Sunday, 15 November 2015

Back from Sea... The Voyage Out

I will be writing about the entire plot of The Voyage Out in this post, so if you haven’t read it and don’t want any spoilers please save this post for another time!

I have just finished reading The Voyage Out for the second time and only five years since I first started it! Interestingly, The Voyage Out was first published in 1915, so I have finished it 100 years after it was written.  Virginia Woolf started writing this book around 1910 and got married to Leonard Woolf in 1912, half way through writing it, so it has taken me the same amount of time to read and write about it as it took her to write the whole book!

I was born 100 years after Virginia Woolf, so it is very easy to see myself in her shoes 100 years on. In 2015 I live alone in a house that I am paying the mortgage for and live in a world with so many more choices but also some of the same struggles.  It might just be that I am reading lots about the choice or women to marry or not, and facing those questions in my own life, but I really found this book to be an exploration of what it means to a woman to get married (or not) and how big a decision in your life that can be.

A quick plot summary

The central character of this book is Rachel Vinrace, her mother died when she was eleven and she was brought up by her father and her aunts in Richmond. Now, aged 24, she is setting off on a voyage to South America on her father’s ship with her aunt and uncle (her mother’s younger brother.) Her aunt is shocked to learn of the sheltered life she has been living. Rachel has never been kissed and has no idea about men or sex. Her aunt Helen takes her under her wing and starts to educate her in life and encourages her to think for herself and form her own opinions of the world. Her voyage into womanhood begins on her father’s ship when she is kissed by the married Richard Dalloway, unlocking a whole new world to her. Once she has arrived in South America she meets two men, Hewet and Hirst, who along with Helen continue to challenge her assumptions about life and what it means to be a woman. After many conversations Hewet and Rachel are engaed to be married. But their happy little life in England will never happen as Rachel develops a fever and dies.


The first thing that struck me about the book was that the central characters were almost exclusively women and the male characters were mostly on the edge of the action, making a comment here or there but largely remaining silent (Ambrose) or absent (Willoughby). The only men to get any real attention are Hewet and Hirst, the love interest and his friend.  The other thing that struck me about all these women is that they represent the variety of choices in life that a woman could make at that time:

Helen Ambrose – wife, and mother, intelligent, inquisitive and bold
Mrs Thornbury – married, lots of children, probably anti-suffrage
Mrs Elliot – married and very conventional but childless (not through choice)
Mrs Flushing – married, eccentric upper class
Miss Allan – a spinster, more interested in her work than married life
Susan Warrington – on the path to becoming a spinster but now engaged
Evelen M – not sure that she wants to get married at all and would rather conquer the world.
Rachel Vinrance – our heroine, 24, never been kissed, naive about the world but curious and full of excitement.

The lower classes don’t really get a mention! We have a small glimpse into the life of Emma Chailey when we see her room on the boat out, but otherwise we know very little about her or any of the other servants.

I think that Woolf uses these women to explore the choices that women have about their lives, how they might feel about them and the sacrifices they have to make that just don’t apply to men in the same way.

I was also struck that the Dalloway’s feature in The Voyage Out. The pompous Richard Dalloway, his character made me really angry. I don’t know if this is the same Richard and Clarissa Dalloway of Mrs Dalloway, but I like to think of Woolf having all of those characters with her for years before they come out on the page. In The Voyage Out the Dalloway’s join the ship part way through the voyage and Richard reveals a whole new part of the world to Rachel. Whilst the rest of the ship are taken out with sea sickness Richard and Rachel talk together before he kisses her and then blames her for doing it saying “you tempt me”!!!

The difference between men and women

St John Hirst discusses with Rachel the reasons why women might be different to men

“It’s actually difficult to tell about women, how much I mean is due to lack of training, and how much is native incapacity... you’ve led an absurd life until now.”

St John Hirst seems to want women to be his equal, his friendship with Helen and her liking of him is very important

“Few things at the present time mattered more than the enlightenment of women.”

