The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

In March 1915, one hundred years ago, the first novel was published by a young writer who was destined to become one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century. The book was “The Voyage Out” and the author was of course Virginia Woolf.

As I’ve probably rambled on in the past, I first discovered Woolf’s work in the early 1980s when I read “Mrs. Dalloway”. I was so knocked out by it, I went on to read all her works chronologically, starting obviously with TVO. But I haven’t returned to it since, and this seemed like just the right time to do so.

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“The Voyage Out” opens with Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose in London, preparing to take their leave of England and make a voyage abroad for the winter. Ridley Ambrose is a scholar, and Helen his wife is traumatised by the thought of leaving their children for so long. The ship they’re travelling on belongs to Ridley’s brother Willoughby (a widower), and his daughter Rachel is also making the voyage out. Aged 24, but particularly naive because of the lack of her mother, it is her story which will very much be the central one of the novel. Also travelling briefly on the ship are Richard and Clarissa Dalloway, and Rachel develops something of a crush on Richard, who kisses her, much to her shock.

Helen could hardly restrain herself from saying out loud what she thought of a man who brought up his daughter so that at the age of twenty-four she scarcely knew that men desired women and was terrified by a kiss. She had good reason to fear that Rachel had made herself incredibly ridiculous.

The ship is going to South America, and the Ambroses persuade Rachel to stay with them in Santa Marina. Helen has recognised the fact that Rachel has missed out on much social education, focusing much of the time on her musical gift, and decides to take her niece in hand. They stay in a villa, and begin to mingle with the many British people staying at a nearby hotel. While Ridley works, the women are free to do as they wish, and two young men become the male counterparts to the main female characters – St. John Hirst and Terence Hewitt. Both are educated, though St. John is something of a prodigy, one of the most intelligent men in the country. Hewitt is attracted to Rachel and as she blossoms a little, they fall in love. Around them, the intrigues of the ex-pat community continue, with another engagement, new arrivals, a dance and an expedition into the jungle. As Rachel and Terence contemplate married life, Helen and St. John develop an intellectual relationship. But the ending of the book may not be what the reader expects.

As the greater number of visitors at the hotel were English, there was almost as much difference between Sunday and Wednesday as there is in England, and Sunday appeared here as there, the mute black ghost or penitent spirit of the busy weekday. The English could not pale the sunshine, but they could in some miraculous way slow down the hours, dull the incidents, lengthen the meals, and make even the servants and page-boys wear a look of boredom and propriety. The best clothes which every one put on helped the general effect; it seemed that no lady could sit down without bending a clean starched petticoat, and no gentleman could breathe without a sudden crackle from a stiff shirt-front. As the hands of the clock neared eleven, on this particular Sunday, various people tended to draw together in the hall, clasping little red-leaved books in their hands. The clock marked a few minutes to the hour when a stout black figure passed through the hall with a preoccupied expression, as though he would rather not recognise salutations, although aware of them, and disappeared down the corridor which led from it.

Reading TVO was in some ways reading a new Virginia Woolf novel; it’s so long since I first read it that I had forgotten pretty much everything except the ending. And what wonderful experience this was! If I’m honest, I think I got much, much more out of TVO on this reading; 30-odd years ago I came straight to it after “Mrs. Dalloway”, which is a very different kind of novel, and I had much less experience as a reader.

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This time round, TVO was an all-encompassing experience and I found myself blown away by Woolf’s writing. What’s evident here, so early on, is her ability to capture the inner mind, the workings of each soul, of every one of her characters in a way that is never less than convincing. Her prose is wonderful; her descriptions of the landscape bring it alive; and her portrayal of the inner landscape of the characters is masterly. She’s exploring so many things here: the restrictions on women and the effects of their lack of education; whether women can find intellectual fulfilment in marriage; whether men and women can ever truly understand each other.

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The “woman question” itself is possibly the strongest element in the novel, though handled with discretion. Helen, for example, is an extremely intelligent women, in love with her husband, yet clearly lacking an outlet and any form of mental stimulation; she is therefore ideally placed to develop a friendship with St. John who seems fairly sexless but needs the companionship of a women with brains. And Rachel has obviously suffered from a lack of a structured upbringing, instead spending all of her time in the stultifying company of two maiden aunts; her mental fuzziness and social awkwardness is striking, and could have been avoided with the input of a mother and a proper education. Then there are the numerous ex-pat females, from Susan who is anxious to avoid ending up a spinster, through to Evelyn Murgatroyd who seems unable to fall in love or decide if she loves a man enough to marry him, and so ends up seeming to flirt endlessly.

The book is also a vivid portrait of British Colonial society in the wild; fascinated by the native culture, the Brits travel up the river to observe the native peoples in situ; they stick to their routines despite being abroad; but there is a loosening of the rigid social structures in place back at home. It’s not an element of the story that’s overstated, and I believe that Woolf toned this aspect down when editing it from her original manuscript, titled “Melymbrosia”.

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The book is also a powerful study of illness; the passages of Rachel’s thought processes while she’s delirious are striking, and you can’t help thinking that they were informed by Woolf’s own experience of her various breakdowns. Rachel’s experiences are at the heart of the story; the journey, the actual voyage out is hers, as she makes her way into womanhood, and the tragedy of the story is hers too.

The light of his candle flickered over the boughs of a tree outside the window, and as the branch swayed in the darkness there came before his mind a picture of all the world that lay outside his window; he thought of the immense river and the immense forest, the vast stretches of dry earth and the plains of the sea that encircled the earth; from the sea the sky rose steep and enormous, and the air washed profoundly between the sky and the sea. How vast and dark it must be tonight, lying exposed to the wind; and in all this great space it was curious to think how few the towns were, and how small little rings of light, or single glow-worms he figured them, scattered here and there, among the swelling uncultivated folds of the world. And in those towns were little men and women, tiny men and women. Oh, it was absurd, when one thought of it, to sit here in a little room suffering and caring. What did anything matter? Rachel, a tiny creature, lay ill beneath him, and here in his little room he suffered on her account. The nearness of their bodies in this vast universe, and the minuteness of their bodies, seemed to him absurd and laughable. Nothing mattered, he repeated; they had no power, no hope.

TVO is a wonderful book, and I loved it and appreciated it so much more this time round. Woolf’s trademark style is on show here, less developed than in later works, but still recognisable; she flits from one person’s thought process to another in a wonderful way, really bringing them to life. Rachel and Helen, Terence and St. John were all so alive, as were the supporting characters; I was particularly taken by Evelyn M. and her struggles to understand her own emotions and motivations.

Even if Woolf had not gone on to become the literary titan she was, she would still have earned a place in the history of fiction for this poignant and beautiful novel. As it is, TVO is an excellent place to get an introduction to her work; to explore the feminine sensibilities at the turn of the 20th century; to take a trip to a (probably mythical) South American jungle; and to meet a wonderful array of characters. An amazing book and I’m so glad I chose to revisit it during its centenary year.

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