Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf, 1916.
The Voyage Out is Virginia Woolf's first novel, and I hosted this read-along because the novel was published 100 years ago on 26th March, 1915. Until last weekend I hadn't read this novel in years, but I do remember it was one of the first few Woolf novels I did read. For those who are more familiar with her later works - Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To The Lighhouse (1927), or The Waves (1931) it makes for an interesting read. It is by far her most 'traditional' novel, quite Victorian in its way although it certainly contains Woolf's voice, attitude, and approach, simply watered down somewhat as she begins to discover her voice.

The second chapter of The Voyage Out begins with this -
The voyage had begun, and had begun happily with a soft blue sky, and a calm sea. The sense of untapped resources, things to say as yet unsaid, made the hour significant, so that in future years the entire journey perhaps would be represented by this one scene, with the sound of sirens hooting in the river the night before, somehow mixing in. 
This is perhaps why reading Woolf's first novel is so exciting - we already know what is to come, we know of the resources that would be tapped, we know the beginning and the end of her journey and life, and we know all the things that would be said. Those familiar with Woolf will know that this voyage had not begun happily at all, if anything the sky was dark and the sea choppy: the novel was begun by 1908 (I've read some websites, Wikipedia for one, claiming it was 1910, however scholars suggest it may have begun as early as 1907, and there were certainly about one hundred pages in manuscript written in 1908) and by the time it came to be published she had already had several nervous breakdowns following the deaths of her mother Julia (1995), her sister Stella (1897), her father Leslie (1904), and her brother Thoby (1906). There were a great many revisions to the text (Louise DeSalvo found about nine distinct revisions, plus the 1920 American edition, which may be bought on Abe Books for £6,600!), and there's even another version in print - Melymbrosia, which was published in 1982, forty-one years after her death (this was reconstructed by Prof. DeSalvo). But, happily, it was finally published in 1915.

As the title suggests, it's about a voyage - a voyage to South America. But the word "voyage" can be understood on two levels, particularly with regards to the main character Rachel Vinrace who is not only embarking on a physical journey but also an emotional one; "a course of self-discovery" as Oxford University Press describes it. The ship carries many passengers from all walks of life almost, so it becomes a kind of microcosm of Edwardian society. There is a sense of escaping, changing, or taking hold of one's destiny. In the Victorian age there was a prescribed path for women in which marriage was a fundamental ingredient, and however much the role of women was beginning to change in Edwardian society the Victorian hangover remained. Like her peers Rachel is expected to fall in love and marry, however she's naive, uncertain, and to an extent has led a rather sheltered existence. The idea of sex makes her uncomfortable - she observes a couple being intimate with one another and says, "I don't like that" and is slightly shook up by it - "she could not get away from the sight they had just seen".

At the same time as she is contemplating her future, perhaps as a married woman (she is 24, which by those standards makes her perilously close to being an old maid), her education and reading develops. She admits she hasn't read many classics, and she finds many suggestions from various characters:
"About books now. What have you read? Just Shakespeare and the Bible?" 
"I haven't read many classics," Rachel stated. She was slightly annoyed by his jaunty and rather unnatural manner, while his masculine acquirements induced her to take a very modest view of her own power. 
"D'you mean to tell me you've reached the age of twenty-four without reading Gibbon?" he demanded. 
"Yes, I have," she answered. 
"Mon Dieu!" he exclaimed, throwing out his hands. "You must begin to-morrow. I shall send you my copy. What I want to know is—" he looked at her critically. "You see, the problem is, can one really talk to you? Have you got a mind, or are you like the rest of your sex? You seem to me absurdly young compared with men of your age." 
Rachel looked at him but said nothing. 
"About Gibbon," he continued. "D'you think you'll be able to appreciate him? He's the test, of course. It's awfully difficult to tell about women," he continued, "how much, I mean, is due to lack of training, and how much is native incapacity. I don't see myself why you shouldn't understand—only I suppose you've led an absurd life until now—you've just walked in a crocodile, I suppose, with your hair down your back." 
The music was again beginning. Hirst's eye wandered about the room in search of Mrs. Ambrose. With the best will in the world he was conscious that they were not getting on well together. 
"I'd like awfully to lend you books," he said, buttoning his gloves, and rising from his seat. "We shall meet again. I'm going to leave you now." 
He got up and left her. 
Rachel looked round. She felt herself surrounded, like a child at a party, by the faces of strangers all hostile to her, with hooked noses and sneering, indifferent eyes. She was by a window, she pushed it open with a jerk. She stepped out into the garden. Her eyes swam with tears of rage. 
"Damn that man!" she exclaimed, having acquired some of Helen's words. "Damn his insolence!"
This silence - "Rachel looked at him but said nothing" - this is where Woolf is most recognisable - the difference in the public and the private character, the inner and outer life Woolf explored throughout much of her subsequent work. It is a key part of The Voyage Out.

