Paris in To the Lighthouse
by Andre Gerard
Before reading To the Lighthouse against Hope Mirrlees’ Paris: A Poem, some words about Mirrlees and then a few more about the publication history of Paris.
There are photographs of Hope Mirrlees. In one of them she is seen, age 86, with her pug Fred at the Basil Hotel in Knightsbridge. In another, taken fifty years earlier, along with such luminaries as Edith Wharton, Jane Harrison, Andre Gide, and Lytton Strachey she is glimpsed in a 1923 Decade de Pontigny photograph. Beyond such photographs it is known that she was born 1887, died 1978; had very wealthy parents; was fluent in five languages, including Zulu which she learned from her nanny in South Africa; studied classics at Cambridge from 1910-1913; became Jane Harrison’s close companion for over fifteen years, despite of or perhaps because of an almost forty year age difference; wrote three novels and Paris before she turned 30; converted to Catholicism a couple of years after Jane Harrison’s death in 1928; cameoed in The Biography of Alice B. Toklas; became a friend of T.S. Eliot; withdrew to South Africa where she worked on a biography of the antiquarian Robert Cotton; and disappeared from public consciousness until republication of Lud-in-the-Mist brought her some recognition, including that of Neil Gaiman who has gushed that Lud–in–the–Mist is “a little golden miracle of a book”, and who has also blurbed that “[w]hile Hope Mirrlees is remembered as a fine and remarkable novelist, it has been forgotten that, in Paris, she wrote a modernist poem that anticipated and prefigured Eliot’s The Waste Land.”
To flesh out this thumbnail sketch, or at least to give it fingers, here are four penetrating, slightly harsh Virginia Woolf descriptions of Mirrlees. The first is from Woolf’s diary for March 22, 1919:
Before this I met Hope Mirrlees at the Club—a very self conscious, wilful, prickly & perverse young woman, rather conspicuously well dressed & pretty, with a view of her own about books & style, an aristocratic & conservative tendency in opinion, & a corresponding taste for the beautiful & elaborate in literature. For example, she had been examining Swift as to his use of words; whether he used them properly, & found him deficient compared with Burke, who writes from this point of view magnificently though detestably from any other. She uses a great number of French words, which she pronounces exquisitely; she seems capricious in her friendships, & no more to be marshalled with the long goose wand which I can sometimes apply to people than a flock of bright green parrokeets.
The second is from an August 17, 1919 letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davies:
Last weekend, however, we had a young lady who changed her dress every night for dinner—which Leonard and I cooked, the servants being on holiday. Her stockings matched a wreath in her hair; every night they were differently coloured; powder fell about in flakes; and the scent was such we had to sit in the garden. Moreover, she knows Greek and Russian better than I do; is Jane Harrison’s favourite pupil, and has written a very obscure, indecent, and brilliant poem which we are going to print. It’s a shame that all this should be possible to the younger generation; still, I feel that something must be lacking, don’t you? We had Maynard Keynes [recently back from participating in the Paris Peace Conference, and now putting the finishing touches to The Economic Consequences of the Peace, his scathing critique of the Treaty of Versailles] to entertain her, since we could offer little in the way of comfort.
The third, a diary entry for November 23, 1920, reads:
Hope has been for the weekend—over-dressed, over elaborate, scented, extravagant, yet with thick nose, thick ankles; a little unrefined, I mean. That is I like her very much & think her very clever; but I don’t like women who are vain & lacking in self-confidence at the same time. It is easily explicable—the rich uncultivated father, brother a trim officer; wealth; health; Jane superimposed, & the greed, like a greed for almond paste, for fame. We talked very well together all the same; & I did my writing (a review of Lawrence sprung upon me) all the same. Why do I dislike unbalanced criticism so much—silliness about Edith [Sitwell] & Fredegond [Shove]? As when Ottoline [Morrell] loads her mantelpiece with knick knacks. Old Gumbo [Marjorie Strachey] in her brown overcoat, spontaneous & emphatic showed up very well beside her. But I’m exaggerating her defects. She is clever & subtle, & if she hasn’t much generosity, I’m not sure that clever people always have.
