How flimsy are the accoutrements of civilisation in the face of nature.
It’s like it took Virginia a third of this novel to get out of her Victorian stays, chemises, petticoats and corsets. Once she shakes off all the Victorian trappings though she moves with beautiful poise and clarity of purpose. So, it’s quite heavy footed to begin with, not as modern in tone and treatment as Forster who had already written a couple of his novels when she wrote this. It’s as if Woolf has to free herself of tradition by first embracing it. She does this by creating a background cast of Victorian characters, elderly spinsters and erudite emotionally retarded elderly men and embarking on what seems a comedy of manners. Not perhaps Woolf’s forte – though, that said, it does have some fabulous comic moments and made me laugh out loud at least three times.
It’s clear Woolf couldn’t help thinking of the older generation as enemies and her foremost inclination is to ridicule them. This inclination muddies the early part of the novel a bit. Forster was better at characterising elderly interfering women, mainly because he sympathised with them and was able to write about them with tenderness as well as mockery whereas Woolf seems to find it difficult to overcome a snobbishly scornful point of view. Also, in the name of realism – we’re in a busy hotel – she duplicates characters which means it’s hard to differentiate some of the women. There are probably too many. Woolf is much more engaging in this novel when she’s writing about people of her own generation. In fact the novel becomes infinitely more compelling every time Rachel is its prevailing voice. There’s nothing of the comedy of manners genre about Rachel. Woolf is on the hunt for what’s fugitive about Rachel. Already there are signs of her ambition to write a new kind of biography which she was to achieve in such a brilliant and ground-breaking manner in The Waves.
The tone of the novel becomes kinder, warmer, when love arrives, the spinsters and middle aged married women are treated with more tenderness, and the novel improves massively as a result. If the first half was a three star read, the second half is a five star read.
It’s poignant that the young lover uses the exact same words to describe a relationship as Woolf herself was to use in her suicide note to Leonard. It also provides an insight into what Woolf herself went through as a young woman. I suspect the descriptions of Rachel’s illness were inspired by her own breakdowns. I’ve been thinking about what Woolf says about love in this novel. Rachel offers lots of insights into Woolf herself, a woman who seemed to live without sexual passion. For Rachel love is like a river that takes her deeper inside herself; it doesn’t, as it does to most, bring her out of herself. It heralds a deeper silence rather than a louder singing. It’s closer to death than it is to life. It’s probably worth remembering Woolf had already attempted suicide before writing this. This might mean she had a greater need than most to believe in the transformative powers of love but at the same time less faith in those powers. I thought the last two chapters were incredibly powerful and haunting – and perhaps a little depressing – as an attempt to examine the testament of love. Brings me back again to her suicide note to Leonard – “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.” And yet these were two people who had never made love. All Woolf’s romantic conflicts are encapsulated in that one line.
It’s been a long time since I read this. I was surprised by how good it is. Especially the second half, the depiction of young love and illness, which is inspired. Lovely to renew my twenty-year-old love affair with Virginia Woolf.