Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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.

12 Responses to “Woolf Project begins – The Voyage Out”

  1. Mel u

    By happy coincidence I decided about six weeks ago to read all of Woolf’s fiction-I also am seeking to learn about her life and times-having read the great Hermione Lee biography of Woolf-I am now reading Victoria Glendinnings biography of Leonard Woolf-I have decided to read her master works first-I am glad you will be reading a lot of Woolf

  2. litlove

    Oh this all bodes well for your Woolf project – you are writing so beautifully about her already! Love what you say about the thickness of her prose and the way that all her narratives contain subtle demonstrations of her mind processing. So true!

  3. びっくり

    Yikes! I just heard a waterfowl squawk as it flew along the river… clearly I am up too late again. Had to do a quick read of your post. It made me curious. If someone has never read any Woolf and wanted to give it a try, where would you recommend they start?

  4. Dorothy W.

    How wonderful that your read-through is starting off well! I can’t wait to see how it goes. I so agree about the quality of Woolf’s prose. I’m not quite ready to begin The Common Reader yet, but I hope to do so in the next couple months. Interesting point about her life — I’ve enjoyed reading Julia Brigg’s book Woolf: An Inner Life along with the novels, a chapter at a time. The book does a good job of connecting the books to what was going on in Woolf’s life at the time.

  5. Justine

    What a wonderful occupation. I might just join you! I’ve read quite a bit of Woolf before but haven’t read The Voyage Out so will put that at the top of my virtual list.

  6. ds

    Oh, you have caught her exactly, I think! Especially regarding this novel. Her diaries make fascinating reading as well, and offer great insights into the novels…the layering and the fragility. yes, yes, yes! I look forward to more of your insights. Thank you.

  7. verbivore

    Mel – This is good news! I look forward to reading your thoughts as we both go through her fiction. And you’ll have to let me know which of the biographies to try.

    Litlove – Thank you, Litlove. I hope I don’t run off any of my readers by getting so deeply into Woolf this year. We shall see.

    Bikkuri – You ask a difficult question. I think her most often-read book is Mrs. Dalloway or To The Lighthouse. I love both, but with a preference for To The Lighthouse. And of course, I’d love to know what you think of either.

    Dorothy – Thank you for the suggestion. The Brigg book sounds wonderful. I can see this project is going to have tentacles into all sorts of genres – essay and biography. I’ll be asking you more about the essays, I’m sure, since that is your specialty!

    Justine – You are welcome to join in and I look forward to reading your thoughts!

    Ds – Well, you’ve convinced me. I ordered the first volume of her diaries this morning. I think I will really enjoy reading them in tandem with her fiction. So thank you!

  8. Stefanie

    What a wonderful description to say her prose has a certain thickness to it. I know exactly what you mean! I have not read this novel yet. If you are interested in a good bio, Hermione Lee’s is excellent.

  9. Anthony

    I’ll follow your Project with great interest. My fascination with Woolf began this year and I also intent to read pretty much everything she wrote.

    • verbivore

      Oh good, I’m glad we’ll be able to discuss Woolf as we both go through her work.

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