THE VOYAGE OUT

Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on the 25th January 1882. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography and her mother was Julia Margaret Cameron. Both had been married previously and had children from their previous marriages. Leslie Stephen had a daughter, Laura, and Julia had three children George, Stella and Gerald Duckworth. They then had four children together, Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia and Adrian. All eight children lived with them at 22, Hyde Park Gate.

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 Hogarth House in Richmond upon Thames where Virginia and Leonard Woolf lived.

A review of , “THE VOYAGE OUT,” by Virginia Woolf

 In 1905 Vanessa and her brother, Adrian took a sea trip to Portugal. It was this trip that instigated the idea for the novel, “The Voyage Out,” Virginia’s first novel. She began drafting ideas for it in 1908 but only  settled on the  final  title for  the book ,  The Voyage Out, in 1911.Before then it  had gone through various rewritings and  had originally been called, Melymbrosia, after the name of the ship  Adrian and she had travelled on. The writing took a long time, it was revised repeatedly, and she fell ill at various stages during it’s gestation. Scholars have identified nine versions. The final version was written between 1912 and 1913 and it was delivered to Duckworth and Company in March 1913, however it was not published until March 1915 because once again Virginia became ill. The process of producing this novel can be seen in the light of how madness can affect and inform the writing of a novel. It is a subjective novel in many ways and has an air of tension about it because it was written under a regime of obsessiveness, anxiety but also utter determination.The novel covers many themes that explore Britain, society, history, relationships, women, religion, and ultimately death. There are elements of autobiography in the story. It is easy to see the voice and mind of Virginia Woolf, her loves, passions, beliefs and life within this novel. It explores different viewpoints and settings.

The Voyage Out opens with Helen and Ridley Ambrose, wending their way through the streets of London down to the Thames to meet the lighter that is to take them out to their waiting ship, the Euphrosyne, anchored in the Port of London. The passage is redolent with images of water and the sea. The masses of busy hurrying office clerks and shop workers and the congested traffic milling around them is a like a river of humanity as they ply their way elegantly and determinedly like graceful ships, tall and haughty, their gaze looking straight forward and not wavering from their purpose. Through their eyes and thoughts we are shown their view of the streets of London and it’s people and obversely we are given the people of London’s view of them. It is almost a scene of mirrors with varying reflections which introduces the way the novel is written. It is not until they reach the side of the Thames that Helen shows her emotions about leaving behind their two young children.  It is that moment that reveals their humanity. Exploring the meaning of being human is in a sense what the novel is about.

The Strand, London.

Virginia Woolf creates varying views of England in this novel ; we are close up to the hubbub and turmoil in the London streets, then  when the Euphrosyne leaves England and the land gradually recedes getting smaller and smaller and becoming a memory, a concept, it is almost as though a telescopic view is created in reverse.  The novel portrays the English in concentrated doses during the arc of the novel. The group on board the  Euphrosyne, during the  opening chapters of the novel, are a little England. Willoughby Vinrace, the owner of the ship and the commercial trader, epitomises wealth creation.

 A cargo ship .

 His brother, Ridley is an academic who studies Greek manuscripts. Mr Pepper is a Greek and Persian scholar  too but he has varied expertise which makes him a polymath. Mrs Chailey is the housekeeper for Willoughby and his daughter Rachel and epitomises the serving classes. Mr Grice is the captain and represents the honest, striving lower middle classes trying to better themselves. Later in the journey Clarissa and Richard Dalloway join the ship. Richard Dalloway is a politician and serves the government although he has lost his seat in Parliament for the moment; the vagaries of the democratic system.  He does not seem to have been too much put out. He appears to be acting as a sort of roving ambassador visiting various countries on semi-official business. Two, monstrous evil looking grey battleships from the British Mediterranean fleet pause to stare at them before moving on. Cruise ships, designed expressly for the comfort and entertainment of passengers see them at a distance and think them grubby and workman like.  The Euphrosyne is a cargo ship that takes on board a motley collection of passengers. Could this be England? This sea voyage is a space between countries and populations, religions and politics where all can be viewed from a distance and where new lives, new viewpoints can be discussed and  thought about .

