived on the Isle of Wight and, shortly after the death of Julia Stephen in May of 1895, the Stephen family stayed there with “Aunt Anny”, mourning both the loss of their mother and of Talland House and their annual St. Ives holidays. That summer, the Isle of Wight was a substitute for St. Ives. Consequently, Lawrence’s use of the Isle of Wight as a novelistic setting may have subtly influenced Woolf to move her biographical material to a similar island setting, a setting which, even if more remote, would still quite naturally feature tidal pools and dangerous cliffs – as would The Antiquary, which Woolf definitely worked into To the Lighthouse and which, it should be remembered, she was also reading when she read The Trespasser. Anyhow, whatever the literary or literal source of the pools and cliffs, the Isle of Wight, so closely associated with Tennyson, may have provided another reason for Woolf to make use of Tennyson on Skye. Certainly, her treatment of Tennyson is every bit as ironic as Lawrence’s use of “Tennyson’s white marble”.

Lily’s relationship with Mrs. Ramsay might be another Trespasser trace. Lily with “her arms round Mrs. Ramsay’s knees”, Lily “leaning her head on Mrs. Ramsay’s knees”, may owe something to a memory of Louisa and Helena, with Louisa, at the feet of Helena, laying “her arm and her head languishingly on the knee of her friend.” Wondering whether Desmond MacCarthy saw Lawrence behind Mr. A in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf wrote that “He was not in my upper mind; but no doubt was in the lower” [L IV 130]. If Lawrence and The Trespasser were in Woolf’s lower mind while writing the Lily and Mrs. Ramsay passage, then it makes sense that that passage also includes vivid bee and hive imagery and that Mrs. Ramsay is seen as “a purple shape”, “a purple shadow”. Whether a product of the upper or lower, Woolf’s language here echoes that of The Trespasser. Late in Lawrence’s novel, a book full of bee imagery, the evening sky is described as an empty hive, “a hollow dome of purple”, and the hive image is then sustained and expanded by Siegmund thinking of himself as a dying bee. The description is fevered and self-indulgent, expressive of Siegmund’s morbid solipsism as the train brings Helena and him, together yet apart, closer to London and to death. In To the Lighthouse, the language is simpler and the bee and hive imagery is more concise. The emphasis is on trying to connect with others, trying to access their knowledge and wisdom. Where Siegmund can be seen as a blighted, sterile drone, Mrs. Ramsay, seen by Lily as purple and “dome-shaped”, is a nurturing, inspiring object of veneration.

There is also Siegmund’s violin to consider. In a footnote to her 1988 PhD. thesis, “The Influence of Congregationalism on the First Four Novels of D. H. Lawrence”, Jane Margaret Jane Masson observed that the “marvelous ‘Time Passes’ section in To the Lighthouse is strikingly similar—though much more developed—to Lawrence’s idea and technique” of using the slowly decaying violin to evoke Siegmund’s ghostly presence after his death. Masson’s observation is warranted by the similarity in the descriptions. Both writers mark the passage of time by the slow decay of personal objects. Both writers evoke the gradual fading of ghostly presences. In both descriptions, too, the passage of slow time is marked by two, small dramatic events: in The Trespasser you have the snapping of the violin strings – the first heard, the second unheard – and in To the Lighthouse there is first the board springing on the landing, and then there is the fold of the shawl loosening and swinging.

Teasingly, tantalisingly, the “Time Passes” segment makes mention of an actual, even if conjectural, trespasser. Presenting a vision of the decaying house on the verge of collapse, the narrative voice completes the picture by describing how “some trespasser, losing his way, could have told only by a red-hot poker among the nettles, or a scrap of china in the hemlock, that here once some one had lived; there had been a house.” Woolf’s “Craftsmanship” essay comes to mind. Words for Woolf were “irreclaimable vagabonds” and while a trespasser presence is quite natural and plausible in this little scene, Woolf’s playfulness, her delight in clues and riddles, and her care and precision with words, make of this trespasser, for me, a Lawrence signpost. Woolf’s “trespasser” marries with Lawrence’s and sunken meanings surface.

Juxtaposing Lawrence’s violin passage with Woolf’s “Time Passes” chapter also leads me to thoughts about structure. Even if Lawrence’s does not use section demarcations, both novels have a three part structure. In The Trespasser, the lengthy island portion is framed between two brief London segments, segments haunted by Siegmund’s ghost. In To the Lighthouse, as many critics have noted and commented upon, a three part structure is also used, though here you have a short section bracketed by two longer ones. In the one novel, two brief suffocating passages surround a lengthy, passionate interlude; in the other, a brief interlude of death and decay bridges two lengthy sections filled with life and vitality. While both Lawrence and Woolf use poetic language to render deep emotional states and to blur the boundaries between subjective and objective reality, To the Lighthouse opposes a transforming, celebratory vision to Lawrence’s dark study of death and social paralysis. In The Trespasser, changing gender relationships lead to suffocation and tragedy; in To the Lighthouse, changing gender relationships offer the possibility of a new way of being. In Lawrence, there is no escaping the shadow cast on Helena by Siegmund’s ghost, no escaping Siegmund’s life-denying grip. In To the Lighthouse, Lily overcomes Mrs. Ramsay’s ghost and through her painting makes Mrs. Ramsay part of a life-affirming vision.

