The Voyage Out, a fitting title to launch my Virginia Woolf read this year. And I do feel as if I’ve set out on a journey to discover and observe Virginia Woolf’s imagination and way of thinking. As I mentioned last week, her prose is so wonderfully distinctive that stepping into her fictional universe is quite an immersion. This is my first time reading The Voyage Out, and it’s Woolf’s first novel, published in 1915, but it contains many of the elements that would go on to become her signature style.
This is interesting to me – all writers develop and explore new fictional, thematic and stylistic territory but not all writers are so immediately and recognizably distinctive. Of course she had been writing for a long time already by then, and her upbringing was decidedly literary and artistic.
One of the more interesting aspects of this project for me is that I find myself, for almost the first time, wanting to know as much as possible about the writer’s life as I begin to experience the writing. I’m usually mostly interested in the work and what it does, how it affects me as a reader and writer, and ultimately, what the experience of reading it feels like. But with Woolf, there is a feeling that everything she wrote was intimately connected with who she was as a person, what her mind was processing and what happened to her on a day to day basis. Her “work”, as it were, is also “her.” Why I feel this way about Woolf compared to many other authors is something I’m going to have think about further as the project develops.
I am just about halfway through The Voyage Out. If I am allowed to use the term without belittling the work, this is very much a “coming-of-age” novel. And it is also highly reminiscent of a 19th century society novel in structure, except it is exceptionally modern in its preoccupation. What I mean by that is, that although the story of Rachel’s journey to South America and subsequent adventures follows a similar script of say an Austen, an Elliot or a Burney, it is much more intimately concerned with exploring questions about identity and existence and intelligence. One of the novel’s greatest questions seems to be: What are women really thinking? Why are they thinking it? Is it as worthwhile as what men are thinking?
Finally, just a general comment as I settle in to her writing. There is a thickness to her prose that I love, a layering of understanding and insight with respect to each of her characters and the setting in which they find themselves. She draws out her characters’ eccentricities but also the part of each individual that is fragile, and it is usually this fragility that manages to bring them into connection with each other.
I’ll finish here with a quote I think all readers will enjoy, taken from a scene in which Rachel is reading:
At last she shut the book sharply, lay back, and drew a deep breath, expressive of the wonder which always marks the transition from the imaginary world to the real world.