"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Monday, May 14, 2012

Life -- A Little Strip of Time



For Mother's Day, I thought I would write about one of the most steadfast mothers in modern British fiction, Mrs. Ramsay from Virginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse. Virginia Woolf had no children, but Mrs. Ramsay has eight; and Woolf intuitively fills Mrs. Ramsay's head and the first half of the novel with touching motherly insights. Except for the youngest son James, the Ramsay children are rarely mentioned in literary criticism of To the Lighthouse. James, of course, figures prominently at the center of the conflict that opens the novel: will he or will he not be taken to the lighthouse the next day?

But what of James' siblings and Mrs. Ramsay's feelings for them: Andrew, Prue, Jasper, Rose, Roger, Nancy, and Cam? Sitting out on the yard, visiting with her guests and surrounded by her children, Mrs. Ramsay is the image of earthliness, providing spiritual and artistic inspiration to others. Her ability to inspire is rooted in her role as a living, earthly mother, caring for her children, experiencing conflict with them and for them, providing for them at present, and hoping they may find a solid happiness that will stand against the unknowable future of temporal existence. Monitoring the behavior of her brood, Mrs. Ramsay wonders at the early development of their capacity for strife and prejudice: "They were so critical, her children" (17).

One of the guests, Mr. Bankes, relates his singular method of distinguishing the children one from another: "As for being sure which was which, or in what order they came, that was beyond him. He called them privately after the Kings and Queens of England; Cam the Wicked, James the Ruthless, Andrew the Just, Prue the Fair -- for Prue would have beauty, he thought, how could she help it? -- and Andrew brains" (37). Mr. Ramsay, himself, makes the following assessment of his role as father: "The father of eight children -- he reminded himself. And he would have been a beast and a cur to wish a single thing altered. Andrew would be a better man than he had been. Prue would be a beauty, her mother said. They would stem the flood a bit. That was a good bit of work on the whole -- his eight children" (106).

From Mrs. Ramsay's point of view comes the one list in the book to mention every child. She presents a brief but full bodied portrait of each, thinking of James and Cam first with especial longing, for they are her babies:

"Oh but she never wanted James to grow a day older! Or Cam either. These two she would have liked to keep for ever just as they were, demons of wickedness, angels of delight, never to see them grow up into long - legged monsters. Nothing made up for the loss. . . . why should they grow up and lose all that? . . . She would have liked always to have had a baby. She was happiest carrying one in her arms. . . . Prue, a perfect angel with the others, and sometimes now, at night especially, she took one's breath away with her beauty. Andrew -- even her husband admitted that his gift for mathematics was extraordinary. And Nancy and Roger, they were both wild creatures. . . . As for Rose, her mouth was too big, but she had a wonderful gift with her hands. . . . She did not like it that Jasper should shoot birds; but it was only a stage; they all went through stages. Why she asked, pressing her chin on James's head, should they grow up so fast? . . . And, touching his hair with her lips, she thought, he will never be so happy again. . . . They were happier now than they would ever be again. A tenpenny tea set made Cam happy for days." (89 - 90)

She sees the mortality of her children; and despite the promise she sees in each one, she senses the fleeting quality of their happiness and their childhood. She questions the temporariness and the temporality of their existence, but she does not consider immortality, only their earthly happiness. She does not want them ever to grow away from the state of "radical innocence" that Yeats refers to in his poem "A Prayer for My Daughter":

Prayer For My Daughter
Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven's will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all's accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony's a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

William Butler Yeats, 1865 - 1939
Irish poet and dramatist
Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1923

[See previous posts:
September 14, 2009
November 28, 2010]

