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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for To the Lighthouse

Relates to: 

Photograph of Queen Victoria taken by Alexander Bassano in 1882, the year of Virginia Woolf’s birth.  (Wikimedia Commons)Photograph of Queen Victoria taken by Alexander Bassano in 1882, the year of Virginia Woolf’s birth. (Wikimedia Commons) Victorian to Modern

The period of Virginia Woolf’s life spanned the transition from the Victorian to the modern world. In the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution had made Britain the ‘factory to the world’ and solidified its economic power. The British Empire was at the height of its power and influence. In people’s daily lives the church occupied a central place, and class positions and gender roles seemed fixed. Yet between the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, when Woolf was 19, and the end of the Second World War, almost every aspect of British life changed. The impact of two world wars, prolonged economic depression in the 1930s, and the rise of the USA and the Soviet Union as rival world powers meant that by the latter half of the twentieth century, Britain had lost its global pre-eminence, and witnessed radical social, cultural, and political changes.

When Virginia Woolf was born in 1882, horses and carriages rattled past her home in Kensington; by the time she died in 1941, formations of jet aircraft roared overhead and threatened oblivion from the air. Less deadly, but no less revolutionary, the radio, the telephone and the automobile altered the rhythms and expectations of everyday life. The expansion of the voting franchise and increases in leisure time for workers meant that class divisions were weakened, and more of the population than ever before had a voice in politics and a share of cultural life. The creation of a welfare state in 1945 represented to many in Britain a clean break from a world organized by the wealthy, for the wealthy.

As the radical ideas of thinkers such as Marx, Freud, and Einstein began to take hold, and the influence of religion weakened, people began to challenge orthodoxy and tradition, and agitate for fairer treatment of the poor and of women. It was in this spirit of modern rebellion that Virginia moved with her adult siblings out of the family home and into the (then rather seedy) London district of Bloomsbury to forge a new kind of living arrangement. Virginia and her sister Vanessa rejected the idea of a home presided over by a woman like their mother, the Victorian ‘angel in the house,’ and determined that instead of serving tea and looking decorative, they would take part in intellectual discussions with their brothers and friends. At the same time, however, Woolf and her friends and acquaintances in the free-thinking ‘Bloomsbury Group’ never questioned the necessity of employing servants to run even their most progressive of households.


British soldiers in a communications trench on the first day on the Battle of Somme, 1916. (Wikimedia Commons)British soldiers in a communications trench on the first day on the Battle of Somme, 1916. (Wikimedia Commons) To the Lighthouse in its time

The First World War broke out suddenly in the summer of 1914 and dragged on far longer, and at vastly greater cost, than anyone had dared to predict. In Britain, thousands of young men responded to appeals to join up in defense of nation and ‘civilization,’ and found themselves stuck, in Ezra Pound’s words, ‘eye-deep in hell,’ living in trenches alongside rats and corpses, and measuring their progress and victories in inches. The destruction of the landscape of battle, of human bodies, and of lives was unprecedented and indescribable, and for many writers and artists like Woolf, grouped under the loose term ‘modernist,’ it represented a decisive, irreparable break from the past and a need for new forms of representation in art and literature.

To The Lighthouse (1927), along with Woolf’s two preceding novels Jacob’s Room (1922) and Mrs. Dalloway (1925), emerges from the period of painful recovery from the war, and displays Woolf’s innovations in prose fiction. Most strikingly, the major events of the novel ­are contained in brief, condensed parentheses, while the day-to-day thoughts and memories of the characters expand to fill the surrounding pages. Although the novel is set on an island off the coast of Scotland, the house and surrounding landscape (including the lighthouse) are closely based on St. Ives, Cornwall, where the Stephen family spent their summers until Virginia’s mother’s death in 1895. It has therefore often been read as one of Woolf’s most autobiographical novels. To the Lighthouse was first published by the Hogarth Press, established by Virginia and her husband Leonard in 1917 in the basement of their home, Hogarth House, in Richmond, west London. Woolf called it ‘easily the best of my books,’ and it sold so well that she and Leonard were able to buy their first car. 


Written by Joanna Scutts, Department of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University


Works Consulted:

The Broadview Anthology of British Literature Volume Six: The Twentieth Century and Beyond (Broadview Press, 2006)

Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Chatto & Windus, 1996)