A  broader view is created by the  English  community in the fictitious South American port of Santa Marina. By taking the English out of England and portraying their types, prejudices and beliefs highlighted in a small South  American port,  a strong  contrast is created  which emphasises and highlights  their Englishness. There is almost an experience of time travel through British History too which enlarges on this commentary about England.  The  Flushings  expedition into the rainforest by river boat  harks  back  to  the Tudor explorers.  They have come to buy tribal artefacts to sell back in England. The  abandoned  camp  of  a  recent explorer, who  died  in his quest a couple of years previously, is  seen  in a forest clearing  on their journey up river and they can see the rusted decaying contents of the camp; a metaphor for England’s failed Empire perhaps? Many of the characters, the women in particular, wish for a Garibaldi, to revolutionise British society.  He was a mid-19th century revolutionary who fought for nationalism and liberalism and helped unite Italy. Helen embodies liberalism in the novel and is the prime source of guidance for Rachel in her development. She talks  freely about  sex  with  Rachel  but  also  is as free in her conversation with men, with Hirst and  Hewett.  She has a liberating and liberal way of being. She is a sort of female version of Garibaldi.

South American colonial hotel.

The female viewpoint is portrayed powerfully.  We see through the eyes of Helen Ambrose, Rachel Vinrace and single women such as  Evelyn Murgatroyd,  and married women such as Mrs Flushing. Each brings their own personalities and facet of female experience.  It is the women who take most of the proactive rolls in the story and are efficient and successful at what they do. Mrs Flushing, assertive and  proactive , a strong woman, organises the trip up river, through the jungle, to visit the tribal settlement to negotiate the price of goods. Helen Ambrose takes care of Rachel and nurses her on her sick bed.  In contrast the men who have important societal roles such as Mr Bax, the Anglican minister and the two doctors are pretty much useless.They have token roles of importance but appear impotent. This novel was written at a time when Suffragettes were  fighting for women’s suffrage. The plight of Rachel reveals women’s issues specifically education and in particular sex education. Rachel is a blank canvas on which various people try to impose ideas . Helen subtly or not so subtly attempts to guide her. She has had no systematic education such as the education Hewett and Hirst have had at Cambridge and through the public school system. Rachel has been left to her own devices and those of her cloistered aunts who know nothing of the world and life.

 A sedate upper middle class home in Richmond.

Her father’s two sisters, aunts Lucy and Eleanor, back in their grand Victorian villa in Richmond, have been Rachel’s guardians since her mother’s death. It is Evelyn Murgatroyd, flirtatious and overly friendly, experienced in a multitude of marriage offers, who says that she thinks Rachel appears to have lived all her life in a garden. Rachel’s life has consisted  of walks in Richmond Park, piano lessons and reading a random selection of novels. She reverts to playing Chopin and Beethoven , obsessively trying to perfect her style and technique when left to herself. She has read randomly, such as Ballzac,, Thomas Hardy, Cowper and Jane Austen, and it is Cowper and Austen that she likes most. Virginia Woolf and her siblings were educated at home by their father. Even in adulthood, Virginia Woolf had been so badly taught mathematics by her father, Leslie Stephens, that she still needed to count on her fingers, so she was well experienced in a piecemeal random sort of education. Hewett tries to advise books for Rachel to read including Gibbons history of The Roman Empire. Ridley Ambrose is scornful of this choice.  He doesn’t see why she should want to read Gibbon and wonders whether it would be beneficial to her. Perhaps he thinks it is something for the male of the species. She however enjoys the language and quality of the writing but admittedly the subject doesn’t interest her. How much of this is Virginia Woolf herself?

Helen is surprised that Rachel still goes to church and believes in God and religion. She wonders if Rachel or anybody could still believe in that sort of stuff if only they gave themselves time to stop and think about it.  Rachel’s attitude is not surprising when we think of her background and life with her aunts up to this moment in time. There is a service  held in the chapel next to the hotel and the Anglican minister Mr Bax takes it. The idea of passing through the hotel and into the old monastic chapel might be a reference to the clandestine gatherings of the Christians in Ancient Rome in the catacombs under the city. The way the congregation comes together is interesting. They appear from various directions, almost from different hiding places. The simile with Roman Christians is continued.  Later in the story the sight of Arthur and Susan physically embracing in the jungle and then earlier, her first kiss, on  board the Euphrosyne,when Richard Dalloway steals a kiss from her in her cabin, are two  experiences which you might think  would disgust and horrify a cloistered girl but they merely created  slightly  uncomfortable enquiring emotions. It is the sight of the nurses face in the chapel during Mr Bax’s service that truly horrifies her and has a most profound effect on her. The Lords prayer  becomes mere  childlike babble.  She observes that people are reading whatever meanings they prefer into the words intoned over them.  There is a sense of mechanical respect for  religion and Mr Bax’s  utterings appear to be  mere ravings. Her mind is awakened at the unthinking and assumed feelings and beliefs she can see encapsulated in the nurse.  The nurse becomes the embodiment of all that is wrong with religion. The same nurse is at her bedside while she is dieing. It is almost as though Virginia Woolf is saying that in this world we are mixed in with the true and the false and each relies on each other.  The only thing that gets a positive response from Rachelduring the service is the quality of the words and sentences to  be found in the King James Bible. Rachel and evidently Virginia Woolf, can appreciate the beauty of the language but not the meaning of the stories and myths which Rachel begins to see as childish.  She is bored at the platitudes of Mr Bax. It is interesting to notice that both Hewett and Hirst attended the service and sit at the back with Helen Ambrose. Hirst has brought a copy of Sappho and reads poems from it pointing out a particular poem to Helen during the service. The erotic lesbian love of  Sappho is antithetical  to  the Christian  love encapsulated  in the person of  Jesus  Christ.  From this moment on, because of this awakening experience and the encounter with the nurse, Rachel rejects religion and a belief in God.