Mrs. Ramsay's wish for her children is as fervent as Yeats' but not as hopeful. She wishes for a prolongation of childhood rather than a recovery of innocence. She has no faith in reparation for loss nor in any power which will guarantee happiness to her children in the face of unkindness and upheaval. Instead she wishes that neither she nor they would ever lose the days of their innocence. When she says, "Nothing made up for the loss," she thinks of her own loss as the mother of little dependent children. But knowing how they will slip away, she resigns herself, thinking of Mr. Ramsay's accusation that she is "pessimistic" and has a "gloomy view of life" (91). Though her view of life and time passing angers her husband, the nostalgia she anticipates and her clear sense of loss and finality ("She thought life -- and a little strip of time presented itself to her eyes," 91) is not unfounded. It is, in fact, confirmed by the detached narrator of the middle section of the novel who impartially and in merest passing records the deaths of Prue in childbirth, Andrew at war, and Mrs. Ramsay herself in the night.

Prue's early death, though, is quite the opposite of the future envisioned for her by her mother. For despite Mrs. Ramsay's private certainty that "there was no treachery too base for the world to commit" (98), she holds out hope and endurance to her children:

" . . . she must admit that she felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile, and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance. There were the eternal problems: suffering; death; the poor. There was always a woman dying of cancer even here. And yet she said to all these children, You shall go through it all. To eight people she said relentlessly that." (92)

Tablescape by Katy Bunder

At the dinner party, Mrs. Ramsay notices that Prue is "just beginning, just moving, just descending" into the adult world (164) and protectively wills that Prue shall have a happy future. In her concern for Prue's contentment, Mrs. Ramsay mirrors another of the desires expressed in Yeats' "Prayer," his hope that his daughter will be blessed with a loving mate and a happy home, grounded on the stability and affirmation of tradition. She expresses her appreciation of a place "where all's accustomed." She knows the significance of being "rooted in one dear perpetual place."

Mrs. Ramsay joys in her children ("For one's children so often gave one's own perceptions a little thrust forward," 122); and she is sensitive to their aches and pains, especially their emotional woes. Her heart breaks at the thought of James' disappointment when the excursion to the lighthouse is cancelled. The novel is punctuated by her motherly concern for James's frustrated expedition and a desire to somehow make up to him what cannot be made up.

She is sympathetic also with her creative daughter, Rose, seeing that is some way they are alike. In the scene preceding the famous dinner party, Mrs. Ramsay is seen at her most intimate and relaxed with the two children, Rose and Jasper, who visit her room before dinner, ministering to her as she looks to them to inspire her perceptions. She is happy, teasing and indulging them as they help her decide what necklace to wear to dinner.

She urges them to hurry with the jewels, " 'choose, dearests, choose.' " She is not loathe to be associated with their choices. She is patient, knowing that Rose has "some hidden reason of her own for attaching great importance to this choosing what her mother was to wear. . . . And Rose would grow up; and Rose would suffer, she supposed with these deep feelings. . . . Choose me a shawl, she said, for that would please Rose, who was bound to suffer so." She identifies closely with Rose and realizes that her feelings for Rose are for herself as well. When exploring her own bewilderment over Rose's little ceremony of choosing the jewels, she thinks, "Like all feelings felt for oneself . . . it made one sad" (122 - 23).

Mrs. Ramsay is intuitive and creative, exhibiting love and care and motherly concern in numerous instances throughout the first section of the novel. She is filled with anxiety on her children's behalf, but also with pride. Fearing that the children are about to erupt in laughter over some private joke at dinner, she says to them -- by way of maintaining order and altering the dinner table dynamic: " 'Light the candles' " (145). Standing down the length of the table and illuminating an elaborate centerpiece designed by Rose, the tall candles number eight, just as Mrs. Ramsay's children do.
Happy Mother's Day!

Tablescape by Tina McCartney

Next Fortnightly Post
Monday, May 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

My friend Jill sent me the little wreath of roses a couple of years ago, and I put it inside this larger Easter wreath to make a summery candleholder.

1 comment:

  1. Kathie O'Gorman writes: Yes! I love her. Some of my favorite quotes are from "Lighthouse" and "Mrs. Dalloway." I was just quoting Mrs. D. in class this morning!

    "Here is one room, there another: does religion solve that? Does love?" Or something to that effect.