The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf: Harcourt Brace & Company ...

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was an important early English modernist and first wave feminist, and The Voyage Out (1915) is her first novel. I have said before this is not a period I have studied, though I am well enough read in a general sense. My general intention is to make my way through all the best books, and my particular intention here is to achieve a better understanding of Australian women’s works of the same period, ie. Gen 3. The Australian modernists we have looked at to date, Christina Stead, Eleanor Dark, Dymphna Cusack with Jungfrau are all a bit later than Woolf and no doubt influenced by her (after 1922 all modernists are influenced by James Joyce, but it is harder – for a layman – to tell who was influenced by Woolf or DH Lawrence, let alone lesser figures like Vita Sackville-West). Interestingly one important Australian modernist work predates The Voyage Out and that is HH Richardson’s Maurice Guest (1908) which I am interested now to go back and read in this context.

The Voyage Out tells the story of Rachel Vinrace, 24 and never been kissed, set during a holiday of just a few months, undated but in one of those last few years before the Great War, on Rachel’s father’s steamship from London, and then in a grand hotel and nearby villa in an unnamed French possession in South America.

Rachel is travelling with the Ambroses, her Aunt Helen, beautiful, 40, her children left behind, and her uncle, an academic. She has no formal education but is a brilliant pianist, and is forthright and intelligent. It quickly becomes clear to Helen that Rachel, brought up by maiden aunts after the death of her mother, knows absolutely nothing about relations between the sexes, and she determines to take her in hand.

For a while on the voyage out Rachel spends time with the MP Richard Dalloway being (willingly) lectured to about politics and foreign affairs. Eventually he gets her alone in her cabin and of course kisses her. Which she finds interesting and not particularly disagreeable. But the Dalloways are put off at an earlier stop and disappear into another novel altogether.

Rather than travel on to the Amazon with her father, Rachel is persuaded to stay with her aunt, and so the second phase of the novel begins, in some ways a very familiar story, a dozen or so upper middle class English people, with a wide range of ages, say 20 to 80, bound in one place for a fixed period.

Two of the younger set, Susan and Ambrose, are soon engaged and are then set aside to be used from time to time by the author as an example of stock-standard unreflective coupledom. Another young woman, Evelyn, is much more interesting, maybe even standing in for the author herself. She wishes there was a Garibaldi she might attach herself to; there are always things to do, places to see; later she exclaims, “I’d give all I have in the world to help on a revolution against the Russian government, and it’s bound to come.” She is open about having been born out of wedlock, has an undeserved reputation for looseness, is for ever being proposed to, but is never sure that she wants to be married.

Two young men, friends in their late twenties, Hewet and Hirst attach themselves to Rachel and Helen, Mr Ambrose being locked away in his study translating a Greek poet. Hirst is ugly and hugely intelligent, on his way to being one of the great men of his generation. Hewet is a budding novelist. Hirst attempts to forward Rachel’s education, but without much success. He is interested more in Helen and you keep expecting something to come of it though it never does.

Slowly, through a sea of talk and philosophising, Hewet and Rachel find themselves in love.

Evelyn had not spoken, but she had been looking from Susan to Rachel. Well – they had both made up their minds very easily, they had done in a very few weeks what it sometimes seemed to her that she would never be able to do. Although they were so different, she thought that she could see in each the same look of satisfaction and completion, the same calmness of manner, and the same slowness of movement. It was that slowness, that confidence, that content which she hated, she thought to herself. They moved so slowly because they were not single but double … Love was all very well, and those snug domestic houses with the kitchen below and the nursery above, which were so secluded and self-contained, like little islands in the torrents of the world; but the real things were surely the things that happened, the causes, the wars, the ideals, that happened in the great world outside, and went on independently of these women, turning so quietly and beautifully towards the men.

