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Adèle Cassigneul
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Virginia Woolf’s Ruined House

A Literary Complex
Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines No 43, 2012

In Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the Ramsays’ ruined and empty house is pictured as a transitional spectral place, articulating waste and decay and the progressive vanishing of an older order and heritage with the promise of reconstruction through metamorphosis. We will see that Woolf uses the ruined house as a structural motif to try and express the inexpressible in troubled times (traumatic aftermath of WWI). The ruin becomes a lieu de mémoire through striking images, a place of resistance too, underlining the crucial function of art when a whole civilisation is threatened by destruction.

Such was the complexity of things. … to feel violently two opposite things at the same time … .
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 111

The central section of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse hinges upon the oxymoronic nature of ruin and ponders over disappearance. Articulating concerns for loss and mourning, time and memory, war and destruction, creation and imagination, the Woolfian ruin stands as a “meetingplace of dissemblables” [1], a complex representation device [2] that takes shape in-between. The Ramsays’ deserted family home in “Time Passes” opens up an abstract spatio-temporal interval where time stands still and life and death, light and darkness, past and future come together in a movement that combines contradictory terms.

“I cannot make it out”, wrote Woolf on Sunday, 18th of April 1926, “– here is the most difficult abstract piece of writing – I have to give an empty house, no people’s characters, the passage of time, all eyeless & featureless with nothing to cling to” [3] ; yet she wrote quickly, almost with elation. Perhaps because, wanting to express the inexpressible, Woolf was free to experiment, to explore ruin as the “perennial tension between what is preserved and what is lost, what seems immediately understandable […] and what needs interpretation (or reconstruction)” [4], in other words, an epistemological metaphor. In her 1924 programmatic essay, “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown”, Woolf encouraged her contemporaries to “tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure” [5]. Her own temporal spasm, “Time Passes”, disrupts the natural order of things, the family structure, and literary tradition and conventions. My paper will focus on the ways Woolf disfigures and refigures literature through the image of ruins. Writing about the paradoxical nature of decay, Woolf captures the ineffable quality of a time that inexorably passes yet is shaped by surviving reminiscences. But she also ponders over the unutterable sense of fracture and dismantlement triggered by conflict, making literature the recipient of disfiguring scars and barely visible marks, making ruin the impossible place where modernism takes shape and invents new ways of saying the unsayable.

“A form from which life had parted” [6]

Because the central part offers a poetic and ethical exploration of the process of ruin, it is not as isolated as it may seem. If in “The Window”, the first part of Woolf’s “elegy” [7], the family home stands as a place of harmonious domesticity (the house of light [8] “in the heart of life” [9]), symptoms of degradation already suggest the entropic movement of the terrible workings of time. The on-going process of dilapidation announces the becoming ruin described in “Time Passes” : “things got shabbier and got shabbier summer after summer. The mat was fading ; the wall-paper was flapping” [10]. The house is fading away, before it dissolves into a “suffocation of darkness” [11], before it is abandoned, and remains “waiting for the future to show” [12], a prey to stray airs, rain and dust [13]— the dust which, according to Georges Didi-Huberman, is the very matter secreted by absence, the “indestructible foam of destruction” [14].

The house was left ; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sandhill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it. The long night seemed to have set in ; the trifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed [15].”

Woolf depicts “a world hollowed out” [16] where matter has triumphed over human life, “reach[ing] out with its fingers for existence” [17]. “Matter flexes its being in the absence of the formal whole” [18], says Robert Ginsberg. Woolf figures absence through defamiliarization, probing into what is no more, a mere presence-absence emblematized by discarded objects, “what people had shed and left” and which “alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated” [19]—scattered memento mori, brushed by “sliding lights”, and “fumbling airs” [20]. Human presence has dissolved (“no people’s characters”) and Woolf creates an abstract vision in which the invisible becomes visible in absentia [21]. Her subtle variation on emptiness and nothingness appears as the inverted echo of the pleasures brought by bright light in “The Window” [22]. The ruined house resounds with voices of “one long sorrow and trouble” [23]. The moaning wind, the creaking wood, the slamming doors compose a disharmonious melody echoing the elegiac “aimless gust of lamentation” [24]. The former home becomes Unheimlich, airs and lights evolve with “feather-light fingers and the light persistency of feathers” [25]. The alliterating chiasmus (or epanalepsis) figures the “featureless” vision of absence.

