In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle considers Virginia Woolf’s first foray into the novel
A sure-fire way to set the ‘klaxons’ off on the popular BBC panel show QI – where panellists have to avoid giving the obvious-but-wrong answer to interesting questions – is to ask, ‘Which Virginia Woolf novel first featured Mrs Dalloway?’ Of course, the question already feels like a trap, and Alan Davies would be right to be wary. For Mrs Dalloway (1925), perhaps Virginia Woolf’s best-known novel, came ten years after Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out (1915). And it is in The Voyage Out that we first find Clarissa Dalloway, albeit in a slightly different form from her later, more introspective party-throwing incarnation.
As you’d expect from a first novel, The Voyage Out, in terms of its form, style, and structure, is markedly less modernist than Woolf’s later works: it is generally accepted that her third novel Jacob’s Room (1922) represented the turning point in her novel-writing career. The trademark Woolfian style – the somewhat misnamed stream of consciousness, above all else – which she perfected to a fine pitch in later works such as To the Lighthouse and The Waves, is largely absent here. However, just because The Voyage Out is not typically modernist, that does not mean that it is not a modern novel. The novel does contain many elements which we find in her more out-and-out modernist work – use of free indirect style, experimenting with narrative perspective, and interest in dream-states and problems of vision – and it shows Woolf already attempting to write something different from other writers, especially her Edwardian forebears, the trinity of Bennett, Galsworthy, and Wells whom she famously rubbished in her 1919 essay ‘Modern Fiction’.
‘I want to write a novel about Silence,’ he said; ‘the things people don’t say. But the difficulty is immense.’ He sighed. ‘However, you don’t care,’ he continued. He looked at her almost severely. ‘Nobody cares. All you read a novel for is to see what sort of person the writer is, and, if you know him, which of his friends he’s put in. As for the novel itself, the whole conception, the way one’s seen the thing, felt about it, made it stand in relation to other things, not one in a million cares for that. And yet I sometimes wonder whether there’s anything else in the whole world worth doing. These other people,’ he indicated the hotel, ‘are always wanting something they can’t get. But there’s an extraordinary satisfaction in writing, even in the attempt to write. What you said just now is true: one doesn’t want to be things; one wants merely to be allowed to see them.’
Woolf had set out to write something different from her contemporaries, and so, for all its formal conventionality, The Voyage Out might be seen as (to borrow Christine Froula’s phrase) ‘a Woolf in sheep’s clothing’, as something other than what it purports to be. It may seem less radically different and experimental than her later novels, but there are still key ways in which it departs from conventional narrative: its emphasis on the everyday, on meaningless conversations, on the difference between what people think and what they say.
It is worth considering what Woolf’s attitude to fiction was, the better to place The Voyage Out within its context. Woolf’s friend Lytton Strachey greeted the novel as ‘very, very unvictorian!’ but Woolf was reacting against a ‘foe’ closer to home: the Edwardians. The Voyage Out was published in 1915, which immediately places it after the Edwardian era, which was dominated, for Woolf, by novelists like H. G. Wells, John Galsworthy, and Arnold Bennett (who is the only novelist I know to have a famous omelette named after him). The Voyage Out had been gestating for a number of years before its publication, however: it started life in a slightly earlier proto-form as the earlier work Melymbrosia, completed in 1912 but begun when the fiction market was dominated by those Edwardians whom Woolf found so unsatisfying as writers. In her essay ‘Modern Fiction’ (1919), Woolf put forward her views on these Edwardian writers along with some ideas about how fiction can move forward. By then, she had begun to see more clearly how her own fiction might move in new, more daringly experimental directions. The Voyage Out may be a tentative step in the right direction, but it was a step. And every journey, or voyage out, must begin with the first step.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.