Finally, this November 30, 1929 diary entry:
It is said that Hope has become a Roman Catholic on the sly. Certainly she has grown very fat—too fat for a woman in middle age who uses her brains–& so I suspect the rumour is true. She has sat herself down under the shade. It is strange to see beauty—she had something elegant & individual—go out, like a candle flame. Julian, for instance, could not see, I think, that Hope had ever been a young & attractive woman. She has some vigour of mind though.
So much–or so little–for Mirrlees. Now to publication history. Appearing two years before The Waste Land, Paris: A Poem should have become a defining Modernist poem, should have helped shape the poetic, social and political sensibilities of subsequent generations. Instead, after its 1920 publication by the Hogarth Press (only 175 copies were printed, of which 152 were sold), Paris was almost lost to literature–a self-bowdlerized 1973 version excepted. It wasn’t until Bruce Bailey’s “A Note on The Waste Land and Hope Mirrlees’ Paris” (1974), and, over thirty years later, the publication of Julia Briggs’ “‘Modernism’s Lost Hope’: Virginia Woolf, Hope Mirrlees and the Printing of Paris” (2007) that Paris received any serious critical attention.
Since then, Paris shows signs of retroactively becoming a Modernist classic. In 2011 Sandeep Parmar published Hope Mirrlees: Collected Poems, a book which contained a lengthy, insightful introduction to Mirrlees, calling particular attention to the strengths and delights of Paris. Also in 2011, Peter Howarth started his The Cambridge Introduction to Modernist Poetry with a lengthy analysis of Paris as a quintessentially Modernist text. Most importantly, in 2020 Faber and Faber published a centenary edition, thus finally making Paris: A Poem generally available. Even if not visible in Lauren Elkins’ Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London (2016), Mirrlees and Paris now seems to be everywhere, and can even be glimpsed in Francesca Wade’s recent Square Haunting (2020). Most recently, Dustin Illingworth published a most perceptive and stimulating Poetry Foundation analysis of Mirrlees’ poem, and Sean Pryor has provided a detailed examination of the early sales and circulation history of Paris.
Enough background, and academic parsing. Time to consider the influence of Paris on the writing of To the Lighthouse. For Virginia Woolf, Paris was not just “a very obscure, indecent and brilliant poem.” She was deeply, physically familiar with the text, since she not only selected the poem for publication, but also set the type and then hand wrote corrections on 160 copies. In her examination of the printing history of Paris, Julia Briggs talks about the impact this experience had on the writing of Jacob’s Room. She credits Paris with teaching Woolf “how to be free, how ‘to change style at will’” and with helping her to learn how to “use the layout of the page to create silences and meaningful pauses in the text.” Similarly, Paris also informs To the Lighthouse. Not only present in the blanks, brackets, ruptures and mutilations of Woolf’s novel, it flashes brightly in a kaleidoscopic cascade of allusions.
First and brightest are allusions to Macbeth and to Anna Karenina. With reference to Macbeth, Mirrlees has the lines:
They arise, serene and unetiolated, one by one from
their subterranean sleep of five long years.
Like Duncan they slept well.
Woolf’s passage of time is ten years, not five, but like Mirrlees she links her sleepers to Macbeth. The “Time Passes” sleepers who “dreamt holily, dreamt wisely” bring with them Lady Macbeth’s “What thou would’st highly, That would’st thou holily” and Lennox’s remark about the murder of the sleeping guards, “Was not that Nobly done? Aye, and wisely too” In both Paris and To the Lighthouse, the sleepers, even if they are paintings in Mirrlees’ poem, sleep through the war and emerge into a postwar world, a world in which individuals struggle to assimilate the past and to resume their lives.
In both poem and novel, the sleepers find themselves in a world troubled by strikes. In “Paris” the strike references are overt, with phrases like “La journees de huits heures,” “The first of May,” and the punning “The silence of la grève.” There is also Mirrlees’ note to the first of May line:
“The first of May there is no lily of the valley.” On May 1, the Mois de Marie, lily of the valley is normally sold in all the streets of Paris; but on May 1, 1919, the day of the general strike, no lily of the valley was offered for sale.