See how Woolf jumps from outside Evelyn to ‘inside’. Without, yet, being stream of consciousness, her writing follows the trains of thought of each of her protagonists, and is elsewhere wonderfully descriptive of the people, the scenery, the weather. The author’s feminism is quietly evident, in Evelyn for instance, but more often, as I discussed with Sackville-West (here), in putting up the conventional view and allowing us space to form our own criticisms. One of the women in the hotel, Miss Allan is employed, a teacher, writing an Eng Lit textbook, but generally all the characters would be at home in Jane Austen, independently well-off, at leisure for months at a time to work through their relationships. It is only after the War, I think, that young middle class women more or less automatically went into jobs – a fact obscured by the mythologizing around ‘homemakers’ in the 1950s.

The last 50 pages – of 380 – are shocking. Beautifully written, as is the whole novel, but completely unexpected. I can’t say why Woolf chose the ending she did, you will have to see for yourselves.

 

 

Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out, first pub. The Hogarth Press, London, 1915. Edition pictured, Harcourt Brace, 1948. My edition Granada, 1981

Batchelor NT

Journal: 045

20200327_193833

Tonight I’m in Batchelor NT, the old Rum Jungle, I think Mary Gaunt’s emponymous Kirkham was a miner here in the 1890s and was chased off by Aborigines. Tonight and for the next seven nights. I was going to stay in daughter Psyche’s spare room in Darwin but she has taken in a Catalonian refugee – who has sent her father, a pro-independence politician, a link to Homage to Catalonia which he apparently enjoyed. The Catalonians last time I heard were very much at odds with Madrid. Perhaps Emma, who lives just “around the corner”, can bring us up to date.

My customer put me up here last night and the mini skirted, champagne drinking proprietoress (my age) made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. No not that offer, cheap rates for a week’s stay AND parking for my truck.

Living and working mostly in the desert you forget how lush and alive the tropics are. Now I’m conscious of them the birds might drive me mad.

To continue on from my last post, I picked Lou up from Perth airport on Sunday night, installed him in my flat. Monday was his birthday. Millie and Ms 16, his niece, baked him a cake and brought it round. Sang happy birthday through the screen door. I’d been getting my truck and trailers serviced so I went round and collected them all, fueled up, hooked up and was on my way. When I left Lou was well into William Gibson but I made sure he had some Australian women to go on with (Lou, look on my shelves for Elizabeth Tan, Rubik, I forgot to get it out).

In the morning I found the site where I was to load. The address was ‘Greenough’ but was in fact 50 kms away on the other side of Walkaway (tiny spots on the map 400 km north of Perth but well known to me for various reasons not least the historic Geraldton to Walkaway railway line). Somehow we loaded 3 shipping containers, some frames and 2 piling rigs onto my three trailers and I was off, up the coast. Short of Carnarvon the first night. Past Port Hedland. Nearly up to Kununurra, the Ord River scheme and the NT Border. Like driving on Xmas Day, almost zero traffic. Though there was a queue of maybe 10 trucks when we were held up north of Hedland for a few hours while the police cleared a rollover, 7 people in it, code for ‘Aborigines’.

20200324_133606

The (first) NT roadblock was at Timber Creek 100 kms in, manned by police. And army, a chilling sight, though the army boys were mostly sitting round reading books. The policeman assigned to me was cheerful and helpful, sprayed the table and folders before he sat me down and got me to fill in a basic form. I volunteered that I would be self-isolating for 14 days at my daughter’s after unloading, but they weren’t prescriptive and I had the option of getting another load and moving on in the normal way. The next couple of roadblocks I was waved through – I think the internal roadblocks are to protect ‘communities’ ie. remote Aboriginal towns. Just on evening I pulled into Batchelor, found my way to the motel and had a welcome (!) shower, drink, airconditioned sleep.

This morning the project manager (for a new solar farm) was not happy about having an unisolated ‘foreigner’ on his site but no one else was working so he let me out of the truck to help with the unloading. By 9 or 10 I was back here, feeling strangely worn out, and for the first time in years have been napping on and off all day.

