Lighthouses in literature

I long to have sufficient literary knowledge – or internet-combing skills – to provide literary lists a la John Mullan in the Guardian. I adore his Ten of the Best column.

If only that were the case, then whenever I were to read a book which featured something peculiar that I remembered also being featured in another book, it would start a chain reaction. Little connections would spark all over my brain and I’d be left with an immense and unique literary web of books which feature, for instance, snakes, honeymoons … or, indeed, lighthouses.

I’ve just read Colm Toibin’s really quite marvellous The Blackwater Lightship. (I read this in spite of not having read Brooklyn – before you start gushing …)

It’s a great book. It’s very Irish. My favourite bit, I think, is the opening, when Helen and her husband throw a big party and loads of people turn up with instruments and sing songs. No Class As, no DJ, no spirits … rather a guitar, flute, fiddle, bodhrán (told you it was Irish) a voice, some six packs and chilli con carne. Could you imagine going to a party like that in London? Thought not. Here’s for moving to Ireland.

After the party, Helen gets some bad news. Her brother has AIDS and has become very sick. He wants their estranged family, plus a couple of his gay friends, to gather together at his grandmother’s house on the coast near the Blackwater Lightship.

I know it sounds depressing. A premise like that – someone dying from AIDS – makes it a hard book to sell to a customer. Hardly a beach read. But the AIDS thing is more in the background; it’s really a novel about three generations of strong women – Helen, her mother and her grandmother – who are all incredibly angry with each other, who have all behaved badly towards each other over the years, coming together and working things out. It can be quite funny, as well as very moving.

But, more to the point, there’s a lighthouse, or at least a lightship, in the title.

Now, I might not have John Mullan’s literary magpie brain, but even I can’t read a book about a lighthouse without thinking of Virginia Woolf. Why, I wondered, has Colm Toibin made such an explicit reference to Virginia Woolf?

So I picked up my tattered copy of To the Lighthouse and flicked through it. I bought it in Blackwells, during my first year at Oxford. When I (briefly) studied it then, I went through it and underlined bits with my biro. When I came back to Virginia Woolf to specialise, in my third year, I poured scorn on my little marks and underlined several more passages – far more subtle, far more intelligent, I was sure – in the softer blue of my fountain pen, and the odd bit of orange or purple felt tip. There now exists a kind of multi-coloured codex, and it’s very peculiar to flick through after several years. What was I thinking? Why did I underline ‘Distance’, or ‘They shared that knowledge’, or ‘pausing’? (That last one gets a double underline.) Thankfully, at least I kept margin notes to a minimum, so I’m spared the cringe of looking back at too many of my very profound, swiftly jotted thoughts. And at least the occasional bit that’s been underlined is really good:

The Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye that opened suddenly and softly in the evening.

Lighthouses are definitely special places. If I were still at university, I’d probably call them liminal, belonging, as they do, not quite to the sea nor to the land. They protect those at sea by warning of land – or of rocks – and yet they also affect those on the land. For Mrs Ramsay, its ‘long steady stroke, the last of the three … was her stroke’. There is something gentle and soft about the ‘stroke’, as opposed to, for instance, beat or flash or glare. The lighthouse gives comfort, protects.

Virginia Woolf – of course – said something deeply infuriating about her lighthouse:

I meant nothing by The Lighthouse. One has to have a central line down the middle of the book to hold the design together. I saw that all sorts of feelings would accrue to this, but I refused to think them out, and trusted that people would make it the deposit for their own emotions – which they have done, one thinking it means one thing another another. I can’t manage Symbolism except in this vague, generalized way.

So the lighthouse is an element of form, of design, it doesn’t really mean anything in particular, only something ‘vague’ and ‘generalized’. Great.

Well then, has Toibin taken the lighthouse and decided to make it the deposit for his own emotions? Or at least for the emotions of the characters in his book?