It’s odd to think that this was written at a time when women didn’t have the vote and the suffrage movement was in full swing. There are some interesting observations about the impact of women achieving the vote which were very perceptive. Hewett remarks that

“It’ll take at least six generations before you’re sufficiently thick skinned to go into law courts and business offices. Consider what a bully the ordinary man is, the ordinary hard working, rather ambitious solicitor or man of business with a family to bring up and a certain position to maintain. And then, of course, the daughters have to give way to the sons, the sons have to be educated; they have to bully and slave, for their wives and families and so it all comes over again. And meanwhile there are the women in the background.”

Woolf asserted that it would take 6 generations for this problem to be solved. 100 years later we are only 4 generations on and the place of women in the workplace (or lack of), particularly in more senior roles is still very relevant today. We’ve made huge progress in terms of women’s rights in the last 100 years but there is still a long way to go. I’ve just finished reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg and in it she talks about both the environment of the office and the role of men in providing for their families. She suggests that until it is completely accepted that the role in the home is just as important as the work outside of the home, and men play an equal role in this, then women won’t be able to achieve equality in the workplace.

Where are all the women?

Woolf also makes an observation about the fact that the lives of women generally go unrecorded in the history books. There is a long passage by Hewett about how men never properly record women’s history and women don’t have a voice either

“of course, we’re always writing about women – abusing them, or jeering at them or worshipping them, but it’s never come from women themselves. It’s the man’s view that’s represented you see... Doesn’t it make your blood boil? If I were a woman I’d blow someone’s brains out. Don’t you laugh at us a great deal? Don’t you think it all a great humbug?”

Again, this still rings true today. I am slowly discovering more and more women who have seemingly vanished from the history books. Where growing up I assume that very few women were able to achieve great things, I am now discovering that their achievements have been hidden and lost to history. Take the photographer Gerda Taro, she worked with Robert Capa (indeed some of his photos may have been taken by her) but her name is not as well recorded. She was killed during the Spanish civil war and her achievements were lost, unlike Robert Capa who when he died was immortalized in numerous books and exhibitions. Or Lee Miller, (who is now getting more recognition, there is an exhibition at the ImperialWar Museum at the moment) who too was an incredible photographer in her day, establishing new photography techniques that Man Ray took all the credit for, she is recorded as his lover. Her work fell into obscurity until her son discovered all of her negatives after his parent’s death and he has now made sure her achievements are remembered.

The BBC has just produced a four part documentary called The Ascent of Woman which looks at the history of women in the development of the world and in particular focuses on how their stories have been lost, forgotten or retold to minimize their achievements.

Will you marry me?

The main theme of the book seems to be marriage and challenging the idea that his is what people should do. Evelyn M is an interesting character as she seems to challenge the idea of marriage entirely.

“Just because one’s interested and likes to be friends with men, and talked to them as one talks to women, one’s called a flirt.”

She has a proposal of marriage from two men and rather than worrying about which one to accept she is more concerned that she was asked in the first place and doesn’t quite know how to say no to either of them. She admires Garibaldi and other great explorers and I think she would rather explore the world than settle down. Hewet says

“the women he most admired and knew best were unmarried women. Marriage seemed to be worse for them that it was for men.”

Again it is interesting that 100 years on the ideas and views of marriage haven’t changed a great deal. Although now couples can live together, marry and divorce with little comment from others, and with access to contraception marriage doesn’t mean a family of thirteen children, it is still very much seen as the done thing. Spinster by Kate Bollick which has just been published in the UK this year examines the single life through the eyes of five female authors and explores how marriage (or not marrying) affected them and their work, as well as exploring what it means to be a spinster in 2015.

Towards the end of the book Evelyn sums up her feelings about marriage and how it is not for her

“Love was all very well,... but the real things were surely the things that happened in the great world outside, and went on independently of these women.”

The life that Evelyn wants is very reminiscent of the life Virginia and her siblings were leading, she wants to be able to meet with other people and discuss the world

“A nice room in Bloomsbury preferably where they could meet once a week.”

