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

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5 Time and continuity

Woolf, declaring that ‘certainly and emphatically there is no God’ nevertheless values moments of understanding, not epiphanies in a Christian sense, but what she called ‘moments of being’ (Schulkind and Lee eds., 2002, p.83). Far from dismissing the rest of time as a waste, she embraces the everyday, even the banalities of life: ‘The Pharaohs. Dentists. Fish’ (Between the Acts, p.28) Mrs Swithin says, her mind inconsequentially jumping from one thing to another. After the pageant an unattributed voice in the crowd is heard saying, apropos of nothing: ‘There’s the dogs, there’s the pictures’ (p.179). The text is littered with such trivialities, for if indeed the whole world is a work of art, nothing can be excluded and everything deserves to be included.

Activity 4

Between the Acts has no chapter divisions, perhaps as a gesture towards this sense of wholeness and connection, but there are breaks in the text. Read these first few paragraphs from the opening of the book now. How is a sense of time and history established here?

It was a summer’s night and they were talking, in the big room with the windows open to the garden, about the cesspool. The county council had promised to bring water to the village, but they hadn’t.

Mrs Haines, the wife of the gentleman farmer, a goosefaced woman with eyes protruding as if they saw something to gobble in the gutter, said affectedly: ‘What a subject to talk about on a night like this!’

Then there was silence; and a cow coughed; and that led her to say how odd it was, as a child, she had never feared cows, only horses. But, then, as a small child in a perambulator, a great cart-horse had brushed within an inch of her face. Her family, she told the old man in the arm-chair, had lived near Liskeard for many centuries. There were graves in the churchyard to prove it.

A bird chuckled outside. ‘A nightingale?’ asked Mrs Haines. No, nightingales didn’t come so far north. It was a daylight bird, chuckling over the substance and succulence of the day, over worms, snails, grit, even in sleep.

The old man in the arm-chair – Mr Oliver, of the Indian Civil Service, retired – said that the site they had chosen for the cesspool was, if he had heard aright, on the Roman road. From an aeroplane, he said, you could still see, plainly marked, the scars made by the Britons; by the Romans; by the Elizabethan manor house; and by the plough, when they ploughed the hill to grow wheat in the Napoleonic wars.

‘But don’t you remember….’ Mrs Haines began. No, not that. Still he did remember – and he was about to tell them what, when there was a sound outside, and Isa, his son’s wife, came in with her hair in pigtails.

(Between the Acts. pp.3–4)


The idea that history is inscribed in the very landscape – visible, significantly, from a 20th-century aeroplane – is one fairly obvious indication of the span of the past: the Britons, Romans, Elizabethans and the Napoleonic Wars have all left their mark. Set against this broad general sweep of time and the past are individuals. Mr Oliver is ‘of the Indian Civil Service’, which reminds us of more recent history and of British Imperialism. Mrs Haines is the first character to speak in the novel, so it would be reasonable to expect her to develop into a major character. In fact, though she does reappear (p.74), she never speaks again – something you are unlikely to realise at all, or until you have read the whole text. That may suggest something about the unwritten past and those who history has forgotten or overlooked. But while she makes her brief appearance, Mrs Haines is keen to establish her personal history, as her sense of identity is dependent on continuity with the past: her family ‘had lived near Liskeard for many centuries. There were the graves in the churchyard to prove it’ (p.3). The opening sentence which tells us matter-of-factly of the proposed village cesspool, establishes an important image of ideas about time and continuity which are developed throughout the text. A phrase from T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘East Coker’, ‘dung and death’, sums this up aptly. Woolf’s cesspool appears on the first page of the earliest draft of ‘Pointz Hall’ (Leaska, 1983, p.250) which differs radically from the published version, but the cesspool survives to be mentioned four times in the opening pages of Between the Acts. Unlikely though it may seem, in Woolf’s writing, it is an important image suggesting life and fertility.

More immediate personal history and the importance of memory is also a feature of this passage: ‘But don’t you remember…’ Mrs Haines begins, but does not finish. Mr Oliver interrupts her with a remembrance of his own, but that too is interrupted by his daughter-in-law’s appearance. Later he remembers that over sixty years ago ‘his mother had given him the works of Byron in that very room’ (p.5) – another way in which the past is handed down to the present: from a volume of Romantic poetry, to his Victorian mother, to his recollection in the present moment. Mr Oliver’s quotation from Byron’s ‘She walks in beauty’ also makes its own contribution to Woolf’s own ‘trip thro’ English lit.’ (Nicolson, 1980, p.329)

Activity 5

Mrs Swithin’s favourite reading is H. G. Wells’s Outline of History (1920). Read the passage below now to determine how Woolf works to capture the present moment, at the same time implying the weight of the past.

But it was summer now. She had been awakened by the birds. How they sang! attacking the dawn like so many choir boys attacking an iced cake. Forced to listen, she had stretched for her favourite 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 iguanodon, the mammoth, and the mastodon; from whom presumably, she thought, jerking the window open, we descend.

It took her five seconds in actual time, in mind time ever so much longer, to separate Grace herself, with blue china on a tray, from the leather-covered grunting monster who was about, as the door opened, to demolish a whole tree in the green steaming undergrowth of the primeval forest, naturally she jumped as Grace put the tray down and said: ‘Good morning, Ma’am.’ ‘Batty,’ Grace called her, as she felt on her face the divided glance that was meant for a beast in a swamp, half for a maid in a print frock and white apron.

(Between the Acts, pp.8–9)


So deeply is Mrs Swithin engaged with her reading that prehistory is more present to her than her actual surroundings. Both are simultaneously present. So far removed from reality is she that it took ‘five seconds in actual time, in mind time ever so much longer’ to distinguish the servant Grace from her imagined ‘grunting monster’. This difference between clock time (‘five seconds’) and time as it is experienced (‘ever so much longer’) is one example of something which interested Woolf throughout her writing; time and memory are fundamental to ideas about identity throughout her fiction, autobiographical and diary writing. The effects are achieved through her writing style. The passage begins with three short sentences, then moves into one long one, which has multiple subordinate clauses mimicking the way Mrs Swithin’s mind works. The third-person narrative intersperses four brief phrases, reminding us that we are following Mrs Swithin’s thoughts: ‘she understood’ is repeated twice, ‘she supposed’, and ‘she thought’ punctuate the sentence as her imagination develops the prehistoric scene. At the end of the first paragraph her thought that we are descended from such prehistoric creatures is punctuated by her action of jerking the window open – another way in which the present moment is imposed on Mrs Swithin’s imaginative engagement with the past. The long, flowing, heavily punctuated sentence mimics her thought patterns.

Mrs Swithin’s great-nephew George has a similar, more frightening moment of perception. A very small boy, grubbing about in the earth at roots and grass, he ‘held a flower complete’. But suddenly ‘there was a roar and a hot breath and a stream of coarse grey hair’ which ‘rushed between him and the flower. Up he leapt, toppling in his fright, and saw coming towards him a terrible peaked eyeless monster moving on legs, brandishing arms’ (pp.10–11). In this instance the eyeless monster is his grandfather with a rolled-up newspaper at his face, oblivious to the idea that he might frighten, rather than amuse the child. Mrs Swithin and George are not alone in seeing one thing but failing at first to recognise it. Our experience of the world is subjective, our perception not fixed or necessarily immediate, and our brains cannot always process visual stimuli immediately. Woolf’s writing expresses her age’s interest in psychology and ways in which our minds work.


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