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From Pagan Harleman’s Introduction to The Voyage Out
At the age of twenty-five Virginia Woolf began work on her first novel, initially titled Melymbrosia. She had just lost her favorite brother, Thoby, to death and her best friend and sister, Vanessa, to marriage, and was feeling lonely and orphaned and angry at the solution people proposed: "I wish everyone didn’t tell me to marry" (The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol.1: 1888–1912, p. 274; see "For Further Reading"). At the time Woolf had never had a serious relationship with a man and was apprehensive about sex and disdainful of marriage, which she feared would require her to surrender not just her independence but her sense of self. She was also furious about women’s limited choices and their subjugated position in a male-orchestrated society. She poured all of these feelings and fears into her novel.
Woolf had high ambitions for her first novel; in a letter to her brother-in-law Clive Bell she vowed, "I shall re-form the novel and capture multitude of things at present fugitive" (Letters, vol. 1, p. 356). In Woolf’s later workmost notably the masterpieces Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Wavesshe succeeded in her goal of reforming the novel by developing a writing style entirