Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

We’ve reached the second part of the schedule for HeavenAli’s #woolfalong (if you haven’t heard about this yet, you can check it out here) and the theme for March and April is Beginnings and Endings. I revisited “The Voyage Out” last year, and I wasn’t particularly feeling drawn to return to “Night and Day”. However, as far as I can remember, I’ve only read “Between the Acts” once – around 35 years ago, on my first Woolf binge – and on a day towards the end of March the need to read the book gripped me – so I did…

My copies of BTA - a fragile old Panther Granada I first read over 35 years ago, and an Ace US paperback I picked up for 20p somewhere along the line...

My copies of BTA – a fragile old Panther Granada I first read over 35 years ago, and an Ace US paperback I picked up for 20p somewhere along the line…

“Between the Acts” is of course Woolf’s final work; published posthumously in 1941, it bears a note from Leonard Woolf stating that although the manuscript had been completed, it would no doubt have been revised for the printer. Nevertheless, we still have a pretty much complete work of art here – and what a wonderful one. BTA takes place over one day in June, 1939; set in the English countryside, about 35 miles away from the sea, the rural house of Pointz Hall is host to a summer pageant. Arranged by Miss La Trobe (apparently Woolf satirising herself a little), the pageant is to raise money for the local church. The occupants of the house, Isa and Giles Oliver and their extended family, open the grounds to the locals (“gentles and simples” alike) in the name of the cause, and the villagers play the parts.

The other trees were magnificently straight. They were not too regular; but regular enough to suggest columns in a church; in a church without a roof; in an open-air cathedral, a place where swallows darting seemed, by the regularity of the trees, to make a pattern, dancing, like the Russians, only not to music, but to the unheard rhythm of their own wild hearts.

The pageant is at the heart of the story, but it’s framed by the lives of the Pointz Hall family. Isa and Giles seem to be at a rocky point in their marriage; with two small children and Giles away in London working, Isa appears isolated, and there are hints at Giles’ infidelity. Added to this there seems to be something of a clash of temperaments between the two; Isa has a poetic bent, dreamily quoting poetry and fantasising about a local landowner, whereas Giles seems more grounded. Much of the time he’s angry, unhappy with the work he’s doing and more drawn to the land (and also to the nearest glamorous woman!). The extended household, in the form of Giles’ father Bartholomew and widowed aunt Lucy, have their own dynamic; thought brother and sister, they are like chalk and cheese, with Lucy having a strong religious faith and Bart being much more pragmatic.

Into the preparations for the pageant stumbles Mrs. Manresa, with a young friend in tow by the name of William Dodge. Mrs. Manresa is all glamour, portraying herself as a wild, free spirit; Dodge, by contrast, is a more complex figure. He instantly develops a kind of bond with Isa, but puts Giles’ hackles up, and not for any reason of jealousy. It’s hinted that Dodge is homosexual and Giles finds this fact intolerable; in fact, it drives him to spend much of the afternoon in the company of Mrs. Manresa.

Then there is Miss La Trobe, playwright and producer of the entertainment. It’s hinted that she has something of a past – she was an actress; she ran a tea room; she shared a house (and a bed) with another actress – but now all her powers are focused on producing her play. And what a play it is! As the afternoon stays fine, and the play moves on, its pageantry presents the visiting audience with a vision of English history which is compelling, despite the limited sets and costumes. Between the acts of the play, Isa wanders with William and looks for her landowner; Giles walks with Mrs. Manresa; and the audience ponder over the meaning of the play. The climax of the pageant is a strange one, leaving the audience confused; and as they wend their way home and the day draws to an end, there is the sense that Giles and Isa will have to reach some kind of resolution.

Virginia Woolf

Of course, a bald summary of plot gives no hint of the wonders of reading Virginia Woolf’s prose, and it’s obvious that she was still at the height of her powers here. What in anyone else’s hands could have been a bland little tale of a village pageant is, from Woolf’s pen, an elegy for a world she saw under threat from WW2, and it’s unbearably poignant.Virginia Woolf was working on BTA when England was at war with Germany; the conflict was still in its early days and the threat was still immense. The setting of the book, slightly pre-war, allows Woolf to reflect on what was to come, and there are plenty of rumblings about the changes which are about to take place in England, hinted at by uncertain phrases dropped into conversations and the presence of a group of planes flying overhead mid-speech. And much of Giles’ anger is generated by the knowledge of events happening over the channel of which those attending the event at his house seem unaware.

The pageant itself is fascinating, given to the watchers (and to us readers) in fragments of English history; a kind of tribute to the past when the country was under threat. The back of my Panther Granada edition states that the pageant is based on Woolf’s novel “Orlando” which may well be true, although it’s many years since I read that book. Nevertheless, the elegiac quality of the narrative can’t be denied, and there is a sense of longevity and continuity in the people and the way of life.

The prose, of course, is just wonderful; vibrant and musical, it brings vividly to life an English summer day, with the stillness of the heat haze and the buzzing of the insects; in fact, the sensation it creates transported me back to the summers of my teens when I would spend hot days in the countryside with friends. I can’t think of anyone who writes English prose as well as Woolf; every observation is nuanced, every phrase loaded with meaning and I always end a reading of her books stunned.

As to whether Woolf is satirising herself, that isn’t something I would have thought of on my first reading; but it seems a remarkably persuasive interpretation this time round. Miss La Trobe, with her search for the perfect play and the perfect audience, certainly could mirror Woolf and her precision and endless search for the perfect sentence. And using mirrors to see our real selves is an apt metaphor here – about which I shall say no more…

There’s always that great fear, when you re-read a book you know you loved in the past, that it will let you down and won’t be as good as you think it was. For me, this is always complicated by the fact that I have such a poor memory now of some of the books I read decades ago; and indeed, revisiting “Between the Acts” was almost like a new read, although I did have echoes of the story still in my mind. But I needn’t have worried – I really am coming to the conclusion that Virginia Woolf is one of the greatest writers the English language has ever produced, and “Between the Acts” is a fine (if, alas, premature) ending to her writings. A work of genius.

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As an aside, I had been considering this re-read for some time and BTA had been sitting on the shelves for a while. For some reason, I felt compelled to pick it up on Easter Monday, 28th March, and tore through it in a day, relishing every word. It was only towards the end of the book that I realised, thanks to a tweet, that the day was the 75th anniversary of Woolf taking her own life. Somehow, it seemed even more apt that I had been drawn to read the book on that day…

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