Lighthouse Bliss: Some Virginia Woolf Engagements With Katherine Mansfield
by Andre Gerard
It was curiosity rather than courage which nudged me to begin. Rereading To The Lighthouse for perhaps the 100th time – not hyperbole – the phrase “heavenly bliss” went strangely radioactive. My inner Geiger started clicking. Yes, a young boy might endow a picture of a refrigerator with heavenly bliss, might find the picture fringed with joy, yet somehow “bliss” glowed bright with deeper meaning. Sunken meanings smouldered.
A quick “control f” search of an ebook edition of To The Lighthouse found more than “heavenly bliss”. “Bliss” appears a second time in the novel when Lily tries to find the sympathy which Mr. Ramsay seems to demand from her. In order to do so, she works to recollect the “glow, the rhapsody, the self-surrender” which she had seen on so many women’s faces when they blazed up into a “rapture of sympathy” which “evidently conferred on them the most supreme bliss of which human nature was capable.” “Bliss” here is directly linked with the female providing sympathy to the male. The word becomes loaded with irony. The bliss with which James endowed the refrigerator is now conferred by self-surrender to the neediness and exactions of men.
The third and final appearance of “bliss” occurs when Lily reflects upon Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s relationship, realising that “[i]t was no monotony of bliss.” Domestic bliss in the Ramsay household is not a given; it is something to be fought for, to be negotiated, something to be strenuously pursued by means of silence, words and attitudes. Lily’s insight comes immediately upon the realisation that in the Ramsay household “one had constantly a sense of repetition — of one thing falling where another had fallen, and so setting up an echo which chimed in the air and made it full of vibrations.” “Bliss” is carved out, in part by “long rigid silences”, from the day-to-day of repeated marital tension.
Mindful of Virginia Woolf’s “Craftmanship” essay (1937), of how “words belong to each other,” of how “words suggest the writer,” I started to look for associations “bliss” might have had for Woolf. Very quickly Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss” came into shadowy view. Mansfield…Mansfield…Katherine Mansfield! Of course! Given Woolf’s intense, ever so complicated rivalry and friendship with Mansfield, a Mansfield ghost in To the Lighthouse was almost inevitable. “Bliss” was its own “incarnadine,” and a sunken meaning of bliss was Katherine’s “Bliss.”
One diary entry and one letter provide strong evidence of how strongly “Bliss” infected Virginia. On August 7th, 1918, Virginia recorded the following in her diary:
I threw down Bliss with the exclamation, “She’s done for!” Indeed I dont see how much faith in her as woman or writer can survive that sort of story. I shall have to accept the fact, I’m afraid, that her mind is a very thin soil, laid an inch or two deep upon very barren rock. For Bliss is long enough to give her a chance of going deeper. Instead she is content with superficial smartness; & the whole conception is poor, cheap, not the vision, however imperfect, of an interesting mind. She writes badly too. And the effect was as I say, to give me an impression of her callousness & hardness as a human being. I shall read it again; but I don’t suppose I shall change. She’ll go on doing this sort of thing, perfectly to her & Murry’s satisfaction Or is it absurd to read all this criticism of her personally into a story? (D 1: 179)
Three and a half years later, in a March 20th, 1922, letter to Janet Case, Virginia wrote:
I’ve not read K. Mansfield [The Garden Party], and don’t mean to. I read Bliss; and it was so brilliant,-so hard, and so shallow, and so sentimental that I had to go the bookcase for something to drink. Shakespeare, Conrad, even Virginia Woolf. But she takes in all the reviewers, and I daresay I’m wrong (don’t be taken in by that display of modesty.) Middleton Murry is a posturing Byronic little man; pale; penetrating: with bad teeth; histrionic; an egoist; not, I think, very honest; but a good journalist, and works like a horse, and writes the poetry a very old hack might write—but this is spiteful. Do not let my views reach the public. People say we writers are jealous. (L 2: 514–15)
“Bliss” had clearly registered strongly. Even if her comments were extremely negative, the deep impact of “Bliss” upon Virginia is, to again use a phrase from “Craftsmanship”, “plain as a pikestaff.”
