Exploring Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts
Exploring Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts

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1 Exploring Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts

In 1936 Virginia Woolf wrote to her friend T. S. Eliot to thank him for sending her his Collected Poems. She said:

I’ve been lying in an arm chair in front of the fire with your book open, and such radiance rises from the words that I can’t get near them….I expect its what the Lit. Sup. critic would call enchantment, incantation – there must be a critic’s word: but I’m too sleepy to find it – and so must testify to the fact: I’m held off from understanding by magic.

(Nicolson, 1980, p.29)

Woolf’s response to Eliot’s poetry, which is often considered ‘difficult’, is worth keeping in mind when you read her own novels, for they may seem unconventional or unexpected if they are new to you. This course explores the reasons why she wrote as she did. Her letter to Eliot suggests that, certainly at her first reading, she simply allowed the sound qualities of his language to overwhelm her – ‘such radiance rises from the words’. She responded to the rhythm, movement and music of his verse rather than struggling to find meaning. ‘I’m held off from understanding by magic’, she says, suggesting that an inability to understand can sometimes be a virtue rather than something to worry about. That’s the spirit you should try to keep in mind if you find Woolf’s writing difficult at first.

Portait photograph of Virginia Woolf, with her looking into the camera.
Figure 1 Virginia Woolf, 1939, colour dye transfer print, 30 × 20 cm. Photo: © Gisèle Freund/IMEC/Fonds MCC.

Virginia Woolf was an essayist, a critic, and biographer. She wrote reviews, letters, diaries and she published nine novels, of which Between the Acts (1941) was the last. An earlier novel, Mrs Dalloway (1925), has a time span of 18 hours and in Between the Acts Woolf set herself a similar framework, ‘a June day in 1939’ (Between the Acts, p.69). The date is important, just weeks before the start of the Second World War, while the focus on a single day allows her to explore how the whole weight of the past relates to the immediacy of the present moment. Through ideas about time and memory, what is ‘now’ is seen to rest on all that has gone before. The novel focuses on a particular day, and also on a particular location: a small English village community.

Woolf called Between the Acts ‘Pointz Hall’ while she was writing it, the name of the ‘middle-sized’ (p.6) country house where the Oliver family live. The novel has no main character; instead interest is diffused among generations of that family: Old Bartholomew, his sister Mrs Swithin, his son Giles, Giles’s wife Isabella and their small son George. The family’s servants, their visitors, Mrs Manresa, her friend William Dodge as well as numerous characters who live in the village all appear in the narrative. Miss La Trobe is the artist in the text; she writes and directs the pageant acted by the villagers on that June day. Nature too plays its part:

The lawn was as flat as the floor of a theatre. The terrace, rising, made a natural stage. The trees barred the stage like pillars. And the human figure was seen to great advantage against a background of sky. As for the weather, it was turning out, against all expectation, a very fine day. A perfect summer afternoon.

(Between the Acts, p.70)

Woolf referred to Between the Acts as her ‘trip thro’ English lit. book’ (Bell, 1984, p.329) and it is through the pageant that this really becomes evident. It begins with a small child declaring ‘England am I’ (p.70) and the scenes that follow establish a national historical and literary identity: Canterbury pilgrims, Elizabeth I, an 18th-century Restoration comedy, and a Victorian picnic party succeed each other, finishing with the present day.

Listen to the following audio, which is a reading of an excerpt from the scene:

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The pageant works as a device that brings actors and audience, villagers and family together; past and present merge, and an idiosyncratic, very selective kind of history of England is enacted. It is particularly poignant because of the date on which it is takes place. Beneath the surface, the question throughout is: how much longer can this vision of England last?

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