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

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2 Background of war

The title Between the Acts indicates intervals between acts of the pageant but also suggests, even more potently, the period between the First and Second World Wars. Woolf started writing it in 1938 when war with Germany was looming and when her non-fiction, anti-war essay Three Guineas had just been published. There she argues passionately for women’s education for without it, she says, women are not in a position to think for themselves. Education will mean that they ‘can use that mind and will to abolish the inhumanity, the beastliness, the horror, the folly of war’ (Black, 2001, p.77). That the Spanish Civil War had a profound effect on her thinking is clear, as she was supportive of socialist and anti-fascist movements. Her nephew Julian Bell went to Spain as an ambulance driver for the Republicans where he was killed in July 1937. As Naomi Black says, the links ‘between sexism, war and fascism seem to have become evident to Woolf sometime in the mid-thirties’ (Black, 2001, p.xxv).

Woolf and her husband Leonard stored petrol, planning suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning should the country be invaded, for Leonard was Jewish and both were on the Nazis’ register for execution. Their London homes in Tavistock Square and Mecklenburgh Square, which housed their Hogarth Press, were bomb damaged; Woolf sorted through the chaos to salvage her diaries. At their country home in Rodmell, Sussex on 2 October 1940 she reports:

a great heavy plunge of bomb under the window…. I said to L.: I don’t want to die yet…But they’re aiming at the railway and the power works.

(Bell, 1984, p.326)
Photograph shows the damage to 52 Tavistock Square, destroyed by bombs in 1941. One side of the house is still standing, but several other sides have collapsed, and there are piles of rubbles surrounding the site.
Figure 2 Bomb damage to 52 Tavistock Square, London, 1941. Photo: Vogue © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd.

Woolf’s diaries catalogue the raids and the everyday privations that war imposed while she carried on writing fiction and biography. She observed on 29 May 1940 that ‘one can’t plan, any more, a long book’ (Bell, 1984, p.289) and Between the Acts is the shortest of her novels, set just before the outbreak of war.

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