I have with me – in my work bag. I have another 20 odd books along the bottom of my storage lockers –

Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out
Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much Lip
Ngúgí Wa Thiong’o (Kenya), Wizard of the Crow

It will be interesting to see how much reading and writing I get done, more of the latter than the former probably. I feel this is very much an On the Beach situation, which I’ve re-read in the past few years, with central and western Australia the end of the world waiting for the cloud to arrive from China, USA, Italy, Spain, the (Australian) east coast. You guys are already hunkered down in ways that don’t seem quite real out here. And your reactions are quite varied. Sue is concentrating mostly on her parents. The women in my mother’s village seem little changed or concerned though obviously no longer meeting or going to church, an aunt though, just moved up one floor to ‘nursing’, is left almost entirely without exercise or stimulus. Lisa, amazingly, is posting fewer reviews, though plenty of events; Brona, Emma, home from work (I’m guessing) are steadfastly reading, reviewing; Kate too, maybe. Liz, I realise, has dropped off since her last running post; Melanie seems to be home, worried, pressing on. I am blessed to have made so many friends, more than I have briefly mentioned here. I hope you are all well. I hope we all survive.

20200328_111318

Covid-19

Journal: 044

Malawian

Covid-19. What else is there to write about?

There is no doubt in my mind that that moron in Washington is going to double the length of the coming world depression and double its severity. Up till this week I had assumed the Covid-19 epidemic would be the same as SARS – someone else’s problem. But it seems not. I can manage the illness, hopefully I would survive, I certainly don’t like the idea of dying breathless. My working life is a mixture of long periods of isolation, with daily instances of unhealthy propinquity (truckstops!). But the coming deep economic downtown will almost certainly do me in.

So far, work is holding up. You guys need stuff in your shops, though that’s not the sort of cartage I do. (Did you know the average age of Australian long distance truck drivers is very nearly 60. We might all drop dead at the same time, and then what will you do? It seems to me the only large cohort of new drivers is Indians, who are buying up trucks (and roadhouses) as did the Greeks, Italians and Yugoslavs before them, but not so much the Lebanese, Vietnamese, Chinese. Don’t know why, though the Chinese immigrants were probably affluent middle class).

Last week I got a load to Mt Beauty in NE Victoria – a cherry picker truck for a guy clearing damaged trees from bushfire areas. Unloaded Tues morning and headed into Melbourne looking forward to a day off, but instead was loaded and on my way without stopping, topped up In Adelaide and was home – a 7,500 km round trip – in a few hours under six days. Then, two phone calls/messages.

The organization Lou works for is as we speak evacuating him from Malawi, and he’s due here Sunday evening. Though in fact, he’s already missed his first connection, his taxi driver got lost he said. And even if he gets there I can’t imagine how chaotic the airport at Doha is going to be – I picture him stranded forever in a JG Ballard Concrete Island situation. Anyway, I’ve been shopping – Leeming IGA seemed perfectly normal except for the absent toilet paper and pasta – stocked up my freezer for him with meat and pizzas, got a (another!) carton of cheap grog, and some movies. He’s looking forward to making his way through my library during his obligatory fourteen days, though the books he’ll enjoy most are the same ones he devoured as a teenager. I’m planning to introduce him to Australian women’s dystopian fiction.

The other news was more prosaic. I have a road train load to Darwin, loading Tuesday, which will keep the wolves from the door for a little longer. If nothing goes wrong. I feel like it might.

I listened to three books this last trip: one a bog standard work of genre fiction, one a surprisingly innovative work of genre fiction, and one a work of genius, maybe genre fiction, which I am listening to for the third time. They were:

Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 (2009,10)
Margaret Attwood, The Testaments (2019)
Karin Gillespie, Love Literary Style (2016)

The work of genius is 1Q84. I had a whole pile of mystery/thrillers with me but couldn’t bring myself to play them when I could listen to real writing. 1Q84 is enormous, 3 mp3’s or around 27 45 hours and with a not very large cast. Murakami seems to me with this book to have decided that anything he wanted to discuss, he would discuss at length, nothing is cut short. There are two parallel stories which gradually cease being separate: Aomame on her way to complete an assignment leaves her taxi stalled in an elevated motorway traffic jam and climbs down a fire escape to street level during which time the world changes, or she changes worlds, as she slowly comes to realise, from 1984 to 1Q84. Aomame’s assignments are to murder, subtly by a needle to a nerve in the back of the neck, men who are abusing their wives. As we proceed, Aomame’s sex life plays an important part, from a view of her knickers as she straddles the motorway safety rail, to experimentation with her girlfriend at school, to encounters at singles bars, where she hooks up with another young woman, a female police officer, who talks her into a drunken foursome, who becomes her friend and who eventually dies, strangled, during violent sex while handcuffed. Throughout, Aomame maintains her love for the boy who stood up for her in grade school, whom she has not seen since she was ten.

