5 April 2018

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

If you're considering a good book to read while on your summer get-away, let your quest end here.  Oh sure, the latest bestseller might keep you occupied, but if you want to be swept away...look no further.

Published in 1915, the first pages of Virginia Woolf's first novel set the scene of a London filled to bursting with people.  The pavement is so busy you can forget walking side by side with your partner.  Mrs Helen Ambrose is on the verge of tears...

'...she only felt at this moment how little London had done to make her love it, although thirty of her forty years had been spent in a street.  She knew how to read the people who were passing her, there were the rich who were running to and from each others' houses at this hour; there were the bigoted workers driving in a straight line to their offices; there were the poor who were unhappy and rightly malignant.  Already, though there was sunlight in the haze, tattered old men and women were nodding off to sleep upon the seats.  When one gave up seeing the beauty that clothed things, this was the skeleton beneath.'

Helen and Ridley Ambrose are making their way to a steamship owned by Helen's brother-in-law, Willoughby Vinrace.  Their destination is South America, a voyage which will take several weeks.  Mr Vinrace asks Helen to take his twenty-four year old daughter Rachel under her care.  Since her mother's death when she was eleven, Rachel has been raised by aunts in Richmond.  With her environment and reading material censored by her caregivers, Rachel remains ignorant about the emotions that bring two people together in a loving relationship.  And then the Dalloways board the ship when it stops in Lisbon.  There is a moment of frisson between Richard and Rachel that reveals much to the young woman.

If you have read Mrs Dalloway, and loved it as much as I did, you must The Voyage Out.  The way Woolf describes the couple in toe-curling delightful detail....their clothes, the snobbery...it is absolutely brilliant.

    'Ridley engaged her to come to-morrow.    "If only your ship is going to treat us kindly!" she exclaimed, drawing Willoughby into play.  for the sake of guests, and these were distinguished, Willoughby was ready with a bow of his head to vouch for the good behaviour even of the waves.'

Turning to a personal moment, I raised an eyebrow while reading a paragraph that mentions Portuguese fathers marrying Indian mothers and intermingling with the Spanish.  My results from one of those ancestry DNA kits revealed my background as 21% Iberian Peninsula with a smidge of South Asian.  The rest is Western Europe, but who knows...perhaps Virginia Woolf has provided a clue!  I digress....

As is so often the case when thrown together in a claustrophobic setting, friendships occur.  Two young men, Hewet and Hirst, are on a voyage of discovery, Miss Allan plays the part of the spinster, Hughling Elliot, Miss Warrington, Mr Venning (loves tea!), Mr Perrott - a barrister who secretly wishes to be a pilot instead, and Evelyn Murgatroyd seems to fall in love at the drop of a hat but what she really craves is someone to care for, and the Flushings.  At the young end of middle-age, Mr Flushing is a collector with a very interesting character as his wife.

'They had moved out into the garden, where the tea was laid under a tree, and Mrs Flushing was helping herself to cherry jam.  She had a peculiar jerking movement of the body when she spoke, which caused the canary-coloured plume on her hat to jerk too.  Her small but finely cut and vigorous features, together with the deep red of lips and cheeks, pointed to many generations of well-trained and well-nourished ancestors behind her.'

I've read that Woolf was a terrific observer of people, as I suspect most exceptional writers are, which leads me to think she has seen this very woman somewhere about London.  It's also why I savoured every page in this book - it's so rich with detail, spoiling the chances of anything else on the shelves today.  The heat, the villas, the countryside, the picnics, not to mention the sheer loveliness of a holiday that goes on for weeks and weeks of leisure time.  

I could go on and on about the many reasons why I love this book, from Woolf's statements about the unfair treatment of women in education, marriage and society, to the moments of humour that made me laugh out loud such as when Miss Allan has Rachel taste fresh ginger for the first time.  And then there was the sadness when I wasn't expecting it.  

The copy I read caught my eye while emptying the return bin at the library, but I'm going to buy one to call my own.  

The Pilgrim's Rest in Burma, circa 1900

12 comments:

  1. This may just be the best book review I've ever read. Wonderful, perfect. Gosh, I haven't read this book since probably the 1960s. My copy cost me $2.45. It is time to read it again!! I didn't remember the Dalloways being on board! Again, your descriptions, your excerpts were just excellent. Thanks so much.

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    1. Such a lovely thing to say, Nan! And hopefully I've convinced you to dig out your copy, if only to reread the first third for the Dalloways. Although, I would be surprised if you could stop reading once you're back into it. All the best!

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  2. While I should be contributing an original thought, Nan’s just said it all! I so very much agree. What a review. I loved Mrs D and can’t wait to read this one

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    1. Thanks so much, ana! I'm quite confident you're going to really enjoy this book if you loved Mrs Dalloway. And have you heard about the film 'Vita and Virginia' coming out later this year? I've only seen one still shot but if that's anything to go by, it's going to be beautiful.

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  3. You have persuaded me to try Woolf again. I have always struggled to 'get into' those of hers which I have read but perhaps I should give it one more try.

    I have just ordered it on Kindle absolutely free, what a bonus!

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    1. That's terrific! I struggled in the past as well, but visiting Monk's House last summer and reading some of Virginia's diary entries has really helped. I'm crossing my fingers that you get on with this wonderful book, Toffeeapple!

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  4. I'm going to just echo Nan's opinion too, because, well, she's right!

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    1. Thank you, Audrey...sometimes your thoughts rise to the top more easily when you've really, really enjoyed the story. I remember how much you enjoyed To the Lighthouse so when I visited Monk's House last summer, that was the book I chose from the gift shop to mark the day. So, thank you!

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  5. I've read a few books about V. Woolf but have yet to read a book BY V. Woolf, and now I have another book by her to add to my list. Thanks for the rec!

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    1. Oh, if there's one thing we're very good at here in the book blogsphere, it's adding titles to other people's tbr pile! Have you heard about the film Vita and Virginia coming out later this year? Something to look forward to!

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  6. I'm going to try to track this down.

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    1. Hi Mystica! You can download this book for free if you don't mind reading on your device of choice. If you do, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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