There is much happening in this novel, too much to write about in one post I think. It probably says as much about an individual, Rachel, as it does about English society and its values, which makes it a particularly valuable read for those interested in the Edwardian age. It's quite a tense novel, much is packed into it and the reader always has an awareness of these things unsaid, giving a feeling of anticipation for later reactions. One feels that Rachel will at some point boil over, but I won't spoil it by giving away the end. Instead I return to what I said at the start - this novel is about the 'inner journey' of Rachel Vinrace, and the changes and developments she goes through, and the question of whether she is unable to overcome her obstacles are entirely convincing, as one would expect from Woolf. And I can't not mention the Dalloways, who make their first appearance in The Voyage Out, Mrs. Dalloway is a character who Woolf develops further in Mrs. Dalloway (published a decade later).

I enjoyed reading this novel very much, though I think there's a part of me that enjoys it as a curiosity - it's one of my favourite author's first book and it's interesting to read the genesis. As with most of her novels the characters are based on people she knew in real life - Helen Ambrose is part Julia Stephen, part Vanessa Bell (Woolf's sister). Mrs. Dalloway is Kitty Maxse, Woolf's friend, Ridley Ambrose is like her father Leslie Stephen, St. John Hirst is based on Lytton Strachey, Terrence Hewet on Clive Bell, and finally it's suggested Mrs. Flushing is based on Lady Ottoline Morrell. This too adds to the enjoyment, so I'm forced to conclude that had this not have been written by Virginia Woolf I might not have liked it as much. Because of that I'd not recommend it to those who haven't read any Woolf yet, I do think if it had have been my first I wouldn't have jumped into Woolf's life and works as I did! It was good to revisit, but I think it may have reaffirmed that, from what I remember, I tend to prefer Melymbrosia. I will have to revisit that some time very soon.

If you've joined the read-along let me know how you're finding it, and if you've written anything I'll happily share it. So far -

Further Reading


  1. I'm planning on reading The Waves sometime this year or next year. I tried to read Mrs. Dalloway a few years ago but stopped because it was a little too dense for me at the time. I am going to try again later and hopefully by then I will have grown as a reader. Thanks for this post!

    1. Ah, The Waves - there's a book that scares me! I read in once about ten years ago. Hopefully I've grown as a reader as well so I might have more luck when I come to revisit it :)

      I loved Mrs Dalloway, but To the Lighthouse is also a wonderful book if ever you get the chance to read it.

  2. You make me want to grab my copy of this book and reread it. :) Maybe this summer should be all Virginia Woolf for me.

    1. That would be good! If you decide on reading The Waves at all I would join you :) I think that will be my next one. Either that or Flush :)

  3. Such a great review. Thank you for sharing the autobiographical background of this novel because it really changes my perceptions on it. I finished this book last week and have been meaning to write a review for a while but other things just keep getting in the way. I am aiming for Friday but no promises!

    1. Thank you! I'll look out for your post and link it here :)

  4. I have to get around to reading this one. I just reread Orlando and read The Waves (and loved it) for the first time. Jacob's Room is the earliest of her novels I have read.

    1. I didn't do too well with The Waves the first time around, but I do want to revisit it in the summer. :)

  5. I just finished it today. What a wonderful journey! I really enjoyed it. That ending took me by surprise, but that is what really tied it all together for me. This story confirms that I want to continue reading more from Woolf.

    Thanks, o!

    1. I'm so happy you enjoyed it! :D


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