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

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6 Woolf and language

In 1937 Woolf gave a series of talks on BBC radio called Words Fail Me. Part of this series, Craftsmanship (Bradshaw, p.85), was broadcast on 29 April 1937. She takes as her starting point the surprising idea that ‘words are not useful’. A sign on the London Underground provides her first example with the words ‘Passing Russell Square’:

...on an illuminated signboard, are the words “Passing Russell Square.” We look at those words; we repeat them; we try to impress that useful fact upon our minds; the next train will pass Russell Square. We say over and over again as we pace, ‘Passing Russell Square, passing Russell Square’. And then as we say them, the words shuffle and change, and we find ourselves saying ‘Passing away saith the world, passing away….The leaves decay and fall….’ And then we wake up and find ourselves at King’s Cross.

(Bradshaw, 2008, p.85)

Her point is that the more one repeats the words, the more divorced they become from any meaning they are intended to convey. A valid response to that apparently simple statement ‘Passing Russell Square’ would be to wonder whether it meant that the next train would stop at, or go straight past Russell Square, but in Woolf’s case the words recall other associations: ‘The leaves decay and fall’ rewrites Tennyson’s ‘the woods decay and fall’ from his poem ‘Tithonus’. ‘Passing away, Saith the World’ is the title of a poem by Christina Rossetti (1830–94). Later in the essay Woolf returns to this phrase:

Take the simple sentence ‘Passing Russell Square’. That proved useless because besides the surface meaning it contained so many sunken meanings. The ‘passing’ suggested the transiency of things, the passing of time and the changes of human life. Then the word ‘Russell’ suggested the rustling of leaves and the skirt on a polished floor; also the ducal house of Bedford and half the history of England. Finally the word ‘Square’ brings in the sight, the shape of an actual square combined with some visual suggestion of the stark angularity of stucco.

(Bradshaw, 2008, p.87)

Words are ‘useless’ because they are so open to interpretation. Woolf concludes, ‘one sentence of the simplest kind rouses the imagination, the memory, the eye and the ear – all combine in reading it’ (Bradshaw, 2008, p.87). In spite of the word ‘useless’ it is clear that in her improvisation of associations of what ‘Passing Russell Square’ conjures up for her, Woolf is also celebrating the multivalence of language.

Sometimes Woolf celebrates the slipperiness of language; sometimes it brings her to despair because far from enabling communication, it can forge barriers and failures of understanding. ‘Words without meaning – wonderful words’, Miss La Trobe thinks to herself towards the end of the novel as she struggles to find the first words of her next production: but ‘the words escaped her’ (Between the Acts, p.189). This contradictory impulse runs throughout Between the Acts, as dialogue between Bartholomew, Mrs Swithin, Mrs Manresa, Isa and William Dodge illustrates.

Activity 6

Read the passage below now. To what extent do the characters communicate with each other?

‘Since you’re interested in pictures,’ said Bartholomew, turning to his silent guest, ‘why, tell me, are we, as a race, so incurious, irresponsive and insensitive’ – the champagne had given him a flow of unusual three-decker words – ‘to that noble art, whereas, Mrs Manresa, if she’ll allow me my old man’s liberty, has her Shakespeare by heart?’

‘Shakespeare by heart!’ Mrs Manresa protested. She struck an attitude. ‘To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler …Go on!’ she nudged Giles, who sat next to her.

‘Fade far away and quite forget what thou amongst the leaves hast never known…’ Isa supplied the first words that came into her head by way of helping her husband out of his daily difficulty.

‘The weariness, the torture, and the fret…’ William Dodge added, burying the end of his cigarette in a grave between two stones.

‘There!’ Bartholomew exclaimed, cocking his forefinger aloft. ‘That proves it! What springs touched, what secret drawer displays its treasures, if I say’ – he raised more fingers – ‘Reynolds! Constable! Crome!’

‘Why called “Old”?’ Mrs Manresa thrust in.

‘We haven’t the words – we haven’t the words,’ Mrs Swithin protested. ‘Behind the eyes; not on the lips; that’s all.’

‘Thoughts without words,’ her brother mused. ‘Can that be?’

