To show how very little control of our possessions we have – what an accidental affair this living is after all our civilisation – let me just count over a few of the things lost in our lifetime, beginning, for that seems always the most mysterious of losses – what cat would gnaw, what rat would nibble – three pale blue canisters of book-binding tools? Then there were the bird cages, the iron hoops, the steel skates, the Queen Anne coal-scuttle, the bagatelle board, the hand organ – all gone, and jewels too. Opals and emeralds, they lie about the roots of turnips. (CSF, 84)
As the narrator of ‘The Mark on the Wall’ implies, the unexpected disappearance of material objects can highlight their normal durability, and, for Woolf, things were too often harder and more enduring than human beings. Things frequently outlast us, becoming mementos of human brevity, of the ephemeral nature of our lives. The famous question she asked in her diary at the beginning of 1929, ‘Now is life very solid, or very shifting?’, suggests that, while life itself can feel one way or the other, ultimately it is ‘things’, ‘solid objects’, that survive us, while we remain trapped in the inevitable processes of time, change, decay, loss and death – ‘one flying after another, so quick so quick’ (Diary iii, 218).
Minta, in To the Lighthouse, loses her pearl brooch on the beach, and Paul attempts to mark the place with his stick, determined to come back next morning at low tide and find it for her before the waves carry it away, to leave it lying among the roots of seaweed.