The 1919 world sketched by Mirrlees in her poem is a world emerging from war, groping towards peace, and troubled by social tensions and fears of labour unrest.
Txemari: Paris, c. 1919
In To the Lighthouse, part of which was written during the General Strike of 1926, the strike references are more oblique. Several critics, however, have called attention to plausible strike traces in the novel. For instance, in Modernism, Labour and Selfhood in British Literature and Culture (2004), Morag Shiach makes a convincing case that the General Strike informs the “Time Passes” section. To Schiach’s argument, I can add the fact that in a draft version of To the Lighthouse, Charles Tansley is interested in Sorel rather than in Ibsen. Had Woolf left the Sorel reference in the novel, the strike reference would have been overt, as George Sorel’s Reflections on Violence, published in an English translation in 1914, argues that workers should use strikes and violence as a political tool. As it is, even without the reference there are enough traces of Virginia Woolf’s preoccupation with the postwar situation and with the General Strike for Shiach to write that “Woolf’s textual imagining of a future peace is unsettled by images of a waking nightmare.”
The Anna Karenina references don’t, to my mind, generate the same thematic overlap that the Macbeth references do, though Anna Karenina, as I have argued elsewhere, is of considerable significance for To the Lighthouse, and Tolstoy’s novel also appears twice in Mirrlees’ poem:
A a a a a oui, c’est un delicieux garçon
Il me semble que toute femme sincere doit se retrouver
en Anna Karenine.
Vronsky and Anna
Starting up in separate beds in a cold sweat
Reading calamity in the same dream
Of a gigantic sinister mujik…
As Julia Brigg, in her notes to “Paris,” suggests, “desoeuvrement” and “mujik” connect the reference to labour unrest and the possibility of violent revolution, an area which Woolf does not touch on in her reworking of Anna Karenina themes. For Woolf, the interest of Anna Karenina lies in what it has to say about motherhood, about women’s freedoms, about the meaning of life, and even about storytelling. All the same, Mirrlees’ use of Anna Karenina may have contributed to Woolf’s decision to also make use of Anna Karenina, and certainly she would have been aware of and would have appreciated the way in which the Anna Karenina echo would link her novel to Mirrlees’ poem.
Another element which links novel and poem is the “low” culture of posters and advertising. Both Mirrlees and Woolf are fascinated by the way in which marketing shapes perceptions and popular culture. Their works register the rise of department stores and the advertising surrounding corporate brands. Where “Paris” starts with “Zig-zag,” “Lion Noir,” “Cacao Blooker” and moves on to “AU / BON MARCHE” and “LAIT SUPERIEUR / DE LA / FERME DE RAMBOUILLET,” To the Lighthouse starts with the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores and includes the advertising bill of the circus. Woolf’s circus poster, complete with “twenty performing seals,” and Tansley’s response to it can be profitably compared to Mirrlees’ “ouvriers” discussing “The learned seal at the Nouveau Cirque/Cottin….” (lines 164, 165). Remember also Mrs. Dalloway, where sky writing is used to promote OXO, and where the clock transmogrifies and depersonalizes Rigby and Lowndes to advertizing memes.
Street market in Paris, c. 1920
A further point where Paris and a To the Lighthouse passage come close to touching each other is in the “Time Passes” personification of “the Spring”:
The Spring without a leaf to toss, bare and bright like a virgin fierce in her chastity, scornful in her purity, was laid out on fields wide-eyed and watchful and entirely careless of what was done or thought by the beholders.
To the Lighthouse
The personification is very close to that used by Mirrlees when she writes:
The lovely Spirit of the Year
Is stiff and stark
Laid out in acres of brown fields,
The crisp, straight lines of his archaic drapery
Well chiselled by the plough…
Beyond bucolic personification, the two passages carry a strong sense of renewal, hope and rebirth, sentiments entirely appropriate for works exploring a world trying to revive itself after the trauma of a devastating war. Also, behind both Mirrlees and Woolf lies Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush” with “The Century’s corpse outleant” and the marvellously proleptic “Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew/And I was unaware,” which Hope Mirrlees could not have read without thinking about herself.