Tengo is a writer and mathematics teacher, physically big and athletic, whose editor persuades him to rewrite a startling new work, naively written, Air Chrysalis, by a 17 year old girl, Fuka-Eri. Eri it turns out is dyslexic and has dictated this story of evil ‘little people’ taking over our world, seemingly from lived experience, to her foster sister.

As the stories converge it becomes clear that Tengo is the boy, now 30, who stood up for Aomame in third grade. Aomame is given the assignment of killing a cult leader who rapes little girls, who turns out to be Eri’s father. He acquiesces in his killing but predicts that the little people will ensure that either she or Tengo will die. Aomame chooses the path she hopes will protect Tengo. And so we go. This is a literary work with a strong story. What makes it literary, apart from the compelling writing, I struggle to express. I’ll have to think about it.


Milly and I go out to dinner. On the way I hear on the ABC that NT is closing its borders. That didn’t take long! I discuss by text with my customer throughout the meal the possibility of getting a permit. Milly on her phone is messaging with Lou. He’s back at Lilongwe Airport. By the time we finish eating he’s in Johannesburg with tickets to Dubai (he’s changed over to Emirates) and thence to Perth. Still arriving Sunday night.


Murukami in 1Q84 is writing about one social stratum in Tokyo, slightly outside mainstream society, he is writing about the connections between works, between 1Q84 and Orwell’s 1984, and between 1Q84 and (the fictional) Air Chrysalis, he is playing games with the intersection between Magic Realism and SF, and he is discussing the boundaries between love and sex. Am I happy with a guy writing so much about sex for women? No I’m not. Is there anything I can do about it? No.

I was looking forward to The Testaments, Attwood is a competent writer, if disingenuous about so much of her writing being standard SF. The most disappointing thing is that writers who embrace SF have taken it in new and challenging directions, while Atwood who imagines herself daring for just dipping her general fiction toe in SF waters, is left far behind (I didn’t know it was joint winner of the Man Booker. What a pile of crap!). I’m sure you all know the general story. The epilogue is a paper delivered centuries later at a Gilead symposium. The problem with audiobooks is that people giving boring speeches are really … boring! I didn’t make it to the end.

I’m struggling to recall Love Literary Style now except that I really enjoyed it. Earnest (unpublished) literary author meets untutored blonde bombshell who has accidentally written the outline for a major success. All the tropes of romantic fiction are interrogated as the two budding authors write and discuss writing. Read it. You’ll love it.


An hour ago, Lou had an eight hour flight ahead of him, a very quick changeover in Dubai, and then a similar length flight to Perth. The ABC NT border story (here) has not been updated.

Sisters, Ada Cambridge

sisters.jpg

I have written before that I began “following” early Australian women’s fiction around 1990 when my local library (Nunawading, now Whitehorse, Vic) began carrying, and not just carrying but set up a separate display for, the titles then being revived almost singlehandedly by the efforts of Dale Spender, and I discovered some wonderful works in the tradition of Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell, say, but with a distinctly Australian twist.

The one that sticks in my goldfish mind concerned a woman down from the Riverina, living on the edge of the Melbourne CBD, walking up to the Royal Exhibition Building for afternoon teas during the  Melbourne International Exhibition, 1880. I’m sure this was an Ada Cambridge but sadly am yet to come across it again, though the Exhibition also features in The Three Miss Kings.
.jpg

Ada Cambridge wrote around 25 novels over quite a long period, 1865-1914, while at the same time carrying out the duties of mother, and wife of a country C of E vicar in rural Victoria. Sisters (1904) is one of her later works, written in the vicarage of her husband’s last posting, Williamstown which was the original port for the settlement of Melbourne. I have no reason to imagine her marriage was unhappy – Lisa/ANZLitLovers has a comprehensive review of her autobiography (here) – but her theme in this book is that marriage is a decidedly dodgy business, for women anyway.

