26 March 2015 at 12.42pm | Comment on this article
One hundred years ago today, Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out was published. It tells the story of Rachel Vinrace, a repressed, middle class, young woman who takes passage with her aunt, Helen Ambrose on a ship bound for South America. The ship is owned by her father who hopes that under Helen’s tutelage, his shy, motherless daughter – who can only really express herself when playing the piano – will become more poised, more socially accomplished, a more attractive hostess to preside over his home and further his political ambitions. Thus, the reluctant Rachel accompanies her aunt to a resort on the South American coast where she is introduced to society and to love – or some strange and uncomfortable semblance of it – in the person of Terence Hewet, to whom she becomes engaged.
In its themes of the suppression of young women by societal expectation, the potential threat to their safety posed by male desire (Rachel is cornered and kissed by an older man in the English party – an experience that gives rise to terrifying nightmares of pursuit and entrapment) and the attempt to find an independent voice and authority, the novel reflects aspects of Woolf’s own autobiography, and her painful journey from suffocating Victorian convention to intellectual and personal freedom. Her life-long search for literary forms that could convey life with truth, intensity and immediacy is recognisable too in this early novel, in Rachel’s passionate belief that ‘music goes straight for things. It says all there is to say at once’.
Where fiction and autobiography intersect most poignantly perhaps, is in the territory of illness and collapse. Rachel contracts a tropical fever and perishes before she can complete her journey through sexual initiation into adulthood. And, in a ghastly parallel, working on the novel which was to signify her entry into writerhood, nearly destroyed its creator. Woolf succumbed to severe episodes of mental illness, both during completion of The Voyage Out, when Leonard Woolf describes her as working with ‘a kind of tortured intensity’, and increasingly as publication approached, and the imminent realisation of a long-cherished, fiercely defended ambition gave rise to intense anxiety about how the world would view her work. ‘We talked about my novel (which everyone, so I predict will assure me is the most brilliant thing they’ve ever read; & privately condemn, as indeed it deserves to be condemned)’, she writes in her diary of January 1915. Spiralling into a madness which was by turns violent and suicidal, Woolf had to be taken into a nursing home the day before publication. During her absence, it was Leonard who made her new literary status official by recording her profession, under the National Registration Act of 1915 as ‘author’.
Reviews of The Voyage Out were favourable. ‘Several used the word “genius”’, writes Quentin Bell in his biography of his aunt, adding his belief that Woolf’s recovery was helped by the warm reception to her novel. And yet, in the book itself, even after the terrible struggle of killing off her protagonist – in so many ways the incarnation of her childhood self – Woolf had signalled a return to life. ‘“It's not cowardly to wish to live, Alice,”’ a character argues, in the final chapter. ‘“It's the very reverse of cowardly. Personally, I’d like to go on for a hundred years... Think of all the things that are bound to happen!”’
Perhaps the writer of those words, even as she sailed into the storm that threatened to engulf her own voyage, had an inkling of how far she yet would travel.
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Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works runs 11–26 May 2015. General booking opens on 31 March.