One further passage may have left traces. After Louisa leaves, Byrne cries out to Helena, “You stretch your hands blindly to the dead; you look backwards. No, you never touch the living”. Byrne’s cry could be reverberating in “[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]” Helena and Siegmund may stand behind Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, with Helena shadowing Mr. Ramsay, Siegmund Mrs Ramsay. If so, my Mrs. Ramsay suicide speculations (yet to be published) deepen. After all, the dead man Helena stretches toward is Siegmund, the suicide. Extend possible parallels between the two novels and Mr. Ramsay, too, may be stretching his arms out to a suicide.

More suicide speculations are possible. This time, revisit Mrs. Ramsay not as a shadow of Siegmund, but as a shadow of Helena. Justification for this may be found in the book inscription which refers to Mrs. Ramsay as “the happier Helen of our days.” Beyond introducing strong Helen of Troy elements into her novel, for Woolf the allusion may also have connected to Lawrence’s Helena. Such a connection, whether in the upper or the lower mind, might partially explain why, in this most biographical of novels, Woolf deviates so oddly from her mother’s life. Where Julia Stephen grieved for Herbert Duckworth, dead of a ruptured internal abscess, Mrs. Ramsay, her fictional avatar, seemingly grieves for a suicide:

Never did anybody look so sad.

But was it nothing but looks, people said? What was there behind it—her beauty and splendour? Had he blown his brains out, they asked, had he died the week before they were married–some other, earlier lover, of whom rumours reached one?

Like Lawrence’s Helena, Mrs. Ramsay might be haunted by the suicide of a man she loved, a man whose suicide she may even have provoked. Like Helena, she is dangerous to men. Like Helena, too, and this is where she and Helena differ from Helen of Troy, by persisting in her grief and by not letting go of the past, she threatens and damages the future.

But enough. Continue like this and conspiracy theorists will be seeking to recruit me. They might well be justified. If I keep seeing and using supposed Trespasser traces to make sense of To the Lighthouse details, then I might well become a good proponent of Bacon or de Vere as Shakespeare, Roswell alien theories or 9/11 government conspiracies. Already, I’m in danger of seriously entertaining the possibility that the To the Lighthouse phrase “For she had triumphed again” is an extension of The Rainbow’s “She had triumphed: he was not anymore.” Time to leave the bogs of speculation for the more solid, even if still treacherous, meadow of facts.

After The Trespasser, the next reference to Lawrence in Woolf’s writings comes – again mingled with humour –in a December, 1915, Asheham letter to Roger Fry: “Leonard has just read aloud a passionate poem by Lawrence, which perhaps made Max sick, but I expect you would have enlightened it somehow” [L II 73]. Earlier in the letter, Woolf had mentioned how Max, their dog, had just been sick, “having voided a large worm earlier in the day.” The criticism is meant for the eyes of a friend, and it is embroidered for effect, yet it probably contains some truth. Writing about Lawrence’s poetry years later, again in “Notes on D. H. Lawrence”, Woolf says of it that his poems “read like the sayings that small boys scribble upon stiles to make housemaids jump and titter.”

Woolf’s The Lost Girl review of 1920 is evidence of her continued interest in Lawrence. In it she talks about him as possibly an original and as a writer “with an extraordinary sense of the physical world, of the colour and texture and shape of things, for whom the body was alive and the problem of the body insistent and important.” She regrets that The Lost Girl does not achieve the high standards she envisioned for his work. Damning with tainted praise, she credits him with “something of Mr Bennett’s power of displaying by means of immense industry and great ability a section of the hive beneath glass.” Lawrence “occasionally and momentarily achieves that concentration which Tolstoy preserves sometimes for a chapter or more”, but in The Lost Girl his heroine cannot come fully to life and “disappears beneath the heap of facts recorded about her.” The novel, even if probably better than any that will appear for the next six months, is a disappointment to Woolf, but she ends her review with the hope that “the proper way to look at The Lost Girl is as a stepping stone in a writer’s progress. It is either a postscript or a prelude.”

Women in Love was even more interesting to Woolf than The Lost Girl, partly because of its roman a clef elements. Virginia enjoyed spotting aspects of Ottoline Morrell in Hermione Roddice, and she may well have identified traces of Mansfield and Murry in Gudrun and Gerald. Though she did not write a review of this novel, in a letter to Molly MacCarthy, she wrote:

I am reading the Bride of Lammermoor—by that great man Scott: and Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence, lured on by the portrait of Ottoline which appears from time to time. She has just smashed Lawrence’s head open with a ball of lapis lazuli—but then balls are smashed on every other page—cats—cattle—even the fish and the water lilies are at it all day long. There is no suspense or mystery: water is all semen: I get a little bored and make out the riddles too easily. Only this puzzles me what does it mean when a woman does eurythmics in front of a herd of Highland cattle? But I must stop.

