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

Jungfrau, Dymphna Cusack

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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)

The Mysterious Box, Dorothy Cottrell

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week 12-18 Jan. 2020

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Jess White, author of Hearing Maud, currently doing a writer-in-residence gig in Munich, and valued contributor to Gens 1 and 2 has for Gen 3 come up with the romantic figure of once well-known best-selling author, Dorothy Cottrell.


Jessica White Jessica White

Cottrell was born in Picton, NSW in 1905 and contracted polio five years later. She spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair. This didn’t stop her from attending art school, moving to her uncle’s farm and becoming a crack shot with a rifle, eloping with her uncle’s bookkeeper to Dunk Island, moving back to Sydney to make money from her drawings, and then to American to escape the tax office. Read on …

Waterway, Eleanor Dark

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Waterway (1938) is a far more significant work than I realised when my brother (B2) gave it to me to read a few months ago, and I’m going to go into some background to try and explain why I think so.

Before I go on though, about halfway through reading this novel I happened to glance at the back cover (of the edition pictured above) and it completely gives away the novel’s ending. Why a publisher would do that I don’t know, but it spoiled my reading of the book, and I can only advise you to resolutely hold the book face UP.

Eleanor Dark (1901-1985) was one of the women writers who dominated my Australian Gen 3 period – from the end of WWI to the 1950s, a period marked for women writers at least by a concentration on social (and in some cases socialist) realism. Socialism was an important influence during this period, though of course much less so after 1956. KS Prichard was a Communist; as was Jean Devanney; Christina Stead was, though she wasn’t a party member; Kylie Tennant was briefly a party member; there is evidence Miles Franklin hovered between socialism and communism. I’m not sure about Dark, but her husband was socialist and active on the left of the Labor Party.

Prior to my reading this book, Dark’s importance, to me, was her Timeless Land trilogy (1941, 1948, 1953) which imagined for the first time white settlement from the point of view of the displaced Aborigines. The only other of her works I remember reading is Return to Coolamai (1936) and it seemed to me her interest there was in middle class character and interaction. But I can see now her importance in the introduction of Modernism.

Waterway was Dark’s fifth novel. No.s 2 and 3, Prelude to Christopher and Return to Coolamai were both winners of the ALS Gold Medal. Wikileaks says (today anyway) of Prelude that “the storyline is nonlinear and of interest to those interested in the establishment of modernism in the arts in Australia.” It is interesting to guess what books/writers Dark might have been influenced by. Here are some landmarks –

Joseph Furphy, Such is Life (1903)
DH Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (1913)
James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
Eleanor Dark, Slow Dawning (1932)
Christina Stead, Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934)
Patrick White, Happy Valley (1939)

So Dark and Stead were almost exact contemporaries, with Dark the first to be published, by a couple of years. Stead had the advantage of being in Paris in the early 30s in the circle around Sylvia Beach who published Ulysses, while Dark remained in Sydney. And I think Stead gradually became the more polished writer. Interestingly, both Seven Poor Men of Sydney and Waterway are set in Watsons Bay, just inside the Heads, on the south side of Sydney Harbour.

Like Ulysses, Waterway is one day in one city, but from the point of view of an omniscient observer relating the conversations, arguments, thought processes of 16 people from half a dozen houses in this one waterside suburb, as they bump into each other, in the street, in the water and on the ferry to and from the city.

Dark divides her protagonists into thoughtlessly wealthy and philosophers (with not much in between). The philosophers are led by Professor Channon who has two beautiful, intelligent daughters – Winifred unhappily married to rich Arthur Sellman and Lesley, single, who has just become the lover of Sim, the carefree, handsome younger son of another wealthy family, the Hegarty’s. Winifred has a blind daughter, 6 and is in love with her widower next door neighbour Ian who has sons aged 7 and 8. Arthur’s sister Lorna, also beautiful, but vain and thoughtless with it, is determined to marry Sim. Then there are the doctor and his artist wife, Lois; Roger who publishes a failing literary newsletter; and finally Jack, unemployed, living in a shack on the waterline amongst the fishermen, strong, angry and incoherent.

Dark’s philosophy, which is expressed by a number of her protagonists, basically seems to be Christianity without the religion –

“Hang it all, if you gave away every bean you possessed tomorrow, it wouldn’t be the little bit of ‘philanthropy’ that mattered, it would be the freeing of yourself [from possessions].” Roger to Sim.

It’s summer, the day is fine, hot. Those who can, start the morning, or in Lesley and Sim’s case, finish the night before, with a swim in the cove. The workers catch the ferry or drive into town. Winifred and Ian have vowed to stop meeting but manage to be on the beach at the same time so his boys can take her daughter for a swim. Arthur of course is angry and broods that the wife to whom he gives everything wants nothing except divorce.

The afternoon is to see the society wedding of Sim’s older brother and that, though unimportant to all the protagonists, is a focus for much of their activity. Jack falls and damages his hand, ends up in a mob of unemployed which gravitates towards the crowd watching the wedding; the kids go to the zoo; the artist has some paintings in an exhibition; one way or another most of them end up in town to come home on the 10 to 5 ferry.

There’s some excitement and the day draws to a close. It’s very well done and we the reader are involved in the ebb and flow of their thoughts. Sue (WG) of course will ask me how I can allow Dark to write the thoughts of men. Good question Sue. To a large extent the men are stereotypes, particularly Jack, I don’t think Dark is very familiar with the working class. The women are much more interesting. Winifred, Lesley, Lois and even Sim’s mother, Lady Hegarty are thoughtful and intelligent, though none of them is independent in the sense of wishing for a life without a husband.

Dark foreshadows her later work, which may have been inspired by a feeling that the Harbour is a living, breathing organism with a life independent of the white society that has so recently perched around its shores –

And when the invaders landed they felt a soil beneath their feet whose very texture was alien; a hard earth, which smelt not of grass and flowers and hay, the reassuring familiar odours of man’s long habitation, but strangely of an age-old solitude.

Lesley, who is probably the closest to being Dark herself, as the doctor seems based on her (Dark’s) husband, writes stories set in the earliest days of white settlement

By now, fed by necessary research, her mental picture of the city in its infancy had grown so familiar to her that she had often felt when she stepped out again from this quiet room into the daylight … surprised to find it no longer that … straggling settlement of a handful of colonists.

I haven’t really made the case for just how good the writing is, the long streams of consciousness as one protagonist or another reflects. The author herself notes one of her influences –

She thought, “I’m going all D.H. Lawrence! I suppose you have to go through this before you realise how accurately he paints – one side of the picture!” Lesley.

If you like to think about writing, and about Australian writing in particular, then this is a book you should consider. I think Aust.Lit. came of age in the 1930s and it was the women, and I guess Xavier Herbert, who were responsible, and who in a large way formed the base built on by Patrick White.

 

Eleanor Dark, Waterway, first pub. 1938. My copy Imprint 1990 with Introduction by Drusilla Modjeska

see also:
Meg Brayshaw, The Quiet Brilliance of Eleanor Dark, AWWC (here)
Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters (here)
Sylvia Beach, Ulysses in Paris (here)

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week will be in the second week of January 2020 (and there will probably be a Part II in the corresponding week of the following year).