The central section is both detached from and connected to the other sections as a metaphor of mourning, working through bereavement, the loss of Mrs Ramsay, the Angel in the House, the federating energy of the Ramsay family. Proleptically assimilated to a house which must be rebuilt in Part 1 – “The ruin was veiled ; domesticity triumphed ; custom crooned its soothing rhythm” [26] – Mrs Ramsay’s waning features bear the marks of fading beauty. “Shabby and worn out, and not presumably (her cheeks were hollow, her hair was white) any longer a sight that filled the eyes with joy” [27]. Woolf identifies the female body and the body of the house, literalizing the cliché to turn it into a powerful narrative drive. Mrs Ramsay disappears abruptly, elliptically, engulfed in the sudden “downpouring of immense darkness” [28], turning the house of light into house of shadows, a twilight ruin : the very place of disfiguration.

Like the house, the family falls apart when the mother dies ; the theme cut close to the bone, as far as Woolf was concerned. For Georges Didi-Huberman, the shade is the occult place where images and ideas are shaped [29]. Indeed, if shadows tend to deface and erase what is visible, they can also be the place where images are revealed and appear (especially in the photographic process [30]). The central section owes much to a photographic negative, etching in light and darkness the process of erosion. The house’s “eye opened onto the night” [31] has closed and lets darkness seep in. And perhaps, for all its play on the stream of consciousness, the whole novel also focuses on photographic portraits. While writing her first drafts, Woolf went back to her father’s Mausoleum Book, the memoir he bequeathed to his children and which contained several photos of Julia Stephen a few years before her death. And with Mrs Ramsay’s shaded figure, a ghostly image surfaces, an image that haunts the whole of To the Lighthouse, the image of Woolf’s own mother [32], from the ethereal and haunting beauty transfixed by the Pictorialist photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron [33], to photographs of a woman who bore the marks of time on her face [34]. Emptied of its vital core, the Ramsays’ household becomes “a form from which life had parted” [35], a transitional spectral place where the memory of the deceased mother survives through its image [36]. The ruin thus becomes the place of mourning, a melancholic poetic tomb for the Mother. In the “profusion of darkness” [37] survives the flickering, dialectical image of Mrs Ramsay/Julia Stephen, turning the ruin into a house of surviving time. The lieu de mémoire [38] strikingly recalls the elegiac art of photo albums [39], an art that Woolf and her family practiced ceaselessly [40].

As Laura Marcus contends, To the Lighthouse is

caught up in the dimension of the scopic ; With Lily’s painting, a major theme, its overt concern is with pictorial representation, but its exploration of the ways in which images of the past function in the present bears a much closer relationship to theories of photography and cinematography [41].”

In “Reminiscences”, Woolf mentions memories of her mother in a manner that is akin to the photographic process : “There was scarcely any superfluity ; and it is for this reason that, past as those years are, her mark on them is ineffaceable, as though branded by the naked steel, the sharp, the pure” [42]. In To the Lighthouse, the ruined house is turned into a camera obscura, in which images are revealed through “some cleavage of the dark”, “some channel in the depths of obscurity” [43]. Wandering over the blank walls of the empty house, the unfolding “long ribbon of scenes [and] emotions” [44] flickers, a welter of dialectic images, at once past and present, of a being dissolving into nothingness. Virginia Woolf creates stills of her mother [45], then lets the images flow by, not simply because objects and fragments are a palimpsest forcing the reader to recall images (s)he saw in the first part, but because Woolf experiments with mental optical devices. In “Time Passes”, memory is linked to projection and to Woolf’s idea of “time as telescoped” [46].

