To the Lighthouse with a Tyrannical Father

As a break from suspense fiction, I’ve recently been reading a few items on my “retirement reading list,” in particular three novels of Virginia Woolf. The latest? To the Lighthouse (1927). As in her earlier novels, Woolf does a tremendous job of entering (and making believable) the thoughts and feelings of her characters–and she is also adept at viewing people from the outside.

I found several passages worth quoting but will stick to just one.

The mother of a 6-year-old boy, Mrs. Ramsey, has promised James a trip out to a lighthouse (which has to be made by boat). In response, her husband, often lost in the clouds and difficult to deal with, says:

There wasn’t the slightest possible chance that they could go to the Lighthouse tomorrow, Mr. Ramsay snapped out irascibly.

Woolf tells us that the husband is enraged by womens’ “irrationality” and the “folly” of their mind.

And this what Mrs. Ramsey thinks about his behavior:

To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilisation so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency that, without replying, dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jaggged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked. There was nothing to be said.

Well, nothing to be said if you have Virginia Woolf to write down your thoughts! But what a great description of Mr. Ramsey’s words–a “pelt of jagged hail” and a “drench of dirty water.” Beautiful adjective for hail (“jagged”), one probably not often used in the literary tradition behind her. And an excellent way to capture Mr. Ramsey’s tyranny. And we all hate tyrannical fathers, right?

Virginia Woolf (The Voyage Out) and Louis L’Amour (Hondo)

Well, that’s an uneasy juxtaposition–Woolf and L’Amour–a literary writer of high skill on one hand, and a writer of popular fiction on the other. What do they have in common? Not much, other than that I happened to read one after the other.

I enjoyed Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out. What a brilliant mind she had, capable of such finely tuned observations regarding human character and social interactions. At times witty, always attentive to human foibles, she uses dialogue for characterization, masterfully so, penetrating to the core of her characters and delineating their often wacky beliefs and self-serving attitudes. Here are a couple of passages that are close to being laugh-out-loud funny:

[After her husband has just spoken out against women’s rights, Clarissa has this to say]

   ‘It’s unthinkable,’ she said. ‘Don’t tell me you’re a suffragist?’ she turned to Ridley.
    ‘I don’t care a fig one way or t’other,’ said Ambrose [Ridley]. ‘If any creature is so deluded as to think that a vote does him or her any good, let him have it. He’ll soon learn better.’

Clarissa has another exchange with Helen Ridley in a discussion dealing with the arts:

  [Clarissa] ‘The people who really care about an art are always the least affected [i.e., given to affectation]. D’you know Henry Philips, the painter?’ she asked.
    ‘I have seen him,’ said Helen.
    ‘To look at, one might think he was a successful stockbroker, and not one of the greatest painters of the age. That’s what I like.’
    ‘There are a great many successful stockbrokers, if you like looking at them,’ said Helen.
    Rachel wished vehemently that her aunt [Helen] would not be so perverse.

And what can one say about Louis L’Amour’s hero Hondo Lane? Well, I happen to own a horse named Hondo (a Gypsy Vanner who came to me with that name). Not very original, although when I had to name the retired-from-racing thoroughbred I owned before Hondo, I called him Shane. Hey, they’re both fine names for horses and cowboys.

Hondo Lane is one of those characters who has a quiet mastery of what’s needed to survive in the desert Southwest at a time when the Apaches were less than sympathetic to whites. Along with the instruction in survival (Hondo at one point teaches a 6-year-old boy some of the finer details of life out West), L’Amour occasionally preaches a lesson or two on values, which, judging from the last book of his I read (The Lonesome Gods) is a trait that must be common in all his works. A little bit overly obvious at times, but, hey, maybe a lot of his readers were teenage boys, in need of a little instruction.