Intriguingly, several readers and critics have suggested that Woolf’s strong reaction to “Bliss” might have been personal. For instance, in A Secret Sisterhood (2017) Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney write:
Virginia had yet to acknowledge what she would come to call her “Saphic” desires, but “Bliss” had clearly touched a raw nerve, vivifying something she could not yet name. It was hardly surprising that she should take the story personally since the character of Pearl Fulton shared some of her own most prominent qualities.
Back when Katherine had first shared a draft of the story with Murry, she’d admitted to basing some of the characters on people they both knew, warning him that he would recognize them as “fish out of the Garsington pond.” She had insisted, however, perhaps protesting too much, that Pearl Fulton was her “own invention”. And yet Pearl and Virginia were, in fact, strikingly similar, sharing the quality of icy aloofness. Like Pearl, Virginia was one of those pale, slender, beautiful women who had something strange about them,” capable “up to a certain point” of rare and wonderful candour, though “the certain point was there, and beyond that she would not go.” Even Pearl’s way of smiling and holding her head “a little on one side” is reminiscent of Katherine’s earlier depiction of Virginia in one of her letters to her friend, her head “a little on one side, smiling as though you knew some enchanting secret.”
While the comparison conveniently overlooks the fact that Pearl is described as blonde and that her marital situation in no way resembles Woolf’s, the similarities are striking enough that Woolf could, consciously or unconsciously, have recognised and felt elements of herself in Pearl. For someone as sensitive and insightful as Woolf, such recognition would have been deeply unsettling.
Whether or not Virginia saw herself in Pearl, tangential critical confirmation of the imaginative impact “Bliss” had on her is to be found in Patricia Moran’s rich and stimulating Word of Mouth: Body Language in Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf. Moran devotes almost an entire chapter to the ways in which Katherine and “Bliss” captured Virginia’s imagination and influenced elements in Mrs. Dalloway. Her argument is that “despite Woolf’s repudiation of Mansfield’s story, “Bliss” echoes throughout Mrs. Dalloway. Even a cursory reading of the two works turns up an astonishing number of resemblances.” It is my contention that the same can be said of “Bliss” and To the Lighthouse.
Consider. Both works feature a dinner party with many details in common, both have highly symbolic pear trees, both draw attention to elaborate fruit displays, and both feature deep, silent communion between two characters. Nor are these commonalities superficial. Virginia thought long and hard about Katherine’s writing and shaped aspects of her own in response. Teasing out similarities and analysing the interplay enriches understanding both of “Bliss” and of To the Lighthouse.
Perhaps the most striking similarity between the two dinner parties is that they both feature French dishes for which the hostess receives high praise, praise which is more properly due to the family cook who prepared either the soufflée or the boeuf en daube. In the case of Bertha the praise draws attention to her childishness, whereas in the case of Mrs. Ramsay it helps emphasise her competence and complexity. The same is true of the deep pleasure which Bertha and Mrs. Ramsay take in the success of their respective dinner parties. Bertha, despite thinking of her event as like a Tchekof play, is naïve and childlike in her response, whereas Mrs. Ramsay is regal. She is not diminished by her limited knowledge of Tolstoy.
Two more elements worth comparing are anxiety over late guests and the behaviour of the husbands. In “Bliss” the late guest is Pearl Fulton, the woman to whom Bertha is so strongly attracted. Also late is Harry, Bertha’s husband, and there is a strong possibility that there is a link between his tardiness and Pearl’s. Though they arrive separately, they may well have had an assignation prior to the dinner party. Perhaps Virginia was playing with this possibility when she makes her newly engaged lovers the late arrivals at Mrs. Ramsay’s party. Since Harry is mockingly referred to as a biblical bridegroom, replacing him with a real bridegroom would be a natural and subversive thing to do. Paul and Minta may well be intended as a playful recasting of Pearl and Harry.