She could see her now, stooping over her flowers ; (and faint and flickering, like a yellow beam or the circle at the end of a telescope, a lady in a grey cloak, stooping over her flowers, went wandering over the bedroom wall, up the dressing-table, across the wash-stand, as Mrs McNab hobbled and ambled, dusting, straightening) [47].”

Obsessed with the past. Woolf uses optics as a metaphor of the way the mind may literally “focus” on the past.

Metonymic superimposition

The paradox is that this intimate photographic process also develops into a reflexion on History. Contrary to the “widely held view of her as an elitist dweller of an ivory tower” [48], Woolf’s concern for ruination and the erosion of time is also linked to the traumatic events of the Great War, its threat to destroy a whole civilization and the uncertainties brought by this collective experience. As James M. Haule has noted, the holograph of “Time Passes” was a strongly “antimilitaristic, fiercely feminist condemnation of the pointless violence of blind male domination” [49] and “mindless warfare” [50]. The section in its draft versions spoke of a violence and despair associated with war, themes Woolf will later develop in her essay Three Guineas ; elements which are toned down in the final version but which must be taken into account [51]. Prompting questions on the meaning of life and on Man’s capacity to endure both time and disaster [52], Woolf’s “Time Passes” queries humanity and literature never giving any definite answer, but rather expressing a perpetual reworking of the question – “Will you fade ? Will you perish ?” [53], “What does it mean then, what does it all mean ?” [54]. Questions put to past and future, Man and civilization. Woolf unravels a crucial quest for meaning in the face of a metaphysical void, of questions that breed a sense of fracture and loss.

According to Michael S. Roth, “WWI fragmented European perceptions of the past, while disconnecting it from reasonable hopes for the future” [55]. The ruin thus stands as “a reminder of disaster” [56], a place where we “experience the presence of death in the present” [57]. Like many European writers in 1920s, Woolf writes a tale about time to “shore fragments” [58] against a ruin that threatens both the private and the public spheres. Fragmenting perception, Woolf creates a dislocated text in which typographical blanks and detached bracketed short paragraphs both stand for the scars of a wounded civilization and structure the disjointed whole. Her aesthetic concerns spring from an ethical assessment of the collapse of a patriarchal system. Woolf’s poethic [59] section suggests that the ruined house foreshadows the ruin of British culture and civilization [60]. Destruction must be answered with de-structuring and met with a kaleidoscopic literary collage, as in this example :

Then again silence fell ; and then, night after night, and sometimes in plain mid-day when the roses were bright and light turned on the wall its shapes clearly there seemed to drop into this silence this indifference, this integrity, the thud of something falling.

[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous] [61].”

The muffled fall in the decaying house echoes the shell which blows up both young soldiers and fictional representation. Echoing the dismantled prose in Jacob’s Room, the experience of loss comes to be figured by the typographical gaps of a text fraught with holes. The brackets at once figure the wounds of death, loss and absence and act as textual stiches. Cracks appear in the text signalling a need to articulate a new language to say the unsayable, the collective trauma. In “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown”, Woolf rejected the nineteenth-century Realist methods of representation, deeming the writing techniques of the “Materialists” obsolete – “those tools are not our tools, and that business is not our business. For us those conventions are ruin, those tools are dead” [62]. To the Lighthouse thus takes shape on the ruins of Woolf’s discarded Victorian heritage ; the broken house is a site of resistance and innovation [63]. Woolf creates an impossible text, an emblem of modernity [64].

