At the same time that I was rereading To the Lighthouse for a class, I also read Penelope Lively’s most recent novel, Family Album. Perhaps it was the proximity, but the family that Lively writes about had so many similarities to the Ramseys—a 21st century version of the Ramseys, had they all lived into the children’s adulthood.
The Ramseys were a scholarly, self-absorbed, authoritarian father and a home-loving, nurturing “earth mother.” So are the Harpers. The Ramseys have eight children, while the Harpers have six.
The Harpers have a house, Allersmead, “a substantial Edwardian house” outside of London. It isn’t in Cornwall like Talland House, but they do spend at least one summer vacation in Cornwall, a place called Crackington Haven, that sounds remarkably similar to St. Ives in earlier times, a coastal resort with “a scatter of houses and cottages, a village shop… a lovely, lovely family sort of place, just heavenly sea and the dear little beach and gorgeous walks along the cliffs.”
Mrs. Ramsey was partial to her youngest son, James; Alison Harper’s eldest son, Paul, is clearly her favorite, in spite of (or because of) his being a ne’er-do-well. James expresses anger and hatred toward his father, but Charles Harper has antagonized just about everyone, so that when his current manuscript is shredded, any number of them has cause, and he never knows that Clare, the youngest, is the guilty party.
Alison Harper is accomplished in the kitchen as opposed to overseeing a cook. “The kitchen was huge; once, some Edwardian cook would have presided here, serving up Sunday roasts to some prosperous Edwardian group.” Visitors arrive to find that, “The house smelled of cooking. You could unravel the constituent ingredients: garlic, herbs, wine—some earthy casserole, a coq au vin perhaps, or a boeuf en daube.”
There’s more, and the Stephen family popped up a few times as well, not surprisingly, as when the children reminisce about the Allersmead Weekly Herald, their version of the Hyde Park Gate News.
At last year’s Virginia Woolf conference, Adrienne McCormick presented a provocative paper on Woolf’s concept of “moments of being” as she saw it evoked in Lively’s City of the Mind. As a Lively fan, I’ve thought about Woolfian influences in her writing, and it’s something I plan to pursue.
Read a review of Family Album in The Guardian.