I Don’t Need a Man
I love that Virginia Woolf created Lily Briscoe as she did. Early on, we see her through Mrs Ramsey’s eyes
With her little Chinese eyes and her puckered-up face she would never marry; one could not take her painting very seriously; but she was an independent little creature
Whether the casual racism was meant to be Mrs Ramsey’s or that of Virginia Woolf herself, we shall probably never know, but I think we’re meant to think her visage unlikely to win any competitions for beauty alone. Or her painting either, as far as Mrs Ramsey was concerned. Yet, of all the characters in the book, hers is the keenest eye. She observes and reads people with great insight, and, apart from the instance over dinner when she buckles to Mrs Ramsey’s pressure to conform to her gender and appease the agitation of the atheist Tansley, with soothing words, despite her own desire to resist and just see what resulted.
She manages to avoid becoming embroiled in an unfortunate entanglement with William Bankes, who, after admiring her choice of sensible shoes, looks like he could be a suitable target for Mrs Ramsey and her matchmaking. Later on, it is clear that remaining a spinster has been, for her, the path to freedom. She watches, she paints, she even resists the demands of Mr Ramsey for sympathy. It only struck me as I watched her character unfold, that writers only tend to create older single women as dried-up and unfulfilled, yet Virginia Woolf has given us Lily Briscoe – a single, contented, independent woman.
When we discover that the romance between Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley – so lovingly tended and encouraged by Mrs Ramsey – soured within the first few years of marriage into bitter strife, it’s like Woolf has given Lily Briscoe the last laugh, the final triumph. Rather than being ‘left on the shelf’, she has deftly escaped that ill-fated shackling, and is free, free to paint, to think, to be.