Similarly, Mr Ramsay’s angry response to Mr. Carmichael’s soup eating and Mrs. Ramsay’s concern that “everybody could see” may be a reworking of Harry’s caustic comments about Pearl, and about Bertha’s ensuing concern that Pearl has felt his rudeness. The difference is that Mrs. Ramsay’s primary concern is for her husband, for the way in which he might be publicly betraying himself, whereas Bertha is worried on behalf of her guest. Mrs. Ramsay’s worries are all too real, but Bertha’s worries are misplaced, since Harry probably makes his comments to hide his liaison with Pearl.
Inevitably there are commonalities between all dinner parties – hard, for instance, not to have a dinner party without guests and food – and it is likely that not all the parallels between the two dinner parties are intentional. Indeed, Woolf may have deliberately shaded some of her details and descriptions so as to avoid overt comparisons and to keep Katherine’s words and ideas from bleeding into hers. For instance, important as the soup is in To the Lighthouse it is never identified, never seen as “beautiful red soup” or “eternal” tomato soup. Also, the details and symbolic force of Mrs. Ramsay dressing for the party and putting on jewellery differ markedly from Bertha doing the same thing. Katherine deliberately calls attention to the way in which Bertha’s jade necklace and white dress evoke the pear tree. Virginia, on the other hand, does not seem to give symbolic force to Mrs. Ramsay’s black dress, nor do we ever find out if Rose picks the gold, opal or amethyst necklace out for her. Virginia’s symbolism here, if symbolism it is, is much more covert and lies much more with Rose than with Mrs. Ramsay.
Like Mansfield, however, Woolf deliberately calls attention to the symbolic force of a pear tree. When Lily, by a painful effort of concentration, lodges the scrubbed kitchen table in the branches of the pear tree, she sees the table as a “symbol of her profound respect for Mr. Ramsay’s mind.” For the reader, this is also a direct invitation to consider the pear tree as symbol. The masculine force of the table enhances the feminine force of the pear tree. Lily and the tree are united in holding and sustaining the table. Men depend upon women to sustain them. Whereas Bertha’s sees her pear tree as “a symbol of her own life,” Lily’s pear tree is another manifestation of the fountain of female sympathy which Mr. Ramsay needs and demands to make fertile his barrenness. In Word of Mouth, Patricia Moran gives a detailed reading of the gendered use which Katherine makes of the pear tree, and many of her insights could equally apply to To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Ramsay. Even on a simple descriptive level, Katherine and Virginia’s pear trees are extremely close in appearance, with Mansfield’s tree being “silvery as Miss Fulton,” and the bark of Virginia’s described as “silver-bossed.”
The most striking similarity between “Bliss” and To the Lighthouse lies in the fruit bowl centrepieces. In “Bliss” Bertha artistically arranges “pyramids” of pears, apples, nectarines and grapes in a glass dish and a blue bowl. She has even bought the grapes to “tone in with the new dining room carpet,” and her arranging efforts are so successful that “the dark table seemed to melt into the dusky light and the glass dish and the blue bowl to float in the air.” In To the Lighthouse, Rose is the artist, and her festive arrangement makes use of grapes, pears, bananas, and a sea shell. She uses only one dish – not identified – and the arrangement, despite all the Egyptian references in the novel, is not described as pyramidal. The effect is Greek rather than Egyptian. As with the soup, an easy deliberate parallel is eschewed.
The importance of the centrepieces in “Bliss” and To the Lighthouse goes beyond their appearance and description. In both works, the taking of fruit is marked as important. In “Bliss”, Bertha experiences an apparent moment of silent communion with Miss Fulton when the latter takes a tangerine from the display. In To the Lighthouse, Mrs Ramsay and Augustus Carmichael are united in feasting their eyes on the fruit and in looking together. Their silent interaction differs from Pearl and Bertha’s in that there is no sexual undercurrent between Mrs. Ramsay and Augustus, and significantly neither touches the fruit. Later, though, Mrs. Ramsay is upset when an anonymous hand reaches out and takes a pear. Very possibly the anonymous hand is a male one, belonging perhaps to Jasper or Charles Tansley .
