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  • 'Time Passes' - Virginia Woolf's Virgilian Passage to the Future Past Masterpieces:A la recherche du temps perdu and To the Lighthouse
  • Margaret Tudeau-Clayton (bio)


'When we speak of literary filiation [...] it is not so much the mere game of tracing influences which is involved as the implied definition of the artist's status'1

'see the past in relation to the future; and so prepare the way for masterpieces to come'2

In 'How Should One Read a Book?', an essay that she drafted as she worked on To the Lighthouse in 1925–1926, Virginia Woolf recommends that readers juxtapose and compare texts from different historical moments, that, for instance, they read Shakespeare's King Lear and Aeschylus's Agamemnon side by side.3 As writer as well as reader she had made this very comparison – of King Lear and Agamemnon – in another essay, entitled 'On Not Knowing Greek' (1925), in which she also juxtaposes Sophocles, first with Jane Austen, then with Marcel Proust.4 Jane Austen is in turn described, in yet another piece from this period, as a writer who 'would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust', had she lived longer.5 As in this instance, such comparative juxtapositions serve 'to bring out' a 'common quality', as she puts it in 'How Should One Read', and so to affirm what she calls, in 'How It Strikes a Contemporary' (1925), the 'continuity and calm' that remain despite the 'storm' – the literary and cultural as well as socio-political turbulences that accompany the passage of time.6 Woolf's practice of such comparative reading was encouraged by daily habits of reading and writing. A 'work list' in her journal entry for January 7, 1923, for instance, starts with the writing of Mrs Dalloway, a review article and 'the Greek chapter' (for The Common Reader), [End Page 291] then goes on to name the Greek authors that she plans to read for this chapter, which she juxtaposes with 'perhaps, another vol of Proust' – a juxtaposition which translates into the comparison of Sophocles and Proust in the chapter 'On Not Knowing Greek'.7

In this essay I want to explore how what I call, following Richard Aldington, literary filiations to 'the old and the new' are juxtaposed in To the Lighthouse.8 Specifically, the figure of 'the greatest modern novelist', as Woolf describes Marcel Proust in April 1927,9 the year of the publication of To the Lighthouse, is juxtaposed with a figure of ancient classical culture, though this is not a Greek author, as in the essays and journal entries cited above, but the Latin author Virgil. There are distinctive features to these filiations that I will look at from within an overview of Woolf's relation to each figure, principally because of these features, but also because critical discussion of these relations is either non-existent (Virgil) or restricted in scope (Proust).10 The filiations are, however, also connected, in particular through the figure of the contemplative poet and reader Augustus Carmichael who, at the opening of the second part of To the Lighthouse, 'Time Passes', is 'reading Virgil', while, in the third part, 'The Lighthouse', he is 'reading a French novel'.11 Whether or not the novel is Proust's, readers are invited to recall the earlier evocation of the contemporary French masterpiece at the close of the first part, 'The Window' (discussed below). Virgil and Proust are, moreover, brought together at the conclusion of the novel by a trope of comparison that also includes To the Lighthouse itself. For Carmichael's 'French novel' is here compared to a 'trident', a figure which alludes not only, self-consciously, to the tripartite form of Woolf's novel, as Randall Stevenson has suggested,12 but more generally to an aesthetic form or 'shape' (to use Woolf's preferred word) which is shared by the new and the old. As we shall see, it is likely that Woolf knew of the original tripartite conception of Proust's novel, as of course she knew of the tripartite structure of James Joyce's Ulysses (which she was reading as she started Proust in 1922). Her own tripartite...


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pp. 291-323
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2009
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