We all have to start somewhere – The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

I love Virginia Woolf. She is one of my favourite novelists of all time. Many people disagree. I say they are entitled to their opinions although I do believe they are incorrect. Basically, unless you’re willing to embrace the weirdness and unique-ness that IS Modernism, you should go back to the Romantic writers.

But that’s not The Voyage Out. The Voyage Out, published in 1915, is Woolf’s first book. And boy is it… not good. Genuinely. It burns out all the good material about 1/3 of the way into the book, and everything else feels tedious and long and painful. Many people view it as a very important stepping stone in Woolf’s career as a writer. It’s where she learns that she can’t blatantly state “this represents that”, which she does. A lot. It definitely preempts a lot of the style in To The Lighthouse, a vastly superior novel, and even introduces the characters of Richard and Clarissa Dalloway, as seen in Mrs Dalloway, my personal favourite although people disagree with me.

So I guess The Voyage Out is very much a landmark text. It’s really not good. It honestly reads like a really bad Victorian novel OR a really awful Modernist novel. It’s neither one nor the other, it’s Woolf searching for a voice. Though it does bring up a lot of questions about colonialism and gender stereotypes, and makes a lot of jabs at the patriarchy, so if you’re looking for Woolf as a feminist writer, this is it. This is probably the most blatant she is with this concept that women deserve education and men are stupid for oppressing them and keeping it away from them.

In fact, there’s a lot about the expectations of marriage and of female subservience and domesticity. It’s a topic that Woolf loves to cover. Her female characters who are married are sometimes happy, but most of the time are perpetually in a state of unhappiness. They might not be sad, but they are not satisfied. They play the perfect woman, the perfect hostess, the perfect wife, everything that’s expected of her. However, some characters, like Lucy in To The Lighthouse, break away from this expectation, moving towards a feeling of female independence discovered through art.

Rachel, the ‘main’ character of The Voyage Out, reaches towards a similar goal. She finds her solace through music and piano playing, but is herself ignorant because of her father’s stringent censoring of her learning, keeping her innocent at the cost of her intelligence. But then Richard Dalloway literally sits on her music score (symbolising how men and the patriarchy quash the dreams and artistic fervour of women, right?) and then forces himself on her, in which she realises for the first time that men desire women. She didn’t know this, she was far too innocent, but now that she knows she comes to hate most, if not all, men, thinking them arrogant in their desire and their expectations of superiority.

It’s not a novel for the faint of heart. It’s definitely a transition novel. Woolf is learning, adapting, changing, and without this novel we wouldn’t get the greatness that comes after. I still find it ironic that despite mocking the marriage plot, she ends up in the marriage plot. Also the main character dies. A very classic Woolf ploy. So heed my warning. Read it if you really really really want to know about the growth of Woolf as a writer, but honestly it’s boring after the first 100 pages. I stopped reading there the first time, and upon re-reading, I understood why.

Summary

tl;dr: Young Girl Rachel finds out that she has been oppressed by the patriarchy all this time, out on a sea voyage to South America. Aunt Helen comes to support her! She falls in love with a dude. Lots of people are assholes, lots of questions and chats about marriage and love and politics that altogether lead nowhere and reminds you how unsatisfying a novel this is.

So we begin in London. London is dreary and metropolitan. Mr and Mrs Ambrose are not exactly fans, but it’s also what they’ve lived with. They board a boat, along with a bunch of other people that I don’t really care about. I will go into detail about the specific characters in another post where I focus on characters. It won’t be that interesting, most of the characters are blatant caricatures. For example, Willoughby is just this example of super pompous arrogant intellectualism. In fact, so many people are. Whilst our main character, poor Rachel, is the image of the woman controlled and condemned by men in her life into a world of ignorant bliss.

They have to stop and pick up Richard and Clarissa Dalloway, who got their asses stuck in Lisbon. And immediately they’re all stunned by their appearance. They are upper class, and they show it. Clarissa strikes up multiple conversations whilst Richard says all sorts of shit about politics and the like. SPEAKING of politics, Richard says that women don’t deserve the vote. Because he’s a blatant colonial sexist who believes in male superiority. Even Clarissa’s not all that happy about it, but in a way that almost prefaces Mrs Dalloway, she just laughs and accepts his patriarchal mode of thinking.

Rachel, who is not good at many subjects because of the scattered teaching she was given (because she’s a girl, and girls shouldn’t go into depth in subjects), is a brilliant musician. She loves playing the piano, and is constantly slaving away at Bach to learn it and get better. Clarissa is astounded, she wants to hear her play! She just wants to listen to Rachel and they strike up this amazing friendship! (Though, perhaps more than friendship, Clarissa clearly fancied Rachel quite a bit) But of course, friendships between women can’t quite last or sustain. Especially when Richard starts talking to Rachel in this condescending manner.

At one point during a huge storm, they’re all tossed around the ship. Rachel is in her room with the piano, Richard comes in and sits on her music scores. She’s like “hey dude uh don’t sit there” and moves the Cowper aside to let Richard sit elsewhere. He doesn’t move, he just goes “wow you must be talented.” And then, Richard, an adult married man, grabs Rachel, a teenager, and KISSES HER and then says “You tempt me.” If I haven’t sold you on how gross and disgusting Richard is, I’m sorry, but he is.

So that’s done and dusted. Rachel doesn’t know what to do. The Dalloways get off the boat and Rachel has a conversation with her Aunt Helen. Helen is shocked to find out that Rachel had no understanding of the desire between men and women. Rachel declares that she hates men, and she wants nothing to do with them. Instead of going home, Helen keeps Rachel with her so she can teach Rachel more life skills.

And so, they’re in South America now, in Santa Marina. It’s nice there. There’s a whole chapter which seems like the beta test of To The Lighthouse, where time passes, but nothing really quite happens. Anyway, they go for a walk, they want to “see life” and all that jazz, and this is where it just… gets… astoundingly boring.

They meet a couple of dudes: St John Hirst and Terence Hewet. St John Hirst is based on someone Woolf knew in real life. He’s an absolute twat, that’s for sure. He is convinced that women are incapable of logic and higher modes of thinking. Hewet, who is far nicer and eventually Rachel’s love interest, constantly excuses Hirst and justifies it. We are reeled into the thought that Hewet is nicer and more understanding than Hirst, but in reality he is just as sexist and abiding to the patriarchy as Hirst, he’s just more subtle.

It’s less subtle when he states how women like Rachel are selfish, and basically has a Nice Guy™ moment where he’s like “Oh you’re just like ALL THE OTHER girls >:(” like jesus christ Hewet. He’s not very good at this whole Talking To Women thing. Even Evelyn, a side character who just turns up when Woolf wants to add something about free choice for women, is unable to get through to Hewet. Evelyn says how she doesn’t want to get married to men who want her, and it’s all about the fact that she wants to be free and find someone she truly cares about, whilst Hewet basically slut shames her. Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.

And then, Rachel and Terence Hewet still decide to get married. They have a huge argument as before, and Rachel says, “Let’s break it off”. I think they should have, because honestly it’s what they needed. They don’t break it off, not completely. They end up having more arguments and tiffs, and everyone congratulates them on getting married.

Rachel falls inexplicably ill. And she gets worse and worse. Helen, one of the strongest female characters, breaks down and cries because this is a tragedy. Rachel dies, having one last moment of lucidity, and Terence is emo about it. Yeap.

And at the very end, they’re all running around saying how Rachel has passed away. It’s sad. It ends with fucking St John Hirst thinking about how this is like the calm after a storm.

 

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