Anyone who has had to study classic literature knows which websites to consult for a summary of whatever book they’ve been assigned. For The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf’s first published novel, this approach does no favours to either the reader or the text, turning the story into a random series of events concerning upper-middle class Brits on holiday. Likewise, numerous essays and articles explain what the book is supposed to mean, and how I should think of it. A Bildungsroman. A criticism of Edwardian society and gender roles. A tribute, ironic or not, to Woolf’s friends, upon whom the main characters are apparently based. I could use any of these angles when describing The Voyage Out, but none would do it justice. You must experience Woolf’s fluid prose for yourself.
Is it worth the effort? For the most part, I believe it is. Yes, the characters’ old-fashioned behaviours seem awkward and yes, this narrative is not so deftly handled as those in Woolf’s later works, but the hints of budding modernism and feminism compensate for this. Juliet Stevenson’s superb reading of the audiobook made The Voyage Out all the more enjoyable for me.
The Voyage Out plays with the idea of a coming-of-age novel in its depiction of Rachel Vinrace, whose naivité suspends her in childhood until her aunt, Helen Ambrose, decides to bring her along on a trip to a South American resort. Unfortunately, almost a third of the story has elapsed before Helen makes this decision: several other characters must be introduced, and the stasis of Rachel’s life evoked by long weeks aboard ship. I quite liked getting to know Rachel, Helen, and the other travellers gradually, but other readers may find the slow pace excruciating.
The most frustrating part for me comes when Helen and Rachel’s storyline is dropped, somewhere near the middle of the novel, and the focus turns to a collection of people staying a hotel in the same resort town. These new characters have a satiric charm of their own, and Woolf does bring the two groups together eventually, but the transition left me disoriented. Perhaps, in her desire to subvert the conventions of Edwardian fiction, Woolf relies too heavily on character description to carry her message; or perhaps I am too far removed from the early twentieth century to understand it. Either way, the narrative does not move as deftly between events as it does in Woolf’s later, more modernist works.
Despite these drawbacks, I still admire The Voyage Out for its elusiveness. As I mentioned earlier, the academic approach can pigeonhole characters as representatives of this worldview or that, or decipher the symbolic meaning of music or water, and still I do not “get it.” I don’t feel that I have to. Instead of selecting one interpretation like a pair of glasses, through which to view The Voyage Out clearly from a single angle, I am content to hold it at a little distance so that I can turn it about and examine every facet.