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…