Any author who describes her passionate engagement with Virginia Woolf’s writing will instantly grab my attention. So when I saw how Katharine Smyth’s memoir “All the Lives We Ever Lived” is about her process of finding solace in reading Woolf’s novel “To the Lighthouse” amidst the prolonged illness and death of her father I was drawn to it. My experience was further enhanced by reading this book along with fellow YouTubers Britta Bohler and Kendra Winchester. We left each other wonderfully long geeky messages about our reactions to the book and general thoughts about Virginia Woolf’s life and work. I think this is what makes this book something more than a traditional memoir – it’s a communion for anyone who has been deeply affected by Woolf’s writing. Smyth mimics the structure of “To the Lighthouse” to tell her own experiences before, during and after her father’s illness to mirror the three sections of Woolf’s novel. But she also interjects how her experiences and emotions are informed by her reading as well as meditating on the life of Woolf herself. In this way the author creatively approaches the experience of grief and mourning, the complexity of how we feel about our families and how our relationship with art and literature is often deeply personal.
Smyth powerfully captures that revelatory sensation we can sometimes get as readers where we feel so connected to the text of a book. After quoting a section from “To the Lighthouse” she describes how “I was drawn to that darkness and depth; it actually hurt to read a sentence like the one above; it was so apt, it was so beautiful; I longed for Woolf’s genius, yes, but I also longed for Mrs. Ramsay herself, for her as my mother, for her as my friend; I wanted to be her – that’s how painful I found the distance between us, the distance between me and that text. I might have swallowed the page.” This total immersion in a book is the kind of spellbinding experience which makes reading so important and unique. Smyth chronicles how certain sections of Woolf’s novel spoke to her at different times and how her feelings about the characters change over time. She shows how the experience of reading and rereading yields ever-shifting meanings as we navigate different challenges throughout our lives.
“To the Lighthouse” is a fictional memorial to Woolf’s mother where she sought to capture something of her essence in the character of Mrs Ramsay. Smyth is doing the same with her father but, rather than just neatly draw parallels between him and Mrs Ramsay, Smyth freely makes connections with other figures as well. For instance, she considers how Mr Ramsay strives for intellectual achievement and doesn’t achieve as much as he hoped for. Similarly her father encounters different personal and professional set-backs and disappointments. But Smyth freely admits that her quest to connect life and text doesn’t always work so neatly: “Such is the nature of Woolfian failure, which, despite my urge to conflate them, turns out to be a different breed from my father’s own.” In many ways her experiences and the events in Woolf’s novel are very different. But her process doesn’t feel forced; it’s more of a meandering journey through this significant time in her life while reflecting on how the universal meaning found in “To the Lighthouse” speaks to her experience.
One of the most moving and melancholy sections of the book is the last where she describes her experiences in the aftermath of her father’s death. Here she’s confronted with an absence in the same way the characters in “To the Lighthouse” live with a palpable loss in the final section. It’s an all-consuming sensation of grief and Smyth feels that Woolf’s novel wholly captures the reality of this experience. She poignantly describes the knowledge she gleaned from the book and how “To grieve is to be floored, again and again, by a series of epiphanies that, put to paper, sound painfully banal. To grieve is likewise to be plagued by questions that can only gesture towards the clarity we seek and occasionally find – these are the shorthand by which we must stumble through an experience too vast and too disorientating to express in its totality.” Woolf’s writing frequently gestures at thoughts and feelings which can’t be contained in language and Smyth equally finds that her experience can’t be summarised. Rather, she points to the way time moves onward. Lives end, homes are transformed or destroyed and memories are lost.
I’ve always felt one of the most difficult dimensions of grief is how it can valorise those who have been lost over those who are still living. Death can highlight the cruel reality of how we value certain people in our lives over others. Some people in mourning might even wish that other family members had died rather than the person that’s been lost. This dark reality is described in “To the Lighthouse” where some of the Ramsay children resent Mr Ramsay’s presence when Mrs Ramsay’s absence is so painfully felt. It’s striking how Smyth admits how she valued the love of her father over her mother because “how uneventful it is to be loved by her, a person whose very existence was so dependable that I rarely, if ever, considered it.” So it’s moving how she finds one of the most revelatory experiences of losing her father is the appreciation and connection she makes with her mother “it wasn’t until well after his death that I finally took the time to ask for her memories, to listen to her own account of grief. She surprised me”.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that Smyth’s style of writing at times mimics Woolf’s own – especially when describing certain places or the presence of light. But I don’t think this is intended as imitation. It’s more a gesture at how Woolf’s sensibility has permeated the way she actually senses and interprets the world around her. It’s a gesture at the way Woolf’s writing has enveloped her life as a way of understanding daily existence in the wake of this significant loss. Moreover, this reinforces how the experience of reading this memoir is akin to enjoying a conversation with a fellow Woolf lover. But, for this reason, I’m not sure I’d recommend anyone who hasn’t read Woolf read this memoir. I’m not sure how meaningful Smyth’s analysis and connection to Woolf’s text would be for anyone who hasn’t read “To the Lighthouse” – although, I’d be fascinated to hear what anyone who has read this memoir but never read Woolf thinks about “All the Lives We Ever Lived”. Regardless, I found this book very moving and it’s made me want to go back to reading Woolf – yet again!