“I feel so intensely the delights of shutting oneself up in a little world of one’s own, with pictures and music and everything beautiful”
I have spoken before about my relationship with Virginia Woolf, and my recent determination to read more of her work. I was glad, therefore to be given a chance to read her first novel for Behold the stars read-a-long. It is the one hundred year anniversary of the publication of this novel, something that I am glad is being celebrated. It is always so interesting to see where a great artist started – and Virginia Woolf must surely be that – often reading an author’s work in chronological order can be particularly rewarding.
“one never knows what any one feels. We’re all in the dark. We try to find out, but can you imagine anything more ludicrous than one person’s opinion of another person? One goes along thinking one knows; but one really doesn’t know.”
The Voyage Out was apparently written by Woolf at a time when she herself was quite psychologically vulnerable – I think I would have guessed that from the novel itself – even if I hadn’t read that somewhere else. The themes of the novel are those of self-discovery, sexual awakening, death and femininity. There are voyages of discovery for Rachel – who at the start of the novel is a perhaps surprisingly naive young woman, even for the times in which she was living – and others whom she meets in the course of the novel. The sea voyage itself taking up only a part of the whole novel. One of the aspects I particularly liked in this novel – was the idea of knowing – or not knowing the people around us, how so often we assume things about people, think we know things while all the time we are terribly wrong, like Clarissa Dalloway – a minor character in this novel – who I don’t belive understands her husband as much as she thinks she does.
“That was the strange thing, that one did not know where one was going, or what one wanted, and followed blindly, suffering so much in secret, always unprepared and amazed and knowing nothing; but one thing led to another and by degrees something had formed itself out of nothing, and so one reached at last this calm, this quiet, this certainty, and it was this process that people called living.”
Rachel Vinrace, is a young woman who having been living with her aunts in London, embarks upon a sea voyage, aboard her father’s ship to South America. The ship is primarily a cargo ship, but some special passengers are permitted by arrangement, and it is thus that Rachel finds herself among a slightly mismatched group of fellow travellers. In the company of her beautiful aunt Helen Ambrose and Uncle Ridley, Rachel meets Clarissa and Richard Dalloway – who are both a huge presence on the ship. Clarissa befriends Rachel, while her husband shows himself to be just a little predatory, they eventually leave the ship before its final destination.
The ship finally docks in South America – the exact location seems to be fictional and in a sense it is of no importance where these characters are thrown together – just that they are. In a place very different to home, where the rules aren’t necessarily exactly the same. In a place where those who are still young can contemplate all the future has to offer them now that the Victorian age is behind them, while the older generation can look on, reflecting perhaps on how it was for them. The Ambroses have a Villa for their exclusive use – within sight of a hotel, where a large group of English guests are already in residence. Rachel accompanies her aunt to the hotel, introductions are made, allegiances formed, excited plans for expeditions made. Here romances are inevitably started, – bearing in mind that this is a story written by Virginia Woolf – not Jane Austen, and not all ships make it back to harbour. I am really conscious of not wanting to say too much about this novel, in which in some senses, not much happens, but what does occur, is everything, so I am keeping this review fairly short – maybe Virgina Woolf really just needs to speak for herself, and there are many lovely sections I could quote, simply for the sake of it.
“The morning was hot, and the exercise of reading left her mind contracting and expanding like the main-spring of a clock, and the small noises of midday, which one can ascribe to no definite cause, in a regular rhythm. It was all very real, very big, very impersonal, and after a moment or two she began to raise her first finger and to let it fall on the arm of her chair so as to bring back to herself some consciousness of her own existence. She was next overcome by the unspeakable queerness of the fact that she should be sitting in an arm-chair, in the morning, in the middle of the world. Who were the people moving in the house–moving things from one place to another? And life, what was that? It was only a light passing over the surface and vanishing, as in time she would vanish, though the furniture in the room would remain. Her dissolution became so complete that she could not raise her finger any more, and sat perfectly still, listening and looking always at the same spot. It became stranger and stranger. She was overcome with awe that things should exist at all. . . She forgot that she had any fingers to raise. . . The things that existed were so immense and so desolate. . . She continued to be conscious of these vast masses of substance for a long stretch of time, the clock still ticking in the midst of the universal silence.”
There is both lightness and darkness in this novel – inevitably so, the simple human joy at being young and in love, smiling at one another with nothing needing to be said – Woolf captures that every bit as well as she captures the ageing beauty or the wannabe writer. several of the characters from the hotel – were almost completely faceless for me, I could barely distinguish between Mrs Flushing, Mrs Thornbury and Mrs Elliot – and that fact irritated me a little, though perhaps we aren’t meant to distinguish between them, they are of a type. However Helen, Rachel her young lover Terence, the Dalloways and St John Hirst are beautifully and delicately brought to life in this novel. The Voyage Out is perhaps (I am no expert) Virginia Woolf’s least experimental novel, in structure it is certainly far more conventional than many people perhaps associate with Woolf. I enjoyed it enormously, I was blown away by Orlando quite recently, and so I really think I have found the time in my life when Virginia Woolf is (hopefully) no longer a completely closed book.