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Sunday, 8 March 2015

Reading Woolf: Between the Acts

Between the Acts was Woolf’s last novel, and she died before finishing editing the book. Having enjoyed so many of Woolf’s books, I’m sad to say that this was another that just didn’t gel for me. It has a lot of promise, more so than Flush, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark and I wonder if Woolf had had the time or inclination to work on it further, whether a tighter book would have resulted? It is impossible to know.

Between the Acts takes place entirely in the course of a single afternoon during which a play is performed, the summer pageant, in the gardens of Pointz Hall. The story centres around the family: Isa (Isabelle) a young, unhappy mother; Mr. Oliver, her aged father in law; Mrs Swithin, Mr. Oliver’s sister; and Giles, Isa’s husband. Through the characters of Isa and Giles we see played out passion and ennui; the characters of Mr. Oliver and his sister Mrs Swithin juxtapose faith and reason. Joining the family for lunch is Mrs. Manresa, a flirtatious and sexually appealing women and William Dodge, a homosexual and an ‘artist’ though he rejects the title.

The story opens with a lot of promise. “It was a summer’s night and they were talking, in the big room with the windows open to the garden, about the cesspool.” Isa, the main force of the story, is sitting in the room as her father in law is discussing practical village matters with a gentleman farmer, Rupert Haines, and his wife. Isa is reflecting on the emotions Rupert Haines, the man in grey, stirs within her. She suspects them to be love. In the meantime, the family is talking. Isa, in spite of her outward calm, is troubled. Her marriage, it seems, is also troubled with suggestions of infidelities on her husband’s part and her own struggling to understand how exactly she feels about her husband.

The family are preparing for the pageant, each person fitting to a familiar role. Mrs Swithin puts up the sign, she and her brother talk about the weather. Isa sits quietly, yet inside she is seething with emotion: frustration which rises from her marital situation and the endless cycle of repetition, the repeating of roles from one year to the next. “Every summer, for seven summers now, Isa had heard the same words; about the hammer and the nails; the pageant and the weather. Every year they said, it would be wet or fine; and every year it was – one or the other. The same chime followed the same chime, only this year beneath the chime she heard: ‘The girl screamed and hit him about the face with the hammer.”

Enter Mrs Manresa and her friend William Dodge. Dodge inspires different emotions in each of the characters. Underlying, yet not spoken, is his homosexuality which stirs disgust in some, sympathy in others. When Giles returns home from work he is stirred by the presence of Mrs Manresa, as is Mr. Oliver, who is seen as something of a ‘wild child’ not behaving to normal etiquette and flirting quite openly with the men. Isa is annoyed with Mrs Manresa’s affect on her husband and the suggestion of further infidelity.

The weather is fine and so follows the pageant. Penned by Miss La Trobe, the event is something about the ages of men. Or something like that. I don’t know. At this point I completely lost the plot (or the plot was lost); the entire pageant part of the book was a cacophony of words that meant absolutely nothing to me. Except this part, perhaps:

“Did the plot matter? She shifted and looked over her right shoulder. The plot was only there to beget emotion. There were only two emotions: love; and hate. There was no need to puzzle out the plot. Perhaps Miss La Trobe meant that when she cut this knot in the centre?
Don’t bother about the plot: the plot’s nothing.”

I don’t know if Woolf was hinting there or if not, but certainly I got the impression that the plot really was nothing and as a consequence I had no idea what it was about. Scenes opened, scenes closed. Lines were started, lines were lost. There was interval upon interval, many costume changes, we followed this character then that character. No one seemed to be able to finish a sentence or thought. No one seemed to know what was going on.

This pretty much bombed Between the Acts for me. The novel, from some point after the first third, was like the closing part of Orlando: fevered and stuttering; a whirling jumble of words, ideas and imagery. I couldn’t follow it. So much murmuring, so much half-finished dialogue. Too…unfinished, perhaps?  It was a bewildering read; despite its short length, it was a struggle to finish it. I still have no idea what I was reading. Can anybody help me?


Between the Acts receives a bewildered 5 out of 10 Biis. It’s early promise just didn’t flow through.