Between the Acts was Virginia Woolf’s final novel – published posthumously – it is a novel which remains as she left it when she took her own life in 1941. We will never know what revisions and alterations she might have made.
Taking place on one English summer day in 1939, Between the Acts perfectly re-creates a long June day before the war changes everything for the comfortable upper classes. The war looms large throughout the novel, Virginia Woolf of course writing the book after hostilities had begun – it is clear she was very affected by it. Throughout the novel there are illusions to the coming war. We are reminded of flight by the swallows in the skies above the characters who muse about what may be ahead – the legions of aircraft which will soon take to the skies. Vague references made to the unsettled continent lying a few miles across the channel.
It is the day of the annual village pageant at Pointz Hall – which has become quite a local tradition. In typical British fashion on such occasions there is some discussion about the weather – and will the barn need to be used. The day starts well, the weather looks like being fine. The pageant; attended by all sections of the community, the grand and not so grand – is a grand celebration of English history, a play within a play.
The Oliver family; Isa, Giles and their young children, are staying with Giles’ father Bartholomew Oliver and his sister Lucy Swithin at Pointz Hall. Around the Olivers gather a disparate group of characters through whom we witness the comings and goings of the day, as Woolf weaves together their various musings and concerns.
“Miss La Trobe was pacing to and fro between the leaning birch trees. One hand was deep stuck in her jacket pocket; the other held a foolscap sheet. She was reading what was written there. She had the look of a commander pacing his deck. The leaning graceful trees with black bracelets circling the silver bark were distant about a ship’s length.”
Miss La Trobe organises and directs the players in the pageant to raise money for the local church. Miss La Trobe feels herself to be an artist – an unappreciated one, though she still dreams of the success which has eluded her. Miss La Trobe, so often smirked at behind her back, is continually frustrated in her vision of what she wants to present to the audience – with speakers lines getting lost, nothing quite living up to her idea of it, she seems unable to present her vision to her audience as she wished to. It is suggested that Miss La Trobe has a past; was herself an actress, sharing a bed with another actress.
Isa has noticed Haines a local, gentleman farmer, a man she convinces herself she has feelings for, though they do no more than exchange glances. Isa has lost interest in her husband – she attempts to find affection for him by remembering he is the father of her two children. Yet later when Mrs Manresa and her friend William Dodge arrive – Isa is irritated by her husband’s apparent interest in this vibrant, unconventional free spirit.
“She tapped on the window with her embossed hairbrush. They were too far off to hear. The drone of the trees was in their ears; the chirp of birds; other incidents of garden life, inaudible, invisible to her in the bedroom, absorbed them. Isolated on a green island, hedged about with snowdrops, laid with a counterpane of puckered silk, the innocent island floated under her window. Only George lagged behind.”
Between the acts of the pageant the audience – the Olivers among them – continue with their own preoccupations. Isa wanders through the grounds looking for her gentleman farmer, Giles who generally seems ill at ease – even angry spends much of the time with Mrs Manresa. It is Giles who seems particularly aware of the gathering storm from the continent. William Dodge; meanwhile finds some understanding in Isa – although her husband is quick to show his dislike for the man who it is suggested is homosexual.
“Suppose the looking glass smashes, the image disappears, and the romantic figure with the green of forest depths all about it is there no longer, but only that shell of a person which is seen by other people – what an airless, shallow, bald, prominent world it becomes! A world not to be lived in. As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking into the mirror that accounts for the vagueness, the gleam of glassiness, in our eyes.”
The pageant presents the audience with a wonderful vision of England; Shakespearean scenes give way to restoration comedy a Victorian scene based around a policeman directing traffic. The final scene called ‘Ourselves’ the audience get an unexpected surprise as Miss La Trobe rather turns the tables and shows them themselves.
Virginia Woolf’s writing is as evocative in Between the Acts as I have come to expect – the scene is one so typically English – it beautifully highlights how for so many people that summer of 1939 was a time of innocence before great change came to Europe.
Reading Between the Acts – one can’t help but wonder what else Virginia Woolf might have produced had not her life ended when it did – but perhaps it there is no point thinking like that.