If, as I obviously do, one accepts the “Bliss” echoes in To the Lighthouse as deliberate, two major insights are generated by contrasting the ways in which Woolf and Mansfield describe the taking of the fruit. The first insight is that in “Bliss” taking a tangerine rather than a pear is foreshadowing of sorts. Pearl’s choice of the tangerine is the true “sign” in the story, not her later question about the garden. Pearl’s not choosing the pear, the female fruit, subliminally prepares the reader for her not choosing Bertha, even if Bertha misses the significance of the choice. Virginia’s rewriting of the choice shines a strong light on Katherine’s fruit symbolism, even if, in Virginia’s version, the taking of the pear is an act of despoliation, a kind of rape which ravishes Rose’s work of art and upsets Mrs. Ramsay.
Second, Virginia is interested in the idea of silent communion and wanted to establish an equivalence between Bertha and Pearl and Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Carmichael. The way in which Bertha guesses Pearl’s mood “so exactly and so instantly” as Pearl holds the nectarine is reworked in the description of Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Carmichael feasting their eyes on the fruit and the way “looking together united them.” This communion between Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Carmichael is revisited later in the novel when this time it is Lily and Mr. Carmichael who share a silent moment. The parallel to the earlier scene is established by the way in which Mr. Carmichael’s pagan sea god appearance reminds the reader of how “Rose’s arrangement of the grapes and pears, of the horny pink-lined shell, of the bananas” made Mrs. Ramsay “think of a trophy fetched from the bottom of the sea, of Neptune’s banquet”.
Silent or wordless communications in Virginia’s novels in general, and in To the Lighthouse in particular, has been noted and commented upon by various critics and thinkers. In Fiction and Repetition (1982) J. Hillis Miller, focusing primarily on Mrs Dalloway, discusses how characters “may have some kind of intimate knowledge of one another”, “partly because they share the same memories and so respond in the same way to the same cues, each knowing what the other must be thinking, but it seems also to be an unreflective openness of one mind to another, a kind of telepathic insight.” Similarly, in “The Window: Knowledge of Other Minds in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse”, Martha Nussbaum does a wonderful job analysing how Virginia explores “the problem of access to the other”, given that language is “a very imperfect instrument of understanding.” In her analysis, Nussbaum focuses on the silent communication between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, on their accomplishments “as fine readers of one another’s words, gestures, and actions.” Parsing this silent communication and the resulting accomplishments, Nussbaum concludes that To the Lighthouse demonstrates how “by working patiently to defeat shame, selfish anxiety, and the desire for power, it is sometimes possible for some people to get knowledge of one thing or another thing about some other people; and they can sometimes allow one thing or another thing about themselves to be known.”
In their explorations of silent communication, neither Miller nor Nussbaum look at the silent communication which Mr. Carmichael and Mrs Ramsay establish while looking at the fruit, or the silent echo (what other kind of echo could silent communication have?) of that communication between Mr. Carmichael and Lily at the end of the novel. Patricia Laurence in The Reading of Silence: Virginia Woolf in the English Tradition (1991) and Angela Hague in Fiction, Intuition, & Creativity: Studies in Brontë, James, Woolf, and Lessing (2003) are similarly silent about the communication between Mr. Carmichael and Mrs. Ramsay or Mr. Carmichael and Lily; this despite the fact that these moments of communication, coming as they do between strangers, and with the second deliberately echoing the first, are far more mysterious and impressive than those which the Ramsays achieve. As Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Carmichael feast their eyes on the plate of fruit, Mrs. Ramsay recognises that his way of looking is different from hers, yet “looking together united them.” It is at this moment that the party coalesces and gels, and an oasis of order is established. Similarly, Lily has her vision and triumphs over the blur of the canvas just after her insight that she and Mr. Carmichael “had not needed to speak. They had been thinking the same things and he had answered her without her asking him anything.”