The more I interrogate To the Lighthouse by way of Paris the more I see the value of what I’ve variously called polysemy, polyvalence, overdetermination or multiplicity. This technique rescues any given text from rigidity, and forces the reader to become a co-creator. There are wrong readings and preferred readings but there are no absolute readings. Also, for Woolf multiplicity leaves room for a great deal of play and private amusement. Links can be made for the sake of linking, for a kind of crossword pleasure, and not everything need carry deep meaning. Connecting can be its own pleasure. To the Paris/Lighthouse connections already noted can be added the shared interest in Greek myth, flowers, subways, telephones, milk quality, painters and paintings, Voltaire, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Crimean war. Some of these shared elements may be completely accidental, some may have thematic significance, and others may be there simply to increase linkages.
In “How Should One Read a Book?”, the essay she wrote while working on To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf talks about books as shapes hanging in “the wardrobe of our mind” and of making judgments and deepening understanding by holding one shape up against another:
If we have just read “Clarissa Harlowe,” for example, let us see how it shows up against the shape of “Anna Karenina.” At once the outlines of the two books are cut out against each other as a house with its chimneys bristling and its gables sloping is cut out against a harvest moon.
Hold the shape of To the Lighthouse up against that of Paris and new chimneys bristle, new gables slope. Innumerable questions, as Woolf goes on to say in her essay, “ramify infinitely.”
Though infinity is not within the scope of this essay, before concluding I will glance at a few more ramifications. For one, consider the lilies. I mentioned a shared interest in flowers, but flowers can be white noise. Many like flowers, many write flowers. All the same, there is a profusion of meaningful flowers in both poem and novel. In particular, in Paris the lily abounds. Most dramatic of all the lilies referenced in the poem is the Apollinarian calligramme lily of page 13 (lines 235-250), whose vertical line of a stem continues onto the following page, even as the stacked letters claim that “There is no lily of the valley.” Hold the shape of To the Lighthouse, the shape we have hanging in the “wardrobe of our mind” up against this part of the poem, and through multiplicity this lily and its line inhere and ramify in Lily Briscoe, her painting, and her concluding central line.
Further, consider painters and paintings. Paris references all kinds of paintings, real or imaginary. Among them are Goya’s “The White Duchess” and such Louvre paintings as Enguerrand Quarton’s “Pieta of Avignon,” Watteau’s “Gilles,” and Mantegna’s “Seven Deadly Sins.” Woolf, in contrast, does not reference a single specific painting, even though Michael Angelo, Rembrandt, Giotto, Raphael and Titian are alluded to. Held against the art references in Paris, the lack of specificity in Woolf is all the more striking insofar as she almost certainly had specific paintings in mind when mentioning Giotto, Raphael and Titian. By way of Proust, the Giotto reference summons the Scrovegni “Charity” with all of its symbolic force and implications; and similarly the National Gallery’s “Garvagh Madonna” and “Aldobrandini Madonna” inhere in the Raphael and Titian allusions. Read against the chimneys and gables of Paris, Woolf’s eschewal of the overt and the specific calls attention to the indirection and subtle deftness of her methods. She is Austen to Mirrlees’ Hardy.
Santeri Salokivi, Paris, 1919
Finally, consider the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is central to both Paris and To the Lighthouse. Both works start by indirectly invoking her presence—Paris by way of the dedication A Notre Dame De Paris En Reconnaissance Des Graces Accordees and To the Lighthouse by means of Lily Briscoe using Mrs. Ramsay and James as models for the triangular purple shape of her painting—and both works advert repeatedly to her. Even the conclusions can be read as harking back to Mary: Paris with “JE VOUS SALUE PARIS PLEIN DE GRACE’ and To the Lighthouse with Lily’s final line completing her painting, her vision—assuming that the subject of the painting (with its “odd-shaped triangular shadow) in the last section of the novel is the same as in the first. Woolf’s Mary, however, is very different from Mirrlees’. Woolf’s is the Mary of Madonna and Child, whereas Mirrlees’ is more the Mary of the Pieta or the immaculate Mary of St. Vincent de Paul. Quarton contrasted with Raphael and Titian.
