A reading of a late Woolf novel
Virginia Woolf’s classic modernist novel Mrs Dalloway (1925) is famously set over the course of just one day, in June 1923. But what is less well-known is that Woolf wrote a second novel also set on just one day: her last novel, Between the Acts (1941). The novel is an example of late modernism, which is a slightly different beast from the modernism seen in Woolf’s earlier novels, such as Mrs Dalloway but also To the Lighthouse.
Before we get to an analysis of the themes of Between the Acts, a brief plot summary – insofar as one can summarise the ‘plot’ of a Virginia Woolf novel – may be helpful. The action of Between the Acts takes place on the day of the village pageant held at the fictional house of Pointz Hall. The village pageant, organised by Miss La Trobe, is like a sort of ‘2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony’ in that it takes in the various periods of English literary history and presents them on the stage: Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, Restoration comedies, the Victorian age of melodrama, and the present day (i.e. the 1930s). In this respect, there is a link back to Woolf’s earlier 1928 novel Orlando, with its fantastical exploration of over three centuries of English history from the age of Queen Elizabeth I to the early twentieth century. The pageant flags up two important themes of Woolf’s work: first, its interest in history (and specifically literary history), and second, its self-consciously literary quality (there is a sense that the ‘acts’ of that title are not only the ones going on upon the stage, but the ‘acts’ of people’s individual lives, too). As Shakespeare’s Jaques has it, all the world’s a stage.
The pageant-play is useful to Woolf because it takes in all of history, rather than one period in history. Joshua D. Esty, in a persuasive academia article (‘Amnesia in the Fields: Late Modernism, Late Imperialism, and the English Pageant-Play’), has suggested that Woolf and other modernists (such as T. S. Eliot) were drawn to the pageant play in the 1930s and 1940s (the period of ‘late modernism’) because it was a way of bidding farewell to certain aspects of modernist culture that writers like Woolf and Eliot had previously explored in their earlier work. So Woolf’s novel, and other late modernist works which draw on the pageant-play – such as T. S. Eliot’s now little-read verse-drama The Rock (1934) – were motivated by what Esty calls a desire to ‘recover the primal outdoor scene of English literature’. As Esty points out, pageant-plays are also of interest to modernist writers – who are preoccupied with the role of the ‘artist’, be s/he painter, poet, or novelist – because they purport to be a democratic art form, turning everyone into an artist (and therefore rendering no one an artist in a meaningful sense). How ‘elitist’ is late modernism when we analyse Between the Acts as an example of Woolf’s modernist mode, given this desire to reflect a ‘democratic’ form of art? Or is Woolf, in fact, satirising the pageant play in Between the Acts, and so pooh-poohing the idea that art can be enjoyed by, and created by, everyone?
As well as such class concerns, gender, as so often, looms large as a theme in Between the Acts. Consider the gender contrast between Bartholomew Oliver, who represents the world of imperialism and capitalism, and his sister, Mrs Swithin, who represents the world of community and domesticity. We might say that Bart Oliver represents the individual (out for himself) and his sister represents a sense of community – community also embodied by that pageant-play that is at the centre of the novel. And yet at the same time, the very name of Mrs Swithin suggests an uncertainty about the future (summoning as it does not only antiquarian Englishness, St Swithin being a Winchester saint, but also the uncertainty at the heart of St Swithin’s Day: will it rain or won’t it?). Yet ‘Swithin’, containing ‘within’, also carries a sense of inwardness and interiority which is at odds with the masquerade and show of the pageant, but is in keeping with modernism’s interest in psychological states and the life of the mind.
How does this novel compare with To the Lighthouse, Woolf’s earlier novel? Between the Acts represents more of a collective consciousness than a singular or individual perspective – yet it is not fair to say this is a return to the omniscience of conventional Victorian fiction, for such panopticism (if that is not too strong a word to use when analysing the range of Between the Acts) is shown as inherently flawed and subjective, and not everyone shares this collective view. Note how different characters respond to the pageant differently, even though it portrays their shared cultural history.
There’s a symbolically laden moment in Between the Acts when somebody is heard practising scales on the piano, and the tune to ‘The king was in his counting-house’ emerges on the air. Woolf’s reference to this song bears out at least two important themes of Between the Acts: first, Woolf’s shift towards using collective, oral traditions of literature (folk songs, nursery rhymes, pageants) to explore collective consciousness rather than the individual consciousness that had preoccupied her before; and second, the division between men and women and their allotted gender roles (the male idea of empire-building and capitalism embodied by Bartholomew Oliver, and the female idea of domesticity and homeliness embodied by his sister, Mrs Swithin).
After the pageant is over, the gramophone ceases and we get the words Unity and Dispersity fading out – arguably two more of the themes of the novel working tensely together. Uniting (togetherness, collective identity, nationalism) and dispersing (fragmentation, individuality, the ‘artist’): modernism and late modernism, the individual and the collective. Between the Acts is an underrated late masterpiece from Woolf, which deserves close analysis and to be studied more widely than it is. It offers something different from its older sister Mrs Dalloway: whereas that novel was written in the wake of one world war, Between the Acts was completed in the growing shadow of another one. Woolf would not survive it. We sense that she knew Between the Acts would be her farewell, her swansong as a novelist. It is a pageant and celebration but it is also an elegy.
Woolf’s final novel is available from Oxford University Press in a very helpfully annotated edition: Between the Acts (Oxford World’s Classics).