Till death us do part

The death of Rachel is really the death of an alternative way of living married life together to that of previous generations. Hewett was insistent that in their marriage Rachel would be free to be herself and that they would be happy together. Does the fact that Rachel dies suggest that Woolf didn’t think that this was a possibility? One thing that stuck out when I read this passage when Rachel dies is what Hewett says immediately following her death

“No two people have ever been so happy as we have been.”

This is very similar to the words Virginia used in her letter Leonard before she took her own life in 1941. You can see a copy of the letter and a transcript here

I saw the letter at the National Portrait Gallery exhibition about Woolf in 2014 and it was incredibly moving to read.

It seems odd that she wrote almost the same thing 26 years later to describe her life with Leonard in the same way as she had written about two characters in her first novel. Leonard must really have made her very happy.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

When life gets in the way

I’ve not written here for five years. It feels like the longest time and no time at all. The truth is I haven’t really been able to read or write or concentrate on anything very much. I had a period of stress in my life, including a bereavement, which left me physically and mentally exhausted, and I just couldn’t face writing anymore. It turned out that I had an underlying health problem which wasn’t helping things either. 

It has taken a lot of time but I am now in a really good place with my life and the urge to write and read has now returned.I didn’t have a breakdown like Virginia did, and to the outside world I was still able to function perfectly well, but it did give me an insight into what it feels like to want to be able to do something but your body and your mind just won’t let you do it.  It makes you realise how much you take for granted when you are feeling well.

I took The Voyage Out with me on holiday, determined not only to read it (which I had managed to do before) but also to write about it. I was in the South of France and the weather was 23 degrees and sunny which meant sitting in the sunshine with a beautiful view reading was very easy indeed. Once I had finished reading it I sat outside to write about it and to my surprise words just kept pouring out. It felt so good to have thoughts again and to be able to articulate them. I’ll be posting my thoughts here soon…

Sunday, 28 March 2010

I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been

On the 28th March, 1941, Virginia Woolf left her house in Rodmell Sussex and drowned herself in the river Ouse just a short walk from her garden. She left two suicide notes behind, one for her husband Leonard and one for her sister Vanessa. She was 59 years old and had just finished her last novel Between the Acts which was published after her death.

Last summer I walked from Rodmell, along the river Ouse and over the South Downs to Charleston Farmhouse, the house that Virginia's sister Vanessa lived in. It is a walk Virginia would have done many times herself and I thought a lot about how last journey to the river and her decision to end her life. You can't quite see the river in this picture at the bottom of the downs.

There has been a lot of discussion about Virginia Woolf's suicide and I feel sometimes that her "moods" and suicide somewhat dominate the perception of her and her writing so I wont dwell on this any longer, I just took moment to think about it with today being 28th March.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Drifting in the Euphrosyne somewhere off the South American coast...

I am still here and reading Woolf but I can't seem to find the words to post about The Voyage Out. It has almost taken me as long to write about it as it took Woolf to write it in the first place. I am almost there and will be posting shortly.

In the meantime can I draw your attention to a Woolf online reading group and discussion that is taking place from 15th January. Four bloggers are going to be reading and reviewing four of Woolf's novels over two months; Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando and The Waves.

If you would like to join them, details can be found here: Woolf in Winter: An Invitation

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Virginia Woolf's First "Novel" - Hiterhto Unpublished

I recently discovered the Bloomsbury Heritage Series, which is a series of short booklets about all things Bloomsbury and the people that were part of this group. It was set up by Leonard Woolf’s nephew Cecil Woolf and it is a really delightful collection of books. The series is published very much in the spirit of the Hogarth Press, each book is bound in card and the front cover has a design similar to those that Vanessa Bell designed for The Hogarth Press.

