To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf’s fifth novel, was published on May 5, 1927. It was published in a run of 3000 copies by Hogarth Press, a publishing company set up and managed by Woolf and her husband Leonard, with a cover designed by her sister Vanessa Bell.
The novel is presented in three sections, and takes place at the Ramsey family’s holiday home on the Scottish Isle of Skye.
The second and third parts take place in 1920, ten years after Part One, ten years during which World War I has taken place and there have been many changes in the Ramsey family’s lives.
The novel is written in the modernist style, of which Woolf was a pioneer, with little dialogue, subjective points of view, multiple narrators and one stretch of detached omniscient narration in the middle section.
The novelist Arnold Bennett complained that, “A group of people plan to sail in a small boat to a lighthouse. At the end some of them reach the lighthouse in a small boat. That is the externality of the plot.”
But Woolf, and the modernists, professed to be less concerned with “externality” than with interiority. “The proper stuff of fiction does not exist,” Woolf later wrote. “Everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss.”
Woolf said that To the Lighthouse was her most autobiographical novel. The geography of the Ramsey’s summer retreat, including the lighthouse, approximates the Stephen (Woolf’s maiden name) family’s summer home in Cornwall.
In the ten year gap in the novel Mrs. Ramsey dies and Mr. Ramsey falls into a severe depression. Woolf’s mother also died during this time and her father never recovered from the loss.
One of the main characters is an artist named Lily Briscoe, who meditates somewhat neurotically on the meaning of creativity and self-expression, and seems to echo many of Woolf’s own obsessions.
To the Lighthouse was Woolf’s best-selling novel up to that time. The original 3000 copies sold out in the first month and the book was reprinted in June. 4000 copies were printed in the United States and it went into five reprints by the end of the year.
The Woolf’s are said to have used the profits from To the Lighthouse to buy themselves a family car.