by Virginia Woolf
Publication Date: February 3, 1915
Woolf’s first novel is a haunting book, full of light and shadow. It takes Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose and their niece, Rachel, on a sea voyage from London to a resort on the South american coast. “It is a strange, tragic, inspired book whose scene is a South America not found on any map and reached by a boat which would not float on any sea, an american whose spiritual boundaries touch Xanadu and Atlantis”
My personal experiences with Virginia Woolf have historically been fraught. I want to love her – she is iconic, so important in the pantheon of women in literature and feminism that she very nearly stands alone. But she is also impenetrable, a cipher for which I, sadly, lack the necessary decoder ring with which to make sense of her. Her writing is achingly, heartstoppingly beautiful, and yet I find that I understand almost none of it.
It was with some delight, then, that I began reading her first, and most autobiographical, novel, The Voyage Out. Written in narrative style that makes sense to my admittedly limited brain (i.e., linear) it contains her trademark gorgeous language. There is so much in it to admire, as well. Rachel, the main character, is an interesting character – a young woman who has been sheltered from everything except music, the product of a strange upbringing in an oppressive society. One of the matronly characters says about Rachel:
This girl, though twenty-four, had never heard that men desired women, and, until I explained it, did not know how children were born. Her ignorance upon other matters as important” (here Mrs. Ambrose’s letter may not be quoted) . . . “was complete. It seems to me not merely foolish but criminal to bring people up like that. Let alone the suffering to them, it explains why women are what they are—the wonder is they’re no worse. I have taken it upon myself to enlighten her, and now, though still a good deal prejudiced and liable to exaggerate, she is more or less a reasonable human being. Keeping them ignorant, of course, defeats its own object, and when they begin to understand they take it all much too seriously.
Woolf approaches feminist ideas obliquely, through several characters. Mrs. Ambrose, above, talking about the sheltering of women. Mr. Dalloway (yes, that Mr. Dalloway), talking about suffragettes:
“Oh, I’m entirely with you there,” said Dalloway. “Nobody can condemn the utter folly and futility of such behaviour more than I do; and as for the whole agitation, well! may I be in my grave before a woman has the right to vote in England! That’s all I say.” The solemnity of her husband’s assertion made Clarissa grave. “It’s unthinkable,” she said. “Don’t tell me you’re a suffragist?”
Or, this quote, from the young man who ends up as Rachel’s love interest:
“I’ve often walked along the streets where people live all in a row, and one house is exactly like another house, and wondered what on earth the women were doing inside,” he said. “Just consider: it’s the beginning of the twentieth century, and until a few years ago no woman had ever come out by herself and said things at all. There it was going on in the background, for all those thousands of years, this curious silent unrepresented life.
This curious silent unrepresented life. This isn’t entirely true, of course, because women have been part of fiction since fiction was written, although their stories were primarily told by men. But, still, it is true, right? Women did not lead public lives, in the same sense that men did. Their lives were entirely private, lived out in the quiet, domestic domain. She talks a great deal about loneliness, about the way that people live out their lives in solitary fashion, even when surrounded by others.
The Voyage Out takes a turn late in the book, into something that, given that it was written by Woolf, I might have expected. But, I didn’t. I won’t say more, because I don’t want to spoil. But, for readers who struggle with Woolf, this book is a good place to begin.