Ever since I was a child (as Gertler would say, as if it proved him a particularly remarkable person,) I've had the habit of getting full of some biography, & wanting to build up my imaginary figure of the person with every scrap of news I could find about him. During the passion, the name of Cowper or Byron or whoever it might be, seemed to start up in the most unlikely pages. (D1 180)
One of the delightful experiences of reading Virginia Woolf's work is to enjoy her playful descriptions of real people from history. These can range in scope from the Queen, perhaps, driving past the people of London in her motorcar in Mrs. Dalloway, to the figure of Shakespeare sitting solidly in his armchair in front of the fire in "The Mark on the Wall," to the whimsical caricature of Vita Sackville-West in Orlando. Such characterizations subtly frame her writing in a social or political context. Recognizing the echoes of real people in her imaginary figures might therefore illuminate aspects of her creative process. As an example of this, I want to suggest how understanding the historical referents of a minor character such as William Bankes in To the Lighthouse deepens our understanding of the novel.
Woolf begins her review of Julia Roundell's 1909 biography of Lady Hester Stanhope with the wry observation: "The writers in the Dictionary of National Biography have a pleasant habit of summing up a life, before they write it, in one word, thus--'Stanhope, Lady Hester Lucy (1770-1839), eccentric'. The reason why her life is written at all is that she differed from other people, but never converted them to her own way of thinking" (E1 325). In fact, Lady Hester's experiences overlap with a circle of unconventional personalities whose lives make up a kind of pageant of early nineteenth-century exploration. These include an explorer who shares the same name as the botanist in To the Lighthouse: William Bankes. (1) The real William Bankes of Kingston Hall (now Kingston Lacey) and Corfe Castle--who was the MP for Cambridge University, a lifelong friend of Lord Byron, and was known for his interest in painting and the Old Masters, his skills as a draughtsman, and his appropriation of Egyptian and Nubian antiquities--figures vividly in at least three sources Woolf refers to in her writing: Dr. Charles Meryon's Memoirs of the Lady Hester Stanhope, as related by herself in conversations with her physician (3 vols., Henry Colburn, 1845) and Travels of Lady Hester Stanhope; forming the completion of her memoirs. Narrated by her physician (3 vols., Henry Colburn, 1846), Roundell's biography, and Byron's letters. (2) Considering the patriarchal theme running through To the Lighthouse--exemplified by Mr. Ramsay's authority and tyranny, Mrs. Ramsay's endorsement of conventional gender roles, and the book's overt alignment of the male mind with academia and scientific fact--I want to suggest that the choice of name for William Bankes in To the Lighthouse does two things. It playfully alludes to one of the most legendary tyrants in history, the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, and it recalls the age of exploration, discovery, and imperialism that established England's patriarchal authority in the East.
The lives of both Lord Byron and William John Bankes are reviewed in the Dictionary of National Biography. Leslie Stephen wrote about Byron in 1886 and George Benson about Bankes in 1885. Both writers mention the strong friendship between the poet and Bankes (as the DNB describes), the "Traveller in the East." The writers of the dictionary deemed Lady Hester a professional eccentric in part because she was a woman; by contrast, men travelers, if they were of the correct social standing, might be celebrated as members of the Society of Dilettanti, a group of English noblemen dedicated to the study of classical art. These men traveled to the Mediterranean lands on a Grand Tour, studying antiquities and collecting examples …