The story begins – and I had two or three goes at reading the first chapter before giving up and starting at the second – with a wedding and a funeral:

Guthrie Carey began life young. He was not a week over twenty-one when, between two voyages, he married Lily Harrison, simply because she was a poor, pretty, homeless little girl … a lady-help in hard situations, and never had a holiday.

A few weeks of wedded bliss, Carey’s off, returning twelve months later to find himself a father. He sets up a little cottage in Williamstown, collects his young wife from Sandridge (Port Melbourne), 15 minutes across the bay and the mouth of the Yarra (3.8 km. I know because I swam it in a race once. The jellyfish were horrendous and we were greeted with methylated spirits and showers to ease the stings). The wind comes up, the cutter is overturned, the little wife is lost, and the baby saved.

The baby is farmed out, Carey, first mate on a ship trading up the coast and to England, returns to sea. So far, no sisters. He meets a squatter’s son, Jim, in Melbourne and is invited to stay on Jim’s father’s property in the Western District. On a neighbouring station, Redford, are the Pennycuiks, who regard themselves as upper class. This seems to be not so much to do with Victoria’s budding squattocracy as with their antecedents in England, where as it happens, The Pennycuiks of Redford in _____shire were neighbours with the Careys at Wellwood of whom Guthrie was a poor relation.

Carey is worried that the woman caring for the baby is trying to lure him into marriage; he discusses this with Jim’s sister who agrees to take over the baby. In order to lure him into marriage. He escapes on a visit to Redford, where we at last meet the sisters, aged from mid twenties down to teens: Mary, red-faced, plain, competent; Deb, drop-dead gorgeous and very conscious of her status; Rose, your standard middle child; and Frances, still in the school room but about to bloom into a beauty to rival Deb.

Carey falls in love with Deb. Along with Jim, Deb’s godfather Thornycroft, and the dashing, supercilious Claud Dalziell. Carey of course agrees that his baby should be brought up on Redford, where it is greatly doted on but eventually dies of typhoid while the father is at sea.

This is a complicated story and not Cambridge’s best, though Brona (here) enjoyed it greatly. I’ll summarize it quickly.

Mary, who has never had a suitor, sympathizes with Carey about the death of his baby, he kisses her, heads off for foreign parts, is eventually believed to be dead, and Mary lets it be understood that they had “an arrangement”.

Carey returns, is reviled, Mary is forced to admit the truth, throws herself in the dam, is rescued by the local vicar, Goldsworthy, who is both grasping and a little declassé, and who takes this opportunity to become heir to part of the Pennycuik estate by marrying her himself. We are meant to understand that this means for Mary a life of unremitting misery.

Deb is engaged to the playboy Dalziell.

Mr Pennycuik dies, is found to be heavily in debt, the estate is sold to Thornycroft. The three remaining girls take a house in suburban Melbourne. Dalziell, not happy anyway about having Goldsworthy as brother in law causes Deb to break the engagement.

Rose thwarts her sisters to marry Peter, the boy next door (in Melbourne) who is the son of a wealthy draper. In trade! Deb and Frances will have nothing to do with her. You get the impression that the author is as astonished as the sisters that Rose goes on to live a loving, happy and productive life, despite sometimes wearing silk in the morning.

Frances, eighteen and no longer invited to parties, inveigles their rich elderly landlord into marrying her and heads for Europe. She briefly reappears, the subject of rumours concerning Guthrie Carey – who too has mostly disappeared from the story – not confirmed till many chapters later when her husband dies and Carey refuses to marry her because she is demonstrably a loose woman.

Thornycroft dies and leaves his fortune to his god-daughter who after years of poverty is now a millionairess. She too heads for Europe where she and Dalziell, though careful to avoid each other, move and grow middle-aged in the same wealthy, titled circles. Frances, who has married an Italian count, is beneath their notice.