(Between the Acts pp.49–50)


One way of assessing the extent – or lack - of communication is to read the word each character speaks without the intervening narrative. It’s likely that you will find that although four characters speak, they do not necessarily speak to each other.

Bartholomew declares that the British are ‘insensitive’ to art, but that Mrs Manresa ‘has her Shakespeare by heart’. This seems unlikely as her response is a stock line or so of Hamlet’s ‘To be, or not to be,’ which Giles, remaining silent, cannot or will not continue. His wife Isa covers this with a misquotation from Keats’s poem ‘To a Nightingale’ which William Dodge takes up. This, Bartholomew declares, proves his point, though it’s uncertain whether he believes that Isa and William quote from Shakespeare, or if he recognises Keats. Whichever it is, he demonstrates his delight in language: ‘What springs touched, what secret drawer displays its treasures’. But his cry: ‘Reynolds! Constable! Crome!’ elicits no response from the company, only Mrs Manresa who asks, seemingly inconsequentially ‘Why called “Old”?’ Her association of ideas has jumped ahead of, or past Bartholomew’s argument, to query why these painters are referred to as ‘Old Masters’ – the question remains unanswered because Mrs Swithin protests ‘We haven’t the words – we haven’t the words’. Whether she is responding to Mrs Manresa’s question or an association of her own is not clear. ‘Behind the eyes; not on the lips; that’s all’ she continues, which prompts her brother to wonder ‘Thoughts without words…Can that be?’, another question which is not answered directly, but which the novel as a whole debates and plays with. The assembled company have spoken, but not necessarily to each other.

Isa’s quotation from ‘To a Nightingale’, ‘Fade far away and quite forget what thou amongst the leaves hast never known’ may be random, but these ‘first words that came into her head’ may have surfaced because they reveal her feelings about her marriage, even as the narrative explains that they function to help ‘her husband out of his daily difficulty’, for Giles remains silent when Mrs Manresa prompts him to complete her quotation. Unprompted, William Dodge completes Isa’s: ‘The weariness, the torture, and the fret…’ His action of ‘burying the end of his cigarette in a grave between two stones’ as he speaks emphasises the hopelessness of his feelings, as does the phrase he quotes, as if he is trying to bury that too. Using someone else’s words, these two characters express in public their private feelings of longing and loss, but none of the company recognises it. Words in this instance are articulated in order to convey and to conceal.

On close examination what seems to be a page of inconsequential chatter reveals a great deal about individual characters, as well as Woolf’s own interests. Because there are so many references to words, they become self-referential within the text – for example, a simple comment from Mrs Manresa, when she claims that she cannot ‘put two words together’ (Between the Acts, p.56) has much wider reverberations when one of the themes of the novel is Miss La Trobe’s struggle with words and meanings as a writer, which in turn reflect Woolf’s own struggle and indeed despair at her feelings that what she writes falls far short of her conception. It is clear from the passages analysed above that words rarely have a single or transparent meaning.

The strained relationship between Isa and her husband Giles is, paradoxically, most often expressed through silence. In general Giles rarely responds to conversational openings, but the greatest silences exist between him and Isa. He can despise William Dodge and Mrs Parker, ‘But not Isa – not his wife. She had not spoken to him, not one word. Nor looked at him either’ (p.100). Giles is alone when he sees and stamps the life out of perhaps the most shocking image in Between the Acts, of a ‘monstrous inversion’: a snake ‘unable to swallow [a] toad … unable to die’ (p.89).

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

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Others react differently to the unexplained blood on Giles’s white tennis shoes: ‘“No,” said Isa, as plainly as words could say it. “I don’t admire you,”’, but she does not use words. She looks ‘not at his face, but at his feet. “Silly little boy, with blood on his boots.”’ (p.100). This poses the question, who is the perceiver? Is this how Giles interprets his wife’s look, or is Isa expressing her own contempt? The communication is conveyed by a look, not language. Typically, Mrs Manresa assumes the bloodstained shoes are a compliment to her: ‘Vaguely some sense that he had proved his valour for her admiration flattered her….Taking him in tow, she felt: I am the Queen, he my hero, my sulky hero.’ (p.96). There is no indication that Giles is aware of her feelings but before long, in her company he does look down at his shoes, and smiles (p.97).

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