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