It seems to me that these two scenes in To the Lighthouse may find part of their inspiration in “Bliss” and also in the relationship between Katherine and Virginia. On the one hand, they are a retelling of the soup, fruit bowl, pear tree moments between Bertha and Pearl, even if those moments later become charged with the irony of likely misinterpretation and miscommunication; Bertha’s “bliss”, after all, is born of ignorance. On the other hand, the scenes and the ideas which they contain may also owe a lot to the intense, natural sympathy which Woolf, at times, seemed to feel between Manssfield and herself. Some of Virginia’s ideas about silent communication may well been incubated by thoughts about how on talking about solitude she found Katherine “expressing my feelings, as I never heard them expressed” (D2, 44), how she felt that “to no one else can I talk in the same disembodied way about writing: without altering my thought more than I alter it in writing here. (I except L. from this.)” (D2, 45), or how “[s]ometimes we looked very steadfastly at each other, as though we had reached some durable relationship, independent of the changes of the body, through the eyes.”
In her biography of Virginia Woolf (Virginia Woolf, 1997), Hermione Lee suggests that the deep, powerful bond between Virginia and Katherine is referenced in the “Lighthouse” section of To the Lighthouse when Lily, mourning Mrs. Ramsay, thinks of her “raising to her forehead a wreath of white flowers”; and then again, thinking how “[f]or days after she had heard of her death she had seen her thus, putting her wreath to her forehead and going unquestioningly with her companion, a shade across the fields.” The key word here is the word wreath. Words, remember, have a “suggestive power”, a strange “diabolic power” “to suggest the writer; his character, his appearance, his wife, his family, his house – even the cat on the hearthrug.” For Virginia, “wreath” carried a powerful association of Katherine’s “strange ghost.” In her diary entry for January 16th, 1923, writing a week after Katherine’s death, Virginia recorded a lengthy entry about Katherine, an entry which includes the following:
“Then, as usual with me, visual impressions kept coming & coming before me— always of Katherine putting on a white wreath, & leaving us, called away; made dignified, chosen. And then one pitied her. And one felt her reluctant to wear that wreath, which was an ice cold one. And she was only 33.”
Later in the entry, Virginia again refers to the wreath and to the pity which she felt toward Katherine: “I no longer keep seeing her with her wreath. I don’t pity her so much. Yet I have the feeling that I shall think of her at intervals all through life. Probably we had something in common which I will never find in anyone else” (D2, 227). This last thought was again echoed in a March 2nd, 1923, sympathy letter sent to Dorothy Brett: “She gave me something no one else can.”
Remembering how Lily, remembering Mrs Ramsay, muses about the dead, how “one pitied them, one brushed them aside, one had even a little contempt for them,” and remembering too that in the penultimate paragraph of the novel Lily imagines Mr. Carmichael—a Pearl or Katherine figure to Lily’s Bertha or Virginia figure—letting fall “a wreath of violets and asphodels” I find it impossible not to read To the Lighthouse, in part at least, as one final tribute to Katherine Mansfield.
If by good luck there had been an ash-tray handy, if one had not knocked the ash out of the window in default, if things had been a little different from what they were, one would not have seen, presumably, a cat without a tail. The sight of that abrupt and truncated animal padding softly across the quadrangle changed by some fluke of the subconscious intelligence the emotional light for me. It was as if someone had let fall a shade. Perhaps the excellent hock was relinquishing its hold. Certainly, as I watched the Manx cat pause in the middle of the lawn as if it too questioned the universe, something seemed lacking, something seemed different. But what was lacking, what was different, I asked myself, listening to the talk?
There was something so ludicrous in thinking of people humming such things even under their breath at luncheon parties before the war that I burst out laughing, and had to explain my laughter by pointing at the Manx cat, who did look a little absurd, poor beast, without a tail, in the middle of the lawn. Was he really born so, or had he lost his tail in an accident? The tailless cat, though some are said to exist in the Isle of Man, is rarer than one thinks. It is a queer animal, quaint rather than beautiful. It is strange what a difference a tail makes—you know the sort of things one says as a lunch party breaks up and people are finding their coats and hats.