[L II 474]

Once again she was reading Lawrence and Scott together. Four days later, writing to Koteliansky, Woolf was much less snarky and far more positive about Lawrence’s novel:

I am reading Women in Love. It is much better than The Lost Girl I think, and I wish I had reviewed it in the Times instead of the man who did—for I thought him stupid and unfair. I can’t help thinking that there’s something wrong with Lawrence, which makes him brood over sex, but he is trying to say something, and he is honest, and therefore he is 100 times better than most of us.

[L II 476]

The more positive views expressed in the Koteliansky letter may reflect a change in Woolf’s mood at the time of writing or they may owe something to Woolf’s sense of the state of the respective relationships between Lawrence and her family and friends. While Molly knew Ottoline well, she almost certainly did not know Lawrence, and therefore, in writing to her, Woolf was free to exaggerate and to allow her mischievous side free reign. Koteliansky, on the other hand, as Woolf well knew, was a passionate admirer and supporter of Lawrence, having first got to know him on a Lake District walking tour in late July of 1914, just as WWI was breaking out.

Woolf’s most considered assessment of Lawrence is her 1931 essay, “Notes on D. H. Lawrence”. Professing to be less familiar with Lawrence than she actually was, making no reference, for instance, to The Rainbow or to having read Women in Love, she sets out to read and to evaluate Sons and Lovers “in order to see whether, as so often happens, the master is not altogether different from the travesty presented by his disciples.” Acknowledging the hardness, clarity, economy and sharpness of Lawrence’s writing, Woolf reserves her real praise for Lawrence’s “penetration and force”, for the way that his writing seems “more exciting, more moving, in some ways fuller of life than one had thought real life could be”. She draws attention to Lawrence’s physicality, to the immanence of the physical world, the way in which “bodies become incandescent, glowing, significant”. Lawrence is not, like her beloved Proust, “a member of a settled and satisfied society”, but he has a remarkable strength of his own, one proved by the ways in which Sons and Lovers “excites, irritates, moves, changes, seems full of stir and unrest and desire for something withheld”.

The review, even if heavily qualified, is strongly favourable. More than that, in praising Sons and Lovers, Woolf vividly invokes To the Lighthouse. Sons and Lovers becomes the lighthouse as seen by James. Compare this passage from To the Lighthouse:

The Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening. Now —

James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?

No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too.

to this one from the essay:

This then was the angle of approach, and it will be seen that it is an angle that shuts off many views and distorts others. But read from this angle, Sons and Lovers emerged with astonishing vividness, like an island from off which the mist has suddenly lifted. Here it lay, clean cut, decisive, masterly, hard as rock, shaped, proportioned by a man who, whatever else he might be—prophet or villain, was undoubtedly the son of a miner who had been born and bred in Nottingham.

Whether or not Lawrence was shimmering in the recesses of Woolf’s mind when writing To the Lighthouse, To the Lighthouse was most certainly casting a bright beam when she wrote her review of Sons and Lovers.


Woolf began her first published essay (“Haworth, November, 1904,”) with the words “I do not know whether pilgrimages to the shrines of famous men ought not to be condemned as sentimental journeys.” It is a mark of Woolf’s interest in, and respect for, Lawrence that three years after his death she made just such a sentimental journey. Returning from a holiday in Italy, she and Leonard made a detour to Vence where Lawrence had died and was buried. In her diary she noted: “We saw Lawrence’s Phoenix picked out in coloured pebbles at Vence today, among all the fretted lace tombs” [D IV 159]. “Lawrence’s Phoenix” referred to the decoration on the grave’s headstone, a pebble mosaic commissioned by Frieda Lawrence and designed by Dominique Matteucci. In a letter to Dorothy Brett, Woolf acidly, if accurately, described the mosaic as follows, “We saw his grave at Vence—what a fate for a man who loved beauty—a kind of plum pudding it seemed to me, raised by the local mason” [L V 202].

Less than two years after Virginia and Leonard visited the grave, Lawrence was disinterred and cremated. His ashes were either scattered in Marseille, left on a train in New Mexico or mixed into the cement of the altar of his Taos mausoleum. The headstone with the pebble phoenix eventually found its convoluted way to its present location, the D H Lawrence Birthplace Museum on Mansfield Road in Eastwood. The modern day pilgrim who now makes a sentimental journey to look for a Lawrence shrine in the Vence cemetery has to be content with a small marble plaque which reads: “Ici reposa David Herbert Lawrence De Mars 1930 A Mars 1935.”

Note: The Samaritans Helpline and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are safe, private and available 24 hours a day.

About the Author

Andre Gerard (@PatremoirPress), editor and publisher of Fathers: A Literary Anthology, no longer earns a living as tutor and apartment manager in Vancouver. He now camps and ocean kayaks among eagles and otters on Salt Spring Island, but his primary residence remains To the Lighthouse.

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