Love and death dominate the final part of the novel. Rachel is introduced to young men when she arrives in Santa Marina, primarily Hirst and Hewett.  She proceeds in her relationships with these young men, incrementally, sense by sense and the small elements of each encounter are examined. She is at first confused about what she feels about each of them. When eventually Hewett and Rachel realise they are both in love it happens when they have been able to get away from the rest of the group travelling up river and are walking into the forest together. Their feelings have become intense. Love was a word they knew intellectually before but they had not experienced it and they didn’t know whether to attach the word, love, to what they were now experiencing. Often words by themselves are meaningless. They presume it is love. Later Hewett says they were in love from the moment they met but Rachel didn’t realise it at the time. The moment of realisation for Rachel becomes an almost out of body experience, the nearest that Virginia Woolf gets to a description of a spiritual experience. It is a chemical reaction between the minds and bodies of two people.  Virginia Woolf describes a scene of blocks of shade and colour created by the rainforest backdrop  which almost becomes a blur and Rachel’s feelings and thoughts  create a sense of vertigo, an out of world experience. It is disorientating for Rachel and also the reader.

A passenger ferry on the Amazon River.

Death is dealt  with in a similar incremental way, small step by small step, emotions and thoughts building one on top of the other like layers of experience.  It starts when Rachel has a headache and has to go to bed to rest.  Bit by bit there is deterioration and we see her developing experience seen through her perspective to start with. It slowly begins to dawn on us, along with the characters in the story that this is going to lead to death. At first we have Rachel’s point of view   , but it changes to how the process of dying affects the feelings and actions of the other characters. There are switches between different perspectives.

These two experiences of becoming aware of being in love and an awareness of encroaching death dovetail each other.  It is almost as if Virginia Woolf has dismissed the long tortuous life that normally goes between these two things out as of no importance. Rachel is complete. She has learned what love is and so her experience of life is complete.

In The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf has brought together, a sense of what it is to be English. It shows an England that is wrestling and developing out of the dark ages of conformity and religious myths and fables towards a liberal free thinking future. She has shown us the human experience in a series of emotional and sensory experiences.  Thought and conversation tie all these things together. There is minimal action in the story. It is a series of places, spaces and rooms. The developing inner self of the characters create all the drama. Rooms  are important in the novel ,from  Rachel’s cabin on board the  Euphrosyne with it’s sheet music and novels, to Miss Allen’s Spartan room in the hotel and her jar of  ginger, the rooms in which Helen and Rachel spy the hotel inmates, to the room of the death  bed scene. Some say that Virginia Woolf is the heir to Jane Austen.  In many ways she is.  She  is concerned with  the interactions of people  and she uses similar settings to  Jane  Austen,  attendance at balls,  the interiors of  rooms, almost as if  rooms and places  define us. She also shows us the prejudices, beliefs and social systems of the time she is writing in. Like Jane Austen’s novels, although The Voyage Out is set in a particular time in a particular century, its message about the way we interact as human beings is universal.

By Tony

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One thought on “THE VOYAGE OUT

  1. Tony and Clive, though I’ve not ever made a study of Virginia Woolf as I should have when I was younger, I shall certainly enjoy yours. It’s been years since I read any of her books, and then not more than two or three (due to circumstances at the time), but it’s never too late. (After all, I only started learning the piano a couple of months ago!) Of course, involved with food as I am, I take notice of such things in novels. Many people are familiar with the famous food quote from A Room of One’s Own: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Despite being anorexic, or having some sort of eating disorder(s), she could express herself vividly about food. Anyway … I know I will thoroughly enjoy and learn a great deal from your beautifully written, scholarly new blog.

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