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Sunday 28 September 2014

Reading Virginia Woolf: The Voyage Out

And so begins my foray into the works of Virginia Woolf with this, her first novel, The Voyage Out. The story begins with a sea voyage, bringing together one half of a core cast of characters. Helen and Ridley Ambrose, a couple who are travelling without their children to spend some time in South America where her husband will be writing a book. Willoughby Vinrace is the owner of the ship and also Helen Ambrose’s brother-in-law. Then there is Rachel Vinrace, a 24 year old women, niece to Helen and Ridley, who emerges from the fringes to become the key character in the book. Rachel is young, inexperienced and uneducated. After her mother died whilst Rachel was a child, she spent much of her life with her aunts (not Helen) who led a quiet and sheltered life and sheltered Rachel within it. Consequently Rachel struggles with her thoughts (‘if thinking it could be called’ as Woolf describes it), is passionate about music, and leads a thoroughly directionless life.

Helen Ambrose decides to take her niece under her wing and offers for her to stay with them at her brother’s house in (an unspecified location in) South America. Here they meet Terence Hewit and St. John Hirst, along with a brace of other characters that circle around the main. Rachel and Terence, over the course of time, fall in love and, following a boat trip down the river to visit a ‘native village’, become engaged. I won’t go into detail about how their story ends, but it is quite surprising.

The plot of the novel, its narrative path, are relatively ordinary. The Voyage Out was Woolf’s first book, and she had not yet gained the confidence, I think, to allow her experimental instincts to the fore. Yet it is still an excellent novel, with much to commend it. Woolf, despite her inexperience, displays a highly keen eye for characterisation with the result that her core characters, and to a certain extent her secondary characters, are highly fleshed out. This makes them unique and memorable. Helen Ambrose is beautiful yet perversely minded, she loves to contradict. She is direct and honest, she does not say the things that are ‘appropriate’ but instead she says what she thinks. Yet she is warm and considerate, and she grows to love her niece. St. John Hirst is another excellently drawn character. He is extremely clever and hopelessly poor in social situations. He is equally honest, impatient, lacks care for people yet is drawn to Helen on account of her honesty. Rachel Vinrace is ungoverned and directionless, she does not understand her own feelings. There is a sense, here, of Woolf the girl drawn in Rachel whereas Woolf the woman, educated by sheer determination and exposure to an intelligent circle of friends, is represented in the form of Helen Ambrose.

That Woolf uses characters from her own life and experience seems clear. Having read Woolf’s diaries, understanding Woolf the woman and the people around her, this biographical element is clearer and I think that if someone was planning to embark on a reading of Woolf I would recommend that they read her diaries or her letters first to give them insight into the backdrop of her fiction. Though the story is entirely imaginary, the basis for her characters and their situations seems to be drawn from Woolf’s own life. There is also sense of Woolf experimenting in this book, using the book and the characters to draw out her ideas. Like here, as Terence, who is writing a novel, explains what he is trying to achieve:

“’I want to write a novel about Silence,’ he said; ‘the things people don’t say. But the difficulty is immense.’ He sighed. ‘However, you don’t care,’ he continued. He looked at her almost severely. ‘Nobody cares. All you read a novel for is to see what sort of person the writer is, and, if you know him, which of his friends he’s put in. As for the novel itself, the whole conception, the way one’s seen the thing, felt about it, made it stand in relation to other things, not one in a million cares for that. And yet I sometimes wonder whether there’s anything else in the world worth doing. These other people,’ he indicated the hotel, ‘are always wanting something they can’t get. But there’s an extraordinary satisfaction in writing, even attempting to write. What you said just now is true: one doesn’t want to be things; one wants merely to be allowed to see them.’”

Is this Terence talking, or Woolf? (I appreciate the irony of this extract given what I've just written about the biographical element of the novel) Sometimes the distinction isn’t too clear and there is a sense through the novel that Woolf is very thinly disguised beneath her wonderful prose. Similarly here:

“By these means Rachel reached that stage in thinking, if thinking it can be called, when the eyes are intent upon a ball or a knob and the lips cease to move. Her efforts to come to an understanding had only hurt her aunt’s feelings, and the conclusion must be that it is better not to try. To feel anything strongly was to create an abyss between oneself and other who feel strongly perhaps but differently. It was far better to play the piano and forget all the rest.”

Is this Rachel Vinrace or Woolf as a young woman, inexperienced and intelligent without the tools to express her intelligence. There are many such examples in the book, the ways in which Woolf explores the question of art vs public service and whether art should serve a purpose or serve merely as a mirror to reflect life in all its various incarnations as it is. I loved, too, the surprise appearance of the Dalloways (of Mrs Dalloway fame) in the early part of the novel. Woolf clearly had a strong conception of the Dalloways early on, which she later fleshed out in her famous short novel. Though they appear for only a short period, they are dynamic and well drawn and they make quite an impact on the youthful Rachel.

The Voyage Out is an excellent book. Though its narrative path and its story line are nothing remarkable, where Woolf brings her skill to it is in the sharp characterisation, her insight and wisdom, her explorative mind and a keen eye for description which she uses to destructive effect in her later novels. It is an entertaining book, tragic and beautifully constructed. It is not her best novel, but perhaps an easy introduction to Woolf’s works, and great fun to read. I enjoyed it immensely, and like all of Woolf’s works I think it is a novel worth returning to more than once.

The Voyage Out receives an introductory 8 out of 10 Biis. 

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