What Do I Really Think of Virginia Woolf?

Virginia Woolf

“What do I really think of Virginia Woolf?” I asked myself in 2018 during a snowstorm.

I asked myself, because the city was deserted. I was sitting in a nearly empty restaurant, reading The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf on an e-reader. I was happily perusing The Common Reader, On Being Ill, and The London Scene. That morning I had actually seen a portrait of Woolf at the nearly empty National Portrait Gallery.

I used to love everything about Virginia Woolf. In my twenties, I thought I’d never read anything more brilliant than Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. I do love most of her books. But in 2018 I went from ecstasy to disillusion and even disapproval while I read her partly-autobiographical second novel, Night and Day. I was irritated by the snobbery and classism, by the patronizing attitude of Katharine Hilbery, the patrician  heroine. To be fair, she does change during the novel. But I resolved that in future I would only read Woolf’s nonfiction, having a hunch her novels may not have been as astonishing as I’d thought.

Last week I overcame my petulance over her snobbishness during a breathless rereading of her vibrant novel, Between the Acts. Once my favorite book by Woolf, it was posthumously published in 1941. Although it is Modernist and experimental, it is entirely accessible to the common reader: the characters’ voices are seamlessly interwoven in a traditional narrative that highlights a domestic drama. And the history of England is commented on by a Greek chorus of villagers during a charming village pageant. The pageant is held on the grounds of Pointz Hall, owned by the Oliver family–for only 120 years.

Woolf knew a little about homespun theater, and the pageant reflects her experience. In 1922, she attended the rehearsal of a play by a women’s theater in London, which was written by a friend and directed by the famous Edy Craig. Woolf’s play, of course, has very different content: it is a history of England, told through verse, song, allegory and ribald dialogue. Like the play Woolf saw in London, this one is wirtten and directed by a woman, here the anxious Miss Latrobe. Woolf shares with us not only the comic performance of the play, but the reactions of the sharply-etched characters in the audience between the acts. In this odd novel, Woolf analyzes the subtle threads that bind the characters together, as the play portrays a changing England.

Poetry and verse permeate the narrative. We become well-acquainted with the central characters, the Oliver family, who live at Pointz Hall. Isa, the bored wife of Giles Oliver, secretly writes poetry, and walks around muttering verse to herself. Giles, a stockbroker who would have preferred to be a farmer, feels he has sacrificed everything to support the family, and is aware that Isa has a crush on someone else (it is, ironically, a gentleman farmer). And Giles is irritated when their wild neighbor, Mrs. Manresa, drops in for lunch with an unprepossing friend from London, William Dodge. Giles wonders, “What for does a good sort like the woman Manresa bring these half-breeds in her trail?”

The two older Olivers are as important in their way. Giles’s father Bartholomew laments the modern movement of history away from the civliization and etiquette of his youth; but his sister, the much more vivid Mrs. Swithin, sees the world from an entirely charming, whimsical perspective. In the following lyrical passage, we hear her thoughts about history.

But it was summer now. She had been waked by the birds. How they sang! attacking the daw like so many choir boys attacking an iced cake. Forced to listen, she had stretched for her favorite reading–an Outline of History–and had spent the hours between three and five thinking of rhododendron forests in Piccadilly; when the entire continent, not then, she understood, divided by a channel, was all one; populated, she understood, by elephant-bodied, seal-necked, heaving, surging, slowly writhing, and, she supposed, barking monsters; the inguanodon, the mammoth, and the mastodon; from whom presumably, she thought, jerking the window open, we descend.

What a lovely book! And now I will reread Virginia Woolf. Yes, she is a snob, but she understood the changes in history, and recorded the changes as well as the feelings and thoughts of her characters. And so I now have both the fiction and nonfiction to read.