“Everything was going to be new ; everything was going to be different. Everything was on trial.” [65]

With “Time Passes”, Woolf seeks to capture the paradoxical nature of ruins, mingling intimacy and national destiny, time present, time past and time future. Because it remains and persists, the ruin belongs to both past and future, it “collapses temporalities” [66], and perhaps we should look at the text from a cinematic, as much as a photographic perspective. Woolf’s ruined house becomes an anachronistic temporal complex which triggers literary metamorphosis and renewal. On Tuesday, 23rd of November 1926, Woolf wrote in her diary, “time shall be utterly obliterated ; future shall somehow blossom out of the past. […] My theory being that the actual event practically does not exist – nor time either” [67]. In “Time Passes”, Woolf lays emphasis on temporal dissolution – “for night and day, month and year ran shapelessly together” [68]. Unwinding the “ball of memories” [69], she opens up temporalities creating a heterogeneous temporal montage [70] which juxtaposes past, present and future. With Mrs McNab “tearing the veil of silence” [71], Woolf suggests the promise of a future and announces regeneration.

Slowly and painfully, with broom and pail, mopping, scouring, Mrs McNab, Mrs Bast stayed the corruption and the rot ; rescued from the pool of Time that was closing over them now a basin, now a cupboard ; fetched up from oblivion all the Waveley novels and a tea-set one morning ; in the afternoon restored to sun and air a brass fender and a set of steel fire-irons [72].”

If “Time Passes” insists on gradual degradation – the decaying process being graphically pictured in the recurring kinetograph-like motif of the shawl [73] – cleaning allows the film to run backward, healing what was broken [74].

In 1926, Woolf wrote “The Cinema”, an essay on the then expanding seventh art. Writing about the potential of this new means of expression, she expressed her fascination with “the thing that exists when we aren’t there” [75]. Indeed, in “Time Passes”, we “see life as it is when we have no part in it” [76]. The text registers slow motion like a camera eye, rather than a human eye. Woolf pictures abstract visions evolving in the deserted home, rooms “full of such shy creatures, lights and shadows, curtains blowing, petals falling – things that never happen, so it seems, if someone is looking” [77].

So with the house empty and the doors locked and the mattresses rolled round, those stray airs, advanced guards of great armies, blustered in, brushed bare boards, nibbled and fanned, met nothing in bedroom or drawing-room that wholly resisted them but only hangings that flapped, wood that creaked, the bare legs of tables, saucepans and china already furred, tarnished, cracked. […] Now day after day, light turned, like a flower reflected in water, its sharp image on the wall opposite. Only the shadows of the trees, flourishing in the wind, made obeisance on the wall, and for a moment darkened the pool in which light reflected itself ; or birds, flying, made a soft spot flutter slowly across the bedroom floor [78].”

Populated by fleeting airs and evanescent shadows only, the ruin becomes a hybrid intermedial space, where the cinema-like projection of light onto the bare walls reflects the abstract transience of time. Woolf transforms the ruin into a modernist representation device that at once radically reforms the British novel at the turn of the twentieth century and renews traditional representations of ruin as a Romantic object of melancholy beauty. The ruined house thus becomes the matrix of modernity, a place where the workings of time not only erode the family home but also regenerate it, showing “the invisible progress of the past gnawing into the future” [79]. The ruin thus conjoins memory and expectation, retrospective and prospective senses of time, in its perpetual ability to change. The paradoxical freshness and freedom of the ruin come to be expressed in the plasticity of the Woolfian prose and its “eyeless” vision transposing in the text photographic and cinematic energy. And indeed, as Robert Ginsberg underlines,

“The ruin invents and not merely endures. The ruin is not so much a preservation of the past as a presentation of its own freshness. The original edifice is past. The ruin is present in its originality. […] We discover newness, and it invites exploration. Freedom from restraints and expectations [80].”


[1Virginia Woolf, Orlando. A Biography, London, Vintage, 2000, 113.

[2I use the phrase representation device as a translation for "dispositif" as used in the works of Philippe Ortel (La Littérature à l’ère de la photographie. Enquête sur une révolution invisible, Nïmes, Jaqueline Chambon Editions, 2002) and Arnaud Rykner (Paroles perdues. Faillite du langage et représentation, Paris, José Corti, 2000 and Pans. Liberté de l’œuvre et résistance du texte, Paris, José Corti, 2004).