One thing that is telling in The Blackwater Lightship is how Declan (Helen’s brother), who is in many ways the central character – his illness and wish brings everyone together – is strangely empty, absent. He is indeed like ‘a central line down the middle of the book to hold the design’ – or the different characters – ‘together’. And the other characters certainly project their own needs and desires on to him. Perhaps he is Toibin’s lighthouse, just as much as the one at Blackwater.

To the Lighthouse is also about differing perspectives, various points of view:

Looking along his beam she added to it her different ray

In The Blackwater Lightship, Toibin brings very different characters into the confined, claustrophobic space of the grandmother’s house. A gay son and his friends brought face to face with his mother who can’t even bring herself to say the word gay. Different perspectives indeed. Antagonisms are rife, but all the characters, on some long-buried level, long to resolve them.

The other thing about To the Lighthouse is that it is largely about cutting things out. I know that sounds like too puerile a concern for the greatness of Woolf, but it’s everywhere. From the opening image of Mrs Ramsay’s son James, ‘cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores’ to ‘Macalister’s boy took one of the fish and cut a square out of its side to bait his hook with’, to the square brackets that visually, physically cut sections out of the text, to the cutting illumination of the sweep of the lighthouse beam, to the deathly ‘Time Passes’ central, cut out, section …

Because it is death, really, which cuts things out. And The Blackwater Lightship, in which death is ever-present, is also all about characters cutting out parts of their lives and members of their family. Declan forces them to confront these missing parts. He’s trying to make sure that when he’s cut out of the picture, these seemingly unbreachable gaps between the others will be beginning to heal.

Now just think for how much longer I could have bored you all, if there were another eight lighthouse books that had sprung to mind as well …


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6 Responses to “Lighthouses in literature”

  1. Karl Drinkwater Says:

    Hi Emily,

    I’m glad I came across this blog post! I totally agree with what you say here:

    “Lighthouses are definitely special places. If I were still at university, I’d probably call them liminal, belonging, as they do, not quite to the sea nor to the land. They protect those at sea by warning of land – or of rocks – and yet they also affect those on the land.”

    It reflects one of the things I was trying to emphasise in this blog post when I said:

    “Turner is also a reference to the lighthouse, a central landmark. They have a mechanism for revolving light. There is something ambivalent about lighthouses: they are a warning of danger, but also a help; a refuge and a threat. Light is a signal to follow, a way to find your path in the darkness, but it works both ways, since it is also like a searchlight. As is the lighthouse in the novel: a refuge, but also a place of death (to humans and to birds) and a trap. The lighthouse scenes take place in the centre of the novel, and an element of the plot (discussed next) revolves around it. Just as the light at the top continues to turn, so the novel turns on the actions that take place in the lighthouse: it is central.”

    Lighthouses are really interesting places, and after spending over a week on Bardsey Island, seeing the lighthouse there every day, I had to include it in my novel ‘Turner’, as well as making it the image on the book’s cover (that is currently being redesigned by a fantastic designer, but will still hopefully feature a lighthouse prominently!).

  2. emilybooks Says:

    Hi Karl, thanks so much for your message. It’s great to know of another novelist who has been inspired by the special strangeness of lighthouses. I have just got back from spending some time in Ardnamurchan in Scotland, where there is a great Stevenson (as in family of Robert Louis) lighthouse. I wrote a little bit about it here:
    Hope your new cover ends up looking good and lighthousey!

  3. Karl Drinkwater Says:

    There’s nothing like staying at a place with no electricity or Internet for feeling like you’ve escaped from so much distraction, and being able to relax and write or read. And Scotland is such a great (in both senses) place to visit.

  4. Karl Drinkwater Says:

    I stayed on such a place while writing my novel too, as detailed in my talk at

  5. nonsense girl Says:

    I have read none of these books but I like the part about “cutting out”. It reminds me of the Fresnel lens that is so central to a lighthouse, which is in fact a lens that has the middle cut away, leaving only the edges which are the most effective bits in refracting light.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Interesting! I’d not heard of the Fresnel lens before, so thanks for enlightening me (sorry, I can never resist a terrible pun). Really that is fascinating though, and does seem to really resonate with To the Lighthouse.

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