The idea of the series is to bring together pieces of writing about and around the Bloomsbury group. It explores all aspects of their lives and has many contributors. There is something very charming about them and I love that you send off for them by post, It is a real pleasure to wait for it to arrive through the letter box, the anticipation, something that we have lost in the age of the internet, download it now, next day delivery. Mr Woolf is a real character too, and he recently attended the International Virginia Woolf Conference in New York, coverage of this can be seen here and here -Thank you to Blogging Woolf for the links.

I had ordered a catalogue by e-mail and was pleasantly surprised when I had a reply from Cecil Woolf to say that it was in the post. When I placed my order for the first book in the series ‘A Cockney’s Farming Experiences’ I had read that Mr. Woolf would be attending the annual Virginia Woolf conference so I did not expect an immediate response. About a week later I received another e-mail apologising for the delay in sending out my order, it was a lovely touch and by far the best customer service I have received in a long time.

‘A Cockney’s Farming Experiences’ which is “Virginia Woolf’s first ‘novel’ - Hitherto Unpublished” as pronounced on the front cover, was written when she was just ten years old. Virginia Woolf decided at a very early age that she would be a writer and from that point onwards she was always writing, early attempts at stories, the Hyde Park Gate News, with her siblings, diary entries, fiction, critical essays - she was always writing.

The book itself is a delight to read and you sometimes forget that it was written by a child, as some of the language is quite sophisticated and yet at other times it is very childlike. It is difficult to know how much of this is due to the different use of language (this was, after all, written 110 years ago) and how much is down to Virginia being a very bright and capable child. Despite what she felt in later life about her education, compared to many of today’s ten year olds her education was very broad and thorough.

The introduction, written by Suzanne Henig is very informative about Virginia Woolf and her siblings early writings as well as making comparisons to Woolf’s later works. This seems a little unfair, (how many of us would want to be judge on our achievements aged ten?) but at the same time fascinating to see the seeds of ideas which would go on to become ground breaking novels.

The book itself is actually two stories, both a only a few chapters long. ‘A Cockney’s Farming Experiences’ tells the story of a Cockney and his wife who decide to buy a farm in Buckinghamshire. They don’t know anything about farming but “we were then lately married and very energetic and hopeful” (P15) The story tells of the various trials and tribulations that the Cockney farmer faces, but it all turns out right in the end when he inherits “ a jolly lot of money” (P 20) from an Aunt who has just died.

The second story is a sequel entitled “The Experiences of a Pater-familias (A sequel to A Cockney’s Farming Experiences.) which takes place three years later and is about the arrival of the farmer’s son Alphonso, who he dislikes and is rather jealous of.

There is a lot of emphasis on the relationship of the husband and wife

“nothing worth recording happened except that Harriet did not say one nasty word to me during the whole day” (P17 )


“I got a blowing-up from Harriet for half an hour afterwards as I had burnt the toast to a cinder.” (P16)

The poor farmer never seems to be able to do anything right!

I have really enjoyed reading this first attempt by Virginia Woolf at writing a novel, it certainly gives you an insight into what she might have been like as a child. The story was started by both Thoby and Virginia, but Suzanne Henig has suggested that Thoby quickly got bored and that the story was completed by Virginia alone.

I have also got the second book in the Bloomsbury Heritage series, ‘Roger Fry: A Series of Impressions’ which was written by Virginia about her great friend Roger Fry after he died in 1934. I shall be returning to this later on.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

In The Footsteps of Virginia Woolf

On Saturday 13th June I walked 8 miles from Monk’s House in Rodmell (Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s country house) to Charleston (Vanessa Bell’s country house that she shared with Clive Bell and Duncan Grant!) via Firle Place, as part of the guided walk ‘In The Footsteps of Virginia Woolf’, organised by The Charleston Trust. The walk was led by two artists, Judith Stewart and Christine Arnold who were interested in the effect walking has on the creative process as well as what inspiration they might get from talking to all of the people who had signed up to do the walk.

At 10.30 we all gathered at Monk’s House with just enough time to have a quick wander about the garden. The last time I had visited was in September when many of the plants were past their best, but this time it really was in full bloom and very impressive.