A Room of One’s Own (1929)
As well as leaving traces in Mrs. Dalloway and in To the Lighthouse, the shade of Katherine Mansfield may also be stalking through A Room of One’s Own in the guise of the mysterious, unsettling Manx cat. Although various critics have assigned complex meanings to this cat (some of these meanings are summarised by Steve Yang in “Fish-Cat Metaphor in A Room of One’s Own”), a case can also be made for a Mansfield connection.
By way of trying to establish this Mansfield link, let me start by raising the possibly that for Woolf the “Man” in Manx carried associations of the “Man” in Mansfield. Far-fetched? Preposterous? Perhaps…yet all the same I think the case can be made. Shared “Man” aside, both cat and writer hail from exotic islands, and both could accurately be described as “quaint rather than beautiful.”? But, rather than focus on the tail end of the cat, allow me to examine other pieces of evidence.
One indirect piece of evidence lies in the starting point of A Room of One’s Own. It is by thinking about “women and fiction” that Virginia comes to the conclusion that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Given the importance of Katherine to Virginia, her status as someone who produced “the only writing I have ever been jealous of”, it would have been almost impossible for Virginia not to think about Katherine while writing her talks or essay.
The closeness between cat and narrator, “as if it too questioned the universe”, suggests a Mansfield parallel. Virginia repeatedly thought of Katherine as a kindred spirit, as someone who, like her, had “a terribly sensitive mind’ and was “a writer, a born writer” (E4, 446). Katherine, too, thought of Virginia in similar terms, with the difference that she envied Virginia’s domestic security and the strength this gave her writing. “How I envy Virginia;” she wrote to John Middleton Murry in 1919, “no wonder she can write. There is always in her writing a calm feeling of expression as though she were at peace—her roof over her—her own possessions round her—and her man somewhere within call” (November, 1919); and to Virginia she wrote “A husband, a home, a great many books & a passion for writing—are very nice things to possess all at once—It is pleasant to think of you and Leonard together—I often do” (April, 1919).
Stronger evidence of a Mansfield trace in A Room of One’s Own, even if still circumstantial, lies in the fact that Virginia strongly associated Katherine with cats. Cat is sometimes a nickname for Katherine, and perhaps that played a part in Virginia’s repeatedly thinking of Katherine as catlike. Early in their relationship (October 12th, 1917), Virginia wrote the following impression in her diary:
We could both wish that ones first impression of K. M. was not that she stinks like a–well civet cat that had taken to street walking. In truth, I’m a little shocked by her commonness at first sight; lines so hard & cheap. However when this diminishes, she is so intelligent & inscrutable that she repays friendship. (D1, 58)
Some two and a half years later, Virginia, though less cattily, again thought of cats when describing Katherine:
It struck me that she is of the cat kind: alien, composed, always solitary and observant. And then we talked about solitude, & I found her expressing my feelings, as I never heard them expressed (D2, 44)
Enough teasing. Time to present my strongest evidence, the link which led me to scratch up the foregoing possible cat associations. This evidence, evidence which to me seems conclusive, lurks once again in “Bliss.” In Mansfield’s story there are to be found not one but two cats, cats which like Virginia’s Manx are overtly symbolic. Looking out the window just before she gives her dinner party, Bertha sees a grey cat followed by a black one creep across the lawn, and again at the end of the story, as the dinner party breaks up, the two cats are alluded to. Dinner party, window, lawn, cats, overt symbolism and Virginia’s strong and complex reaction to “Bliss” are all the proof of pedigree I need.
Tailpiece to a tailpiece: out of puckishness I started this exploration by linking the “Man” in Manx and the “Man” in Mansfield. Continuing in that playful vein, I’ll conclude by shifting from a cat without a tail to a “Man without a T.” In the diary entry where Virginia reflects on Katherine as being “of the cat kind,” she goes on to give suggestive fragments of her conversation with Katherine. In one such fragment she refers to Mansfield’s short story “The Man Without a Temperament” as “Man without a T.” In Virginia’s ever so retentive and associative mind might the “Man without a T.” have contributed to the cat without a tail? Delightful to think of Virginia remembering Mansfield and using her memory to discretely cut men down to size.
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.