There’s other stuff, nearly all of it based on snobbery about which I am terribly disappointed. Carey ends up squire of Wellwood. Mary’s husband dies and she is happy for the first time in her life. Deb comes home to Redford married at last. Jim ends the book still a bachelor, and now Deb’s farm manager, out in the garden in the night looking in the window at Deb playing the piano for her husband.

 

Ada Cambridge, Sisters, first pub. 1904, Penguin Australian Women’s Library, Melbourne, 1989. Introduction by Nancy Cato. Cover painting: Self Portrait, Dora Serle, 1900.

see also:
Australian Women Writers, Gen 1 Page (here)

Jungfrau, Dymphna Cusack

9090493.jpg

By coincidence I’m reading Jungfrau straight after All Passion Spent. Both are modernist works by women authors, both pose the question, Should intelligent women marry or pursue careers? (and both see the question as either one or the other), APS came out in 1931, Jungfrau in 1936, both writers were in their thirties, but…

Sackville-West was at the height of her powers, living not just England but in Bloomsbury, and with a number of novels over the previous decade under her belt; Cusack (1902-1981) so ten years VSW’s junior, was in Australia, a school teacher, first out west in Broken Hill then in Sydney, with limited exposure to the modernist movement sweeping England, Europe and the US. And this was her first novel. And then there’s class – Sackville-West was the daughter of a baron and the wife of an MP; Cusack was the daughter of store keeper, Catholic, and though employed, was much closer to the Depression which amongst other things, depressed wages and limited the distribution of new books.

Sackville-West’s writing is sublime, Cusack’s is awkward. Lady Slane in APS finds herself married at 18, steamrolled by her parents and her husband, but as she comes to love Henry she willingly subsumes her self for the sake of their children and his career. Only after their long marriage ends with his death does she allow her real self to emerge. I think by presenting the story in this way Sackville-West is asking: Is this what you would do? It’s certainly not what she did herself. Cusack’s three women are already in their mid to late twenties, in careers, unmarried, none of them Vicereine of India surrounded by servants, but living small, comfortable lives in bed-sits in inner Sydney. Their question is: How do I deal with love?

The three women are Thea, a dreamy, pretty teacher, Eve, a doctor and devout Catholic, and ‘Marc’ (short for Marchesa) a red-headed, bohemian, psych student/social worker. Thea is friends with Terry who wants to marry her, but she is in love with a 49 year old English professor. Eve is friends with another doctor, John. Marc, may be ‘loose’, or maybe she just flirts a lot; Eve is angry that she doesn’t wear a bra. Cusack adopts the point of view of whichever protagonist she is dealing with at the time.

Eve is actually quite a sympathetic character and her rigid Catholicism creeps up on us. Thea is the ‘jungfrau’ of the title, virginal and childish (Cusack makes too much of the Swiss mountain of the same name, having Eve come up with a clumsy metaphor about a lover taking the trouble to ‘climb’ Marc only to find other men had been up before him on the funicular railway).

A lot of the early part of the book is setting up discussions about relationships. Each of the women take their job seriously but what they are talking about and thinking about here is their relationships with men. Eve, who works in a maternity ward, has opinions very similar to Miles Franklin’s (and Cusack’s next novel was written jointly with Franklin) – that chastity is to be valued and that the consequence of marriage is endless child bearing.

Thea has chaste little meetings with her professor in the grounds of the uni and is consumed by her growing infatuation. Marc meets an Antarctic explorer at a party, becomes close to him, and says she will sleep with him before his upcoming two year expedition, but, only if he has complete faith in his ability to trust her –

“There’s only one worthwhile relationship as far as I’m concerned, and that’s the chosen companionship of two perfectly free people. We’d never have that till you had faith – in both of us.”

Eve goes from an exhausting shift on the wards to mass and reflects on chastity (to contrast with what follows). Thea has one perfect night with the professor. Marc has dinner with her explorer. We’re at the halfway point, and the novel is about to change direction.

Thea drops round to Eve’s to ask for help, she’s pregnant. Eve is devastated, spends a sleepless 24 hours crying at Thea’s loss, and planning how to help her have the baby. They meet. Thea is incredulous. The help she wants is an abortion, which Eve is morally unable to perform.