We were briefed on the itinerary for the day and after having given our order for lunch we left Monks House and wound our way down to the river, over the railway at Southease, before beginning our climb up the South Downs. The hill was steeper than it looked and it just seemed to keep on going. It was fascinating to see the way the trees have grown at an angel as they are battered by the wind.

At the stop of the hill we stopped for a very welcome breather. Looking around, I could see all the way back down the hill to Rodmell, and in the other direction Newhaven was in the distance.

Five minutes later we set off again and wound our way across the top of the Downs until Firle was in the distance, before descending a very steep hill that was almost as difficult to walk down as the other side had been to walk up. At the bottom of the hill was the very picturesque village of Firle, which we were told is mostly still owned by Lord Gage and his family. It looks like quite an idyllic place to live, with beautiful houses and equally beautiful gardens to match.

The lane we were walking along wound around a corner and I thought we were about to stop for lunch, but when we rounded the corner the vast estate of Firle place came into view and we had a short walk across a field of sheep before we stopped for lunch.

Firle place was quite a spot to stop for lunch and I think we all would like to have imagined that we lived there and could eat lunch like that everyday. It really is quite a magnificent setting. It is normally open to the public but on this occasion it was shut, much to the disappointment of two weary walkers who had seen us tucking into our lunch and were hoping to get something similar.

With the prospect of a cream tea when we got to Charleston we all set off again, across the estate and over a few fields until we had finally made it, a little sun burnt and with aching feet but all in one piece. By the time we had got to Charleston we were all ready for a cup of tea, a scone with cream and jam, and most of all a sit down.

I can’t quite believe that Virginia Woolf used to do this walk regularly, as it was really quite strenuous. I suppose I have read so much about how her illness affected her physically that I assumed that she was not very strong, but I think actually Quentin Bell mentions her walking a lot in his biography, as well as her father’s exploring nature, so she was perhaps more of an outdoor type than I imagined. I really enjoyed imagining Virginia doing this walk, in an old coat and a large hat, striding out across the downs. I had brought a copy of her diary from 1919 with me, so whilst we stopped at the top of the Downs I took the time to read a couple of passages about the Woolf’s move to Sussex, buying Monk’s House and visiting Vanessa at Charleston

At the start of the walk Judith and Christine had said that their interests lay in the thought process that occurs when you walk and the conversations that you can have with the people you are walking with. All sorts of people came on the walk, most people were local, some like me were from farther a field and there were different levels of interest in Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and ‘Bloomsbury’. It was really interesting to hear different peoples reasons for coming and to share the experience of walking together. I am by no means an artist but I am a keen photographer and so with the idea of walking inspiring the creative process I did try to take some photos that I felt summed up the walk and these are my efforts…

I had a good conversation with Judith about Virginia Woolf and walking, and was able to talk about ‘The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn’ as Judith has also done some work on 15th? Century women very much like the women mentioned in the story. Interestingly she also hails from Norfolk.

I was also interested in the walk from the perspective of reading Virginia Woolf’s work in context with the places that she lived, and so visiting Monk’s House and Charleston is a way of experiencing a little of what her life might have been like. They are both also wonderfully inspiring places in themselves and I don’t think I could ever tire of visiting them.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

The Afterlives of Virginia Woolf - Hermione Lee

Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing Professor Hermione Lee speak at the University of Essex. She gave a lecture entitled “Taking Possession and Letting Go: Virginia Woolf and Biography” as part of The Afterlives of Virginia Woolf season that is running at the University.

Professor Hermione Lee has written a wonderful biography of Virginia Woolf in which she discusses all aspects of her life and work. I am currently reading it and in it she brings to the factual details of Virginia Woolf’s life a wonderful insight into the motivation for her writing; her style of speaking is equally insightful. I felt a little out of place being at the lecture as I am not an academic (as the rest of the audience was) but Professor Lee speaks in such an eloquent and passionate way that it was actually a very enjoyable experience.

