I had read “A Room of One’s Own” recently, but this was my first Woolf novel in a long time, and eye-opening. Some of the same questions that drive “A Room of One’s Own”—the assumed socially inferior relation of men to women resulting in limited access to education, the female “helpmeet” role in marriage, and reduced personal freedom—show up here. The characters discuss friendship, love, marriage, and wonder about how happy others are. There is an open question of whether it is possible for a man and a woman to understand each other, and even how far it is possible for members of the same sex to meaningfully connect. Each of the characters seems to be inarticulately searching for a way to bridge a divide, mostly without success. One of the most interesting of these is Terence Hewet’s meditation on the gap between love and marriage: he is sure that he is in love with Rachel Vinacre, but not sure he wants to marry her.
It would take someone more familiar with Woolf to analyze her perspective on these big questions about longing for intimacy—the characters in the book seem to take running starts and present different angle each time. My sense, watching them, is that, whether in friendship or love, human beings have a strong impulse to secure and possess the companionship of this or that person—so as to be understood? To not face life alone? Simply for the pleasure of being around someone who brings out the best in us? But I think the intensity of love, to be in the other’s presence, to obtain confirmation one is loved in return, is proportional to one’s drive to capture and hold, which in turn can probably be traced back to deeper beliefs and fears about life and oneself. Once the other is “secure” however (mutual expressions of affection exchanged or a more binding engagement created), the drive lets up, and then one is left to contemplate the necessarily imperfect human being, friend or spouse, to whom one has bound oneself.
One of the things I found most interesting about Voyage Out is what I feel sure is a silent conversation with E.M. Forrester’s Room with a View published in 1908. Both novels focus on the English abroad, where they form tiny enclaves in which their manners and rules seem arbitrary and bizarre against the native backdrop. There is also the sense in both books, I think, that travel changes people, particularly the young and receptive. There are many parallels between Woolf’s Rachel and Forrester’s Lucy Honeychurch—the impressionable ingénues whose education is unfinished until they fall in love. There are even a parallel “kiss scenes” which set both heroines spinning off on new trajectories, but in Forrester, this is positive and life-affirming, and in Woolf, the event is disconcerting, destabilizing, even disgusting. As a woman, Woolf has a much more ambiguous view of love and marriage in her society, which was both in some sense the fulfillment and the end of a woman’s individual life. There is a brilliant passage in which Woolf says of a newly engaged couple:
“From this they went on to compare their more serious tastes, or rather Susan ascertained what Arthur cared about, and professed herself very fond of the same thing.”
I still like Forrester better—there is a sweetness about Lucy entirely lacking in the character of Rachel, who I found self-centered, jaded, and capricious. Incapable, really, of taking a genuine interest in others around her because she is so absorbed by her own impatient, intensely moody reflections. As a whole, I found Voyage Out ungainly: a set of characters is introduced on board ship, only to be replaced by a larger set of characters once they settle in South America, and the perspective hops so many times that it is difficult for me to say what or even whom the novel is about, although life is like that too. I have to give Woolf tremendous credit for mentally inhabiting so many different perspectives. She has a remarkable gift for language and description—I found myself many time thinking of the disturbing vibrancy of a Van Gogh landscape—and I appreciate the multiple perspectives and focus on subjective experience. There is a passage at the end in which Rachel is feverish which in its sensitivity to inner experience is easily comparable to Proust:
“…Rachel woke to find herself in the midst of one of those interminable nights which do not end at twelve, but go on into the double figures—thirteen, fourteen, and so on until they reach the twenties, and then the thirties, and then the forties.”
I’m still not sure how to read the relationship between Hewet and Rachel, which must be central to the book. There are sections, particularly as they wander through the Amazonian rain forest and profess their love that reminded me of Wagner’s Tristan & Iseult: an almost choking surfeit of passion, a fantastical merging of identities. The rest of “Voyage Out” was so hard-headed about marriage and the possibility of lasting happiness in human relationships that I didn’t know if this was meant to be read from a distance by the reader, watching two characters naïvely swim about in their own projected dreams, or whether this really was Woolf’s own version of a really happy couple in love, if only they can keep hold of it. The book was published in 1915, and Woolf was married in 1912, which left me wondering about how her experience of love and marriage was worked into the novel.