[3Ann Oliver Bell (ed), The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Volume 3 1925-1930, Londo, Penguin, 1982, 76.

[4Michael S. Roth (ed), Irresistible Decay : Ruins Reclaimed, Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, 1997, vii.

[5Virginia Woolf, "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown", The Captain’s Death Bed, and Other Essays, London, Hogarth Press, 1950, 111.

[6Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, London, Penguin, 2000, 43.

[7The definition that she gave for this novel : “(But while I try to write, I am making up “To the Lighthouse” – the sea is to heard all through it. I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant “novel”. A new – by Virginia Woolf. But what ? Elegy ?)" ; Diary 3, 34.

[8"The Window" is full of references to light and livelihood. See for instance, "The house was all lit up, and the ligts after the darkness made his eyes feel full", Ibid, 86.

[9Ibid, 141.

[10Ibid, 32.

[11Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, New York, Hartcourt, 1985, 184.

[12To the Lighthouse, 137.

[13Many references are made to the slow degradation of the house. See, for instance, "The room (she looked round it) was very shabby. There was no beauty anywhere", Ibid, 91.

[14Georges Didi-Huberman, Génie du non-lieu. Air, poussière, empreinte, hantise, Paris, Minuit, 2001, 55 [my translation].

[15Ibid, 149-50.

[16Ibid, 141.

[17Robert Ginsberg, The Aesthetic of Ruin, New York, Rodopi, 2004, 2.

[18Ibid, 1.

[19To the Lighthouse, 141.

[20 Ibid, 138.

[21See Chantal Delourme, "La figure, la nuit dans « Time Passes »", EBC Hors Série, Montpellier, Presses Universitaires de Montpellier, 1999, 119-34.

[22Jean-Christophe Bailly reminds us that "light produces shadows. If light is always the source of shadows, then shadows, instead of simply being opposed to light, can and must be understood as its echo", L’Instant et son ombre, Paris, Seuil, 2008, 38 [my translation].

[23To the Lighthouse, 142.

[24Ibid, 139.

[25To the Lighthouse, 138.

[26Ibid, 36.

[27Ibid, 48.

[28Ibid, 137.

[29Génie du non-lieu, 105.

[30According to Jean-Christophe Bailly, "because, in its own way, it also is a shadow, or the deposit of a shadow, every photograph stands as the memory of lightning, of being illuminated, and as the premonition of ruination, or of defacement", L’instant et son ombre, 153 [my translation].

[31Gaston Bachelard, La Poétique de l’espace, Paris, Quatrige/PUF, 1998, 48 [my translation].

[32In her diary, Woolf noted : " This [To the Lighthouse] is going to be fairly short : to have father’s character done complete in it ; & mothers ; & St Ives ; & childhood ; & all the usual things I try to put in – life, death &c.”, Diary 3, 18-9.

[33See Colin Ford (ed), Julia Margaret Cameron : 19th century photographer of genius, London, National Portrait Gallery Publications, 2003.

[34See the digitalised version of The Mausoleum Book on :

[35To the Lighthouse, 141.

[36In Part 3, "To the lighthouse", surving memory images act as agents of revelation : "‘D’you remember ?’ she felt inclined to ask him as she passed him, thinking again of Mrs Ramsay on the beach ; the cask bobbing up and down ; and the pages flying. Why, after all these years had that survived, ringed round, lit up, visible to the last detail, with all before it blank and all after it blank, for miles and miles ?" ; "the vision would com to her, and her eyes, half closing, sought something to base her vision on. […] the vision must be perptualy remade” ; Ibid, 186, 197.

[37Ibid, 137.

[38See Pierre Nora, "Between Memory and History : Les lieux de mémoire", Représentations, n°26, Spring 1989, 1-24.

