I tend not to join many reading groups or challenges these days, mostly because I have so little reading time at my disposal that I don’t want to feel that it’s too closely constrained by the books I “have to” read for those sorts of obligations. But when a work colleague of mine let me know that he was going to start a Read More Woolf reading group, I knew I had to join. Virginia Woolf is an author I have for some reason never read (except for a brief and happy encounter with A Room of One’s Own.) Despite strong recommendations from people I trust, I’ve always had the vague sense that her work is difficult, if not impenetrable, and I’ve put it off. When I examine that idea more closely, though, I know it’s silly, and I find myself eager to — well — Read More Woolf, or at least Some Woolf (Alice in Wonderland reference there.)
We began, auspiciously enough, with Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out. In this book, a naive girl, Rachel, and a middle-aged woman, Helen, take a trip to an almost mythical South America. (You can tell why the rest of Woolf’s novels take place in England; she has a rather vague idea of what South America might look like. Hot! Large flowers… of some kind! Dark-skinned people perhaps!) The conversations, relationships, and awakenings that take place on this voyage — and, indeed, the smaller voyages that are tributary to the larger one — make up the flow of the novel.
Remember that I’ve never read any of Woolf’s major works (Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando), so I have nothing to compare this to. But this book struck me as extremely interesting, both thematically and in terms of technique. While it did not go fully into a stream-of-consciousness style that (if I’m correct) Woolf will achieve later in her career, the characters in this novel are always bumping up against the inarticulable, the ineffable, the unsayable. They are tools of perception: there is something there that they can feel, but not say. Here, Hewet, one of the main male characters, has just realized he has fallen in love with Rachel:
After standing still for a minute or two he turned and began to walk towards the gate. With the movement of his body, the excitement, the romance and the richness of life crowded into his brain. He shouted out a line of poetry, but the words escaped him, and he stumbled among lines and fragments of lines which had no meaning at all except for the beauty of the words. He shut the gate, and ran swinging from side to side down the hill, shouting any nonsense that came into his head. “Here am I,” he cried rhythmically, as his feet pounded to the left and to the right, “plunging along, like an elephant in the jungle, stripping off the branches as I go (he snatched at the twigs of a bush at the roadside), roaring innumerable words, lovely words about innumerable things, running downhill and talking nonsense aloud to myself about roads and leaves and lights and women coming out into the darkness — about women — about Rachel, about Rachel.”
Here we see Hewet trying to put his emotions, his body, and his articulation together, and it simply doesn’t function. By the end of the scene, he is simply repeating “Dreams and realities, dreams and realities,” over and over (which would be the title of my post if I were Amateur Reader.)
There are other techniques Woolf uses that are equally interesting. Fairly early on in the novel, she introduces most of the major and minor characters in an almost cinematic way — you can practically see the boom camera — swooping from one hotel room to another, dipping in and out of the consciousness of each person. Later, we spend long hours in interesting, witty conversation, which is the primary tool for Rachel’s awakening as what Helen refers to as a “reasonable human being.”
Thematically, this is an interesting book as well. The questions of perception and intelligence are central, of course, and Woolf’s ideas about what it means as a woman to have knowledge and education restricted for fear of sexual awakening come out very clearly. How is one to become a reasonable human being without a basic education? Yet the brightest and most educated character in the book is often rather unreasonable. St. John Hirst meets Rachel and is appalled that she’s never read Gibbon; he assumes she must be an empty-headed child and sends her the first two volumes on the spot.
As you can see from that story, one of the things I appreciated about this book was its sharp, dry sense of humor. There’s a marvelous scene where the skeptical, often atheist characters have all nonetheless gone to church. (This is quite Modernist of them; the Modernists were mostly skeptical or atheist but somehow couldn’t stay out of church, hissing at the sermons.) Rachel sits listening to the service, having an epiphany that everyone there is a hypocrite (how she could possibly know this is unclear.) St. John Hirst, however, sits peacefully reading the incredibly scandalous Swinburne translation of Sappho, and jotting lines from time to time on his own blasphemous poem about God. As an occupation in church, it’s pretty funny.
As you can probably tell, I enjoyed this book thoroughly, perhaps even more because it is a tragedy — Woolf clearly knows her Shakespeare. The two main characters, Rachel and Hewet, are the two least finished characters of the book, and others are more finely drawn — Helen, Hirst, Evelyn M. — but those two grow and reflect and change as well. I am glad to be embarked on this. Er. Voyage out.