The room that the lecture was being held in was very ‘Bloomsbury’, there were purple and white stocks on the table and Professor Lee was wearing a scarf that would not look out of place in the Omega workshops or Charleston. The lecture began with a discussion of the many ways in which Virginia Woolf has been perceived since her death and how, as new approaches to looking at her work and life have evolved, so attitudes towards her as a writer have changed. Professor Lee discussed how Virginia Woolf has this odd characteristic of being “Near and far away at the same time”, both a Victorian daughter and a modern feminist, and how her diaries seem to speak directly to people.

The discussion moved on to the book and film The Hours by Michael Cunningham, another type of afterlife. Professor Lee appeared to like the book, but I am not entirely sure if she liked the film or not. I thought that maybe she liked the essence of the book, taking inspiration from Woolf and reinventing it in a new way, but that the film fell short in many ways including; the social inaccuracies, the house and lifestyle of the Woolf’s being too grand, Vanessa being too posh, Nicole Kidman being too young, that Virginia Woolf is portrayed as perpetually scowling, ferocious rather than charming, that she was played as “a doomed victim”, that more could have been shown of Virginia Woolf’s involvement with the press and setting type, as well as several other things. But apart from that she still seemed to speak very positively about The Hours, recognising that the nature of making a film has limitations with being completely accurate to historical fact.

I think that she felt the film gave a romantic but not realistic picture of Virginia Woolf. The idea that a first sentence just came to Virginia Woolf and a book flowed from it is very different to Virginia Woolf’s own account of her writing in which she revised her work again and again (sometimes even after publication) until she got it exactly as she wanted it. The most striking example of this romanticising was Professor Lee’s brief mention of Virginia Woolf’s suicide which, in the film, is shown as Nicole Kidman walking gracefully into a gentle river in a tweed coat on a bright sunny day. Professor Lee contrasted this with the image of Virginia Woolf on a cold, March day, wearing an old coat, Wellington boots and a hat kept on with an elastic band. The river is actually very fast flowing so that nothing grows on the banks and the trees would have been bare. We don’t know how Virginia Woolf entered the water as no one was there. A very stark image to describe.

She read out an interesting e-mail correspondence with Michael Cunningham in which he discusses the oddity of people becoming possessive over Virginia Woolf when she does not belong to anyone!

The lecture moved on to discuss the approach taken towards biographies of Virginia Woolf, how Professor Lee approached her biography and the style used by Virginia Woolf when she approached biographical writing. I found this section particularly interesting as the last two Virginia Woolf pieces I have read (Memoirs of a Novelist and Reminiscences) have both focused on the concept of biography.

I can’t really begin to capture Professor Lee’s style but I thoroughly enjoyed the lecture. It was followed by a question and answer session in which Professor Lee was able to take the questions being asked by the audience and elaborate them into mini lectures of their own. I was quite blown away by the ease at which she was able to recall examples in Woolf’s work that was relevant, it really was very impressive. The question and answer session was led by
Dr. Sanja Bahun and Professor Marina Warner who also gave very interesting insights into Virginia Woolf and asked Professor Lee some great questions that prompted some interesting responses. Virginia Woolf's writing style was discussed, the way in which she used words and the rhythm of the sentences to turn her work into a “performance”.

It was a real privilege to hear Hermione Lee speak, not only as she is such a good speaker but because of her passion yet subjective approach towards Virginia Woolf. She hinted that there were books that she liked less than others and she approaches Virginia Woolf as a critic whilst at the same time enjoying her as a writer.

I don’t think that this post can really do justice to professor Lee’s lecture, but I hope that it expresses how much I enjoyed it and the inspiration it has given me to continue reading Virginia Woolf. One of the main points of the lecture was that Virginia Woolf’s afterlife is still very much alive; some of her work has yet to be published and Hermione Lee is just one of many who, through publishing very readable books and speaking so passionately about her, ensure that her afterlives will continue for many years to come.