Thea drifts, for weeks it seems, then goes to Marc who arranges for her to see an abortionist, but she loses her nerve at the last minute and runs out of his office. Jungfrau is apparently “the first psychological exploration of women’s sexuality and aspirations” in Australian fiction, and the remainder of the novel deals mostly with Thea’s internal monologue.

A decade later Cusack gave up modernism for social realism, writing with Florence James the gritty war-time (WWII) story of women working and quite actively sleeping with one or more men, Come in Spinner. In that novel, and in a number of others of that time, there is a “backyard” abortion which ends in the death of the pregnant woman.

So does Cusack answer the question I ascribed to her at the beginning? I think she does, partly anyway. Single women clearly should work. But. They also are driven to pair bond, and that means marriage, eventually.

 

Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau, first pub. 1936 (in the Bulletin), Penguin Australian Women’s Library, Melbourne 1989. Introduction by Florence James. The cover painting is by Grace Cossington-Smith, “Interior with Blue Painting”, 1956.

see also:
Australian Women Writers, Gen 3 Page (here)

All Passion Spent, Vita Sackville-West

All Passion Spent

I have eight or 10 Viragos I bought in a job lot years ago and never got round to reading, well not until this week when one of you, Karen (Booker Talk) talked me into making a start. As you can tell from the excerpt I put up this morning (as I write)  this is wonderful writing, the very epitome of English modernism.

Twentieth century English Lit. is not my area of expertise, so I’ve been looking stuff up. One article (locked unfortunately) has modernism beginning with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) ” … experiments with linguistic ambiguity opening the door for many interpretations… explores the corruption of imperialism”. Though the big break with the past was World War I, followed by James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses (1922).

Victoria (Vita) Sackville-West (1892-1962) began writing, and began taking women as lovers, while still at school. In 1913 she married diplomat and politician Harold Nicholson, though both continued to take (same-sex) lovers. They had two children and she followed him to some overseas postings, most notably Persia (Iran) which was the scene for the excerpt. I can’t help adding that Sackville-West had a passionate affair with another married woman and the two husbands felt obliged to hire a light plane to pursue them to France.

In 1922 Sackville-West began a long relationship with Virginia Woolf, documented by VSW’s son Nigel Nicholson in Portrait of a Marriage (1973), during which time it is felt both women did their best work, surrounded by the artists and thinkers of the Bloomsbury Set. Woolf reportedly based Orlando (which I have read but don’t remember) on her friend. Sackville-West had a considerable output in fiction, poetry and non-fiction – I should have remembered she wrote The Incomparable Astrea (1927) about Aphra Benn, who pops up as well in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929). All Passion Spent (1931) is the eighth of Sackville-West’s sixteen or so novels.

After 6 decades of marriage and a long and storied career in English politics and diplomacy, Henry Holland first Earl of Slane has died. Freed at last of the constraints of being a political wife, Lady Slane allows her mind to wander. Lady Slane – and only late in the novel do we learn her given name – is in her late eighties, her six surviving children are in their sixties, her grandchildren are grown up and so are her oldest great-grandchildren. For nearly 70 years she has shut down her mind, resisted all thoughts of her early ambition of being a painter, stood by her ambitious husband, and has been the calm if occasionally vague centre of a large and pushy family most of whom she finds she mildly dislikes.

This is not a feminist novel. Sackville-West said so. This is an investigation of how an intelligent and artistic woman was willingly subsumed into the straight-jacket of political wife, written by a woman of the same class but half her age who married a diplomat/politician and wasn’t (subsumed), in fact who married ‘badly’ so she wouldn’t be. Nevertheless, by allowing Lady Slane to reflect on how her life had got her to where she was, Sackville-West intentionally gives us enough information to draw our own conclusions.

The book doesn’t have any chapters but is divided into three sections. In the first, Lady Slane comes downstairs from viewing for the last time the body of her husband to find her four horrible older children have determined that mother is too vague to live on her own and that they will do their duty, and they may need to be recompensed, by letting her live with each of them a few months at a time. For a short while we view this scene through the eyes of Edith, the youngest, who may have been an interesting character in her own right, but this is almost the last we see of her.