Hope Mirrlees is not responsible for the centrality of the Blessed Virgin Mary in To the Lighthouse. Rather, that centrality is to be found in Woolf’s mother, Julia Stephen, serving as a model for Mrs. Ramsay. As Jane de Gay pointed out in her 1999 essay “Behind the Purple Triangle: Art and Iconography in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” Virginia Woolf had strong reasons for associating a character based on her mother with Mary. Not only had Julia, while pregnant with Vanessa in 1879, posed as the Virgin Mary for Edward Burnes-Jones’s “The Annunciation,” but in describing his wife in The Mausoleum Book, Leslie Stephen repeatedly associated her with Mary, even writing that “I remembered her as I might have remembered the Sistine Madonna.” Also in a photograph album compiled by Leslie Stephen are several photographs, triangular in composition, which show Julia with Stella, Vanessa, Virginia, or Adrian. De Gay quite rightly makes the point that “the figure of the Madonna is not obliterated but preserved in Lily’s purple triangle. The triangle is a holy shape in religious iconography; the three points (or sides) stand for the three persons of the Trinity.” De Gay further underlines religious implications of the triangle and she calls attention to Lily’s thought that she “did not intend to disparage a subject which, they all agreed, Raphael had treated divinely.”
While Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse conception and presentation of the Virgin Mary is very different from the one offered by Hope Mirrlees, elements of Woolf’s treatment possibly owe a debt to Mirrlees’ iconoclastic approach. Even if she does not resort to a peeing baby Jesus, a cooing Holy Ghost, or to “holy bait,” on at least two occasions Woolf does inject irreverence into her portrayal. The first comes when she assigns the names of Joseph and Mary, “poor old Joseph and Mary,” to the rooks. The second occasion, even more indirect, comes immediately after Lily recollects justifying her painting to William Bankes—“how it was not irreverence: how a light there neededa shadow there and so on. She did not intend to disparage a subject which, they agreed, Raphael had treated divinely.”—and then immediately goes on to remember how William Bankes, “like the perfect gentleman he was,” always left her plenty of time to go to the bathroom or, in Lily’s terms, “plenty of time to wash her hands.” Ever so indirect, ever so subtle, ever so different than “le petit Jesus fait pipi,” yet all the more humorous for that.
Some may find fault with a few of the observations and conclusions above. They may not see chimneys or gables from the same angle I do. They may accuse me of astigmatism or some other visual defect. I also have to plead guilty to obsession. No matter. I’ve done my best to “follow as closely, to interpret as intelligently” as I can. To the best of my ability, I’ve been “adventurous, broad in [my] choice, true to [my] own instincts.” In so doing I’ve come to believe that even if Paris nearly vanished without a trace upon publication., it left vivid marks in the mind and writing of Virginia Woolf. Paris has greatly deepened my understanding and appreciation of To the Lighthouse, and I hope it does the same for you.
Berfrois is winding up. Berfrois is coming to an end. I type these words with deep regret and sadness. For over ten years now Berfrois has given me a home away from home. Quirky, eccentric and always stimulating, it has been my literary local, a comfortable, welcoming place to hang out and make all kinds of unusual and exciting discoveries about philosophy, history, poetry, politics, philosophy, economics, literature and the environment. Because of Berfrois I’ve been able to enjoy the conversations, explorations, flights and fancies of Jeremy Fernando, Justin E. H. Smith, Farah Abdessamad, to mention only a few of my favourite companions. Not only that. As a writer, Berfrois gave me a supportive forum where I could recite my poetry and also share my obsession with Virginia Woolf and To the Lighthouse… Thank you Russell for all you’ve done, and for all your support and encouragement. Because of you, some corner of me will forever be Berfrois.
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.
The cover of Paris is reproduced here under fair use.