[39See Maggie Humm, Snapshots of Bloomsbury. The Private Lives of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 2004.

[40See Quentin Bell and Angelica Garnett (ed), Vanessa Bell’s Family Album, London, Jill Norman and Hobhouse, 1981.

[41Laura Marcus, The Tenth Muse. Writing about Cinema in the Modernist Period, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, 147.

[42Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being, New York, Hartcourt, 35

[43To the Lighthouse, 143.

[44Moments of Being, 67.

[45When Woolf was writing To the Lighthouse, she also sitted for Vogue, went back to the Mausoleum Book and wrote the preface to the Hogarth Press’s edition of Julia Margaret photographs, Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women.

[46Diary 3, 13.

[47To the Lighthouse, 149. 

[48James M. Haule, "To the Lighthouse and the Great War : The Evidence of Virginia Woolf’s Revisions of « Time Passes »", in Mark Hussey (ed), Virginia Woolf and War. Fiction, Reality and Myth, New York, Syracuse University Press, 7.

[49Ibid, 173.

[50Ibid, 167.

[51See Karen L. Levenback, Virginia Woolf and the Great War, New York, Syracuse University Press, 1999.

[52See Dominique Rabaté, Le Roman et le sens de la vie, Paris, José Corti, 2010.

[53To the Lightouse, 141.

[54Ibid, 159.

[55Irresistible Decay : Ruins Reclaimed, 28.

[56Ibid, 28.

[57Ibid, 25.

[58T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land", The Complete Poems and Plays, London : Faber & Faber, 1969, 75.

[59The word "poethic" was coined by French poet Michel Deguy, and critics Jean-Michel Pinson and Jean-Michel Maulpoix. It conjoins ideas of poetics, politics, ethics, aesthetics and ethos.

[60See Nancy T. Bazin and Jane H. Lauter, "Virginia Woolf’s Keen Sensitivity to War : Its Roots and Its Impact on her Novels", in Virginia Woolf and War, 14-39.

[61To the Lighthouse, 145.

[62“Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”, 104.

[63Michael Tratner notes that "“Time Passes” represents the transition between Victorian and modern (or modernist) worlds" ; Michael Tratner, Modernism and Mass Politics. Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Yeats, Stanford (CA), Stanford University Press, 1995, 51

[64"Modernity begins with the search for an impossible literature" says Roland Barthes, in Le Degré zéro de l’écriture, Paris, Seuil, 1953, 58 [my translation].

[65Ibid, 185

[66Irresistible Decay : Ruins Reclaimed, 25.

[67Diary 3, 118.

[68To the Lighthouse, 147.

[69Ibid, 153.

[70See Georges Didi-Huberman, Devant le Temps, Paris, Minuit, 2000.

[71Ibid, 142.

[72Ibid, 151-2.

[73"one fold of the shawl loosened and swung to and fro", "another fold of the shawl loosened ; there it hung, and swayed", "Idly, aimlessly, the swaying shawl swung to and fro", To the Lighthouse, 142, 145, 150. The kinetograph or flip book was invented in 1868, it is the first form of animation to employ a linear sequence of images rather than circular. It relies on the persistence of vision and creates the illusion of continuous motion. Furthermore the shawl is associated with a falling rock and the outbreak of the Great War, picturing an irreparable aesthetic, cultural and human fracture.

[74As Gaston Bachelard puts it, “domestic care weaves ties that unit a very ancient past to the days to come”, La Poétique de l’espace, 74 [my translation].

[75Virginia Woolf, "The Cinema", The Crowded Dance of Modern Life and Other Essays, London, Penguin, 1993, 55.


[77Virginia Woolf, "The Lady in the Looking-Glass : A Reflection", A Haunted House. The Complete Shorter Fiction, London, Vintage, 2003, 215.

[78To the Lighthouse, 140-1.

[79Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, Mineola (New York), Dover Publication, 2004, 194.

[80The Aesthetic of Ruin, 155.