Lady Slane however has already been in touch with an agent – in fact the elderly owner, Mr Bucktrout – of a house in Hampstead (which feels separate from London and a bit rural, but which I understand is quite close to the City) in which she will see out her days with her servant Genoux, who was 16 when she married at 18 Slane, then plain Mr Holland (though probably an Hon.). It is telling that it is only in these last days that Lady Slane learns that Genoux was a farm girl with seven siblings, who had been sent from Paris by an agent, to never seen them again.

In Part Two Lady Slane reflects on her married life:

Sitting there in the sun at Hampstead, in the late summer, under the south wall and the ripened peaches, doing nothing with her hands, she remembered the day she had become engaged to Henry. She had plenty of leisure now, day in, day out, to survey her life as a tract of country traversed, and at last become a landscape instead of separate fields or separate years and days …

Henry had treated her well and given her a fine life, she had been Vicereine of India and the wife of the Prime Minister of Great Britain, but every time she had expressed an idea he had paused to listen then passed on, unmoved – “Henry need make no bones about his creed, she must protect hers from shame and ridicule”.

Part Three, the last hundred pages (of 295), contains what little there is of plot. An old millionaire miser, FitzGeorge, a man entirely without family, calls on her, and callers, including her family are discouraged, makes enough of an impression to continue calling; he was one of the hundreds she had met in India; he had remembered and she had not. They talk and take little walks together. When he dies he leaves her his fortune, and she is able to discommode her family once again.

Right at the end, and it’s a bit neat, her great grand-daughter Deborah, engaged to a Duke, bursts in, lays her head on Lady Slane’s knee and sobs that she has broken the engagement and is going to be a pianist.

 

 

Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent, first pub. 1931. Virago Modern Classics, London, 1983

For another perspective see Karen/BookerTalk (here)

All Passion Spent (excerpt), Vita Sackville-West

Vita_sackville-west.jpg
Portrait of VSW by William Strang

After 6 decades of marriage and a long and storied career in English politics and diplomacy, Henry Holland first Earl of Slane has died. Freed at last of the constraints of  being a political wife, Lady Slane allows her mind to wander. Read on …

She remembered how, crossing the Persian desert with Henry, their cart had been escorted by flocks of butterflies, white and yellow, which danced on either side and overhead and all around them, now flying ahead in a concerted movement, now returning to accompany them, amused as it were to restrain their swift frivolity to a flitting round this lumbering conveyance, but still unable to suit their pace to such sobriety, so, to relieve their impatience, soaring up into the air or dipping between the very axles, coming out on the other side before the horses had had time to put down another hoof; making, all the while, little smuts of shadow on the sand, like little black anchors dropped, tethering them by invisible cables to the earth, but dragged about with the same capricious swiftness, obliged to follow; and she remembered thinking, lulled by the monotonous progression that trailled after the sun from dawn to dusk, like a plough that should pursue the sun in one straight slow furrow round and round the world – she remembered thinking that this was something like her own life, following Henry Holland like the sun, but every now and then moving into a cloud of butterflies which were her own irreverent, irrelevant thoughts, darting and dancing, but altering the pace of the progression by not one tittle; never brushing the carriage with their wings; flickering always, and evading; sometimes rushing on ahead, but returning again to tease and to show off, darting between the axles; having an independent and a lovely life; a flock of ragamuffins skimming aove the surface of the desert and around the trundling waggon; but Henry, who was travelling on a tour of investigation, could only say, “Terrible, the opthalmia among these people – I must really do something about it,” and knowing that he was right and  would speak to the missionaries, she had withdrawn her attention from the butterflies and had transferred it to her duty, determining that when they reached Yezd or Shiraz, or wherever it might be, she would also take the missionaries to task about the opthalmia in the villages and would make arrangements for a further supply of boracic to be sent out from England.

One sentence! I’m half-way through and a review will follow shortly.

 

Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent, first pub. 1931. Virago Modern Classics, London, 1983