Virginia Woolf, née Stephens (1882-1941), was famously a central figure in the Bloomsbury Group, that loosely-linked, sexually entangled set of artists and writers who originally lived and met in the Bloomsbury district of central London. I’m sure I don’t need to say more: this is well-charted territory, and my OWC edition has an informative Preface and Introduction by the great Frank Kermode.
1902 photo of Virginia Woolf by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) via Wikimedia commons
Between the Acts was completed in November 1940 but published in 1941, shortly after the author had drowned herself in the River Ouse in Sussex, having lapsed into another episode of the depression that had dogged her throughout her life. Its title derives from the novel’s central event: the staging of a ‘pageant’ about English history in the grounds of Pointz Hall, the country seat of the Oliver family.
The novel’s subject is the history and culture of England as enacted in the pageant, possibly in response to the desperate atmosphere in which it was written, shortly after the outbreak of World War II. London was enduring the blitz – the Woolfs’ London house was damaged in it. Europe had largely fallen under the Nazi onslaught, and German invasion seemed imminent. Virginia’s husband, the Jewish intellectual Leonard Woolf, knew well what his fate would be under German occupation. From their Sussex house near the south coast of England they watched some of the aerial dogfights as the German planes flew towards their target zones: the industrial centres of Britain.
The very survival of the country, and all that the Woolfs held dear in it – art, literature, civilization itself – seemed doomed. This novel can be seen, then, as concerning itself with endings: internationally and politically, but also personally. It’s set in June 1939, just before war was declared, but the crisis was clearly coming even then.
My initial response to the novel was not entirely positive. The first half reads something like an Evelyn Waugh kind of witty portrait of privileged country gentry patronising the rural peasantry, with a great deal of sparkling social conversation and concerns expressed (as with Mrs Dalloway) about the refreshments (will the fish be fresh?) and about the weather – the pageant can only be staged outdoors if fine, in the swallow-haunted barn if wet. Kermode points out, however, that the novel needs to be read as a high modernist summa of contradictory images and thoughts: it is a linguistic enactment of the polarities which make up what we consider to be reality, and out of which we strive to make some kind of coherent sense. I shall give this a try.
From the opening paragraphs another feature becomes apparent: the use of imagery as another means of attempting to convey life with all its shiftings of solidity. First we see Mrs Haines, ‘the wife of a gentleman farmer’:
a goosefaced woman with eyes protruding as if they saw something to gobble in the gutter
Then Isa, wife of old Bart Oliver’s son Giles, enters:
She came in like a swan swimming in its way; then was checked and stopped.
People quote Byron (the first of innumerable intertextualities, from canonical literary authors like the Romantics and Shakespeare, to snatches of nursery rhyme), and the words, the narrative suggests – at this point focalising on Isa’s consciousness with its streaming flow –
made two rings, perfect rings, that floated them, herself and Haines, like two swans down stream. But his snow-white breast was tangled with a circle of dirty duckweed; and she too in her webbed feet was entangled, by her husband the stockbroker.
What’s going on here? It’s tempting to fall into biographical fallacy and see a prophetic allusion to Virginia Woolf’s imminent death in the weedy Ouse; this may be so, but more to the point the entwined, iterated images of birds and water indicate that there are darker undercurrents, especially in the central relationships between the elderly brother and sister, Lucy and Bart Oliver, but more particularly that of Giles – who has a roving eye — and Isa, with whom he fails to connect emotionally. At the personal and the national level, that is, things are falling apart.
Images of birds and death and violence convey this. In the next paragraph Miss Haines, feeling excluded from the emotion circulating in the room, anticipates the moment in the car on the way home when
she would destroy it, as a thrush pecks the wings off a butterfly.
It’s a mistake, then, to read Between the Acts – as I admit I did initially – as simply a fanciful sequence of non-events and what Kermode calls ‘irrelevant fancies’; the author wasn’t especially interested in plot – her aim is to represent the randomness and incoherence of the fracturing world in the texture of her language, as poetry does. If it’s read in this spirit, the novel appears less trivial.
The animal and bird imagery is woven through the novel, illuminating as in a verbal tapestry the narrative. This too is heavily freighted with rhythmic and syntactic patterns, as Kermode shows: dyadic and triadic patterns, repetitions and inversions, heavily marked by intrusive punctuation, are frequent. Back to violent imagery and stream of troubled consciousness. Here’s Lucy Swithin –
She had been waked by the birds. How they sang! attacking the dawn like so many choir boys attacking an iced cake.
She goes on to muse about prehistoric Britain, when there were ‘rhodedendron forests’ in Piccadilly, and no English Channel divided the country from the continent. By examining this imagery it’s possible to see that Virginia Woolf is attempting, through such poetic tropes, to portray Britain in its entirety, from prehistory to the current desperate time of war, in terms of transitory fleetingness and cyclical patterns (birds inhabit the air (like warplanes?) or drift on water; their lives are short; swallows are often mentioned: they migrate – depart, arrive back). The troubled relationships of the central characters counterpoint these larger matters.
The second half of the novel I found less satisfactory. It relates in what I found to be too much detail the contents of the pageant: staged tableaux and mini-plays depicting important milestones in Britain’s history, from early cavemen to the 1930s. There are long extracts of dramatic dialogue that I confess I often skipped. I also skimmed the last 50 pages.
The cover of my Oxford World’s Classics paperback edition
Between the Acts is worth reading, however, for its first half. Here’s a last extract to indicate its better poetic qualities, with those rhythmic patterns and swirling images:
Mrs Sands [the cook] fetched bread; Mrs Swithin fetched ham. One cut the bread; the other the ham. It was soothing, it was consolidating, this handiwork together…Why’s stale bread, [Lucy] mused, easier to cut than fresh? And so skipped, sidelong, from yeast to alcohol; so to fermentation; so to inebriation; so to Bacchus; and lay under purple lamps in a vineyard in Italy, as she had done, often; while Sands heard the clock tick; saw the cat; noted a fly buzz; and registered, as her lips showed, a grudge she mustn’t speak against people making work in the kitchen while they had a high old time hanging paper roses in the barn.
Some readers may find this too highly wrought; in some ways it is. But it’s also a subtle representation of the ways different people’s thoughts flow ineluctably towards the unknown, intertwining but never fully merging, laden with images (bread, clock, cat, fly) and sensations of sounds, sights and memories, from the mundane and concrete to the ethereal, abstract and imaginative. No individual can ever truly know another, this passage seems to suggest, or fully connect – but she can try. I can think of few other writers who come close to such a feat of narrative performance. Henry James, perhaps. It’s hard work, reading this novel, but probably worth the effort.
I maybe need to read it again in the light of the second thoughts I’ve begun outlining here, and the brief assessment of some of the extracts cited; and give its other half a more attentive reading. Meanwhile I have other holiday reading to post about, and more books to read. And work next week…