HALT! Spoilers Ahead. If you haven’t read The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf and don’t wish to be spoiled, please turn back now (but please come back after you’ve read it). If you can’t resist, proceed at your own risk.
The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf is a virtual parade of books. The characters are recommending, lending, borrowing, writing, and reading — or not reading — books. (This is not surprising coming from a great reader like Ms. Woolf particularly since this was her first novel. Notice the same focus on books and reading in Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen’s first novel.) So I will use books to order my rambling thoughts on The Voyage Out.
The thing that struck me most about The Voyage Out was that the seeds of several of Ms. Woolf’s future works are present here in her first novel.
When Hewet ridicules men’s professions and “…offices and a title and lots of letters after his name and bits of ribbon and degrees” (p. 217), it reminds me that later Ms. Woolf — at greater length and for a greater purpose — advised women to avoid those very trappings (the uniforms, medals, plaques, and awards of military and professional men) in Three Guineas.
A Room of One’s Own
Terence Hewet, with his seven hundred a year and an ambition to write fiction, inescapably brings to mind A Room of One’s Own. Though male, Hewet is otherwise an obvious precursor to Mary Carmichael, the fictional embodiment of Ms. Woolf’s notion of what women require in order to write fiction.
In her first novel, Ms. Woolf chose Hewet to express many of the theories about women and their place in society that she later explores in greater depth in A Room of One’s Own. Hewet’s remark that women see men “…as three times as big as we are or they’d never obey us” (p. 216) later becomes the famous
Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. (A Room of One’s One, p. 35)
Hewet’s version depicts women as foolish and subservient and therefore incapable of achieving equality with men even if given the appropriate opportunities (pgs. 216–217). I think this is a matter of characterization rather than Ms. Woolf’s own opinion. Years later when Ms. Woolf explores the notion in her book-length essay, she attributes this reflection to a male demand, observing that, like her fictional professor, many men become outraged when a women fails to reflect back to a man an idealized image of his imagined superiority (A Room of One’s Own, pgs. 34–36).
As an essayist and novelist, Ms. Woolf was interested in rectifying the absence of women’s accounts of their own experiences written in their own voices in fiction, history, and the Western literary tradition. In a fitting dramatization of her point, Ms. Woolf shows Hewet lecturing a silent Rachel about how for ages men have written about and discussed women but that there are few such accounts written by women themselves. He goes on to explain his interest in reading accounts by women about how women experience the world (p. 221–222). To be fair, though, Hewet did use the earlier lecture to draw Rachel out about her own life and those of her aunts. When Rachel worried aloud that it was boring, Hewet assured her that he was interested that that this was exactly the kind of thing he wanted to write about in his novels. But then in a later conversation, Hewet not only repeatedly interrupts Rachel while she’s playing piano to expound on his theories about women, he flatly contradicts Rachel’s account of her early feelings about him and insists — over her vocal objections — that she felt differently (p.301–306). In a way, most of the conversational conflicts between Rachel and Hewet can be seen as a metaphorical dramatization of the difficulties women often faced in asserting the validity of their own views and experiences.
Hewet serves as a mouthpiece for Ms. Woolf’s entire endeavor as a fiction writer when he explains that he wishes to write about the daily lives of ordinary people and “Silence or The Things People Don’t Say.” Ms. Woolf did exactly that in her novels, which brings me to the first appearances of Clarissa and Richard Dalloway who later become the main characters of Mrs. Dalloway.
I first read Mrs. Dalloway years ago at university. I was surprised to see Clarissa and Richard Dalloway appear as minor characters in The Voyage Out. It makes me want to re-read Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa is depicted as a frivolous, pretentious society woman here, but I think she seemed more sympathetic in Mrs. Dalloway. Richard, however, is the same pompous stuffed shirt here as he was in the later novel. I don’t remember Richard seeming as creepy in Mrs. Dalloway as he did when he was sexually pursuing Rachel in The Voyage Out, though.
It’s clear from this first novel that Ms. Woolf was already thinking about the characters, style, and themes that would bear fruit decades later in three of her major works: Mrs. Dalloway, A Room of One’s Own, and Three Guineas. Because I read the major works first, reading The Voyage Out gave me an unexpected glimpse at the first glimmers of Ms. Woolf’s most important themes and ideas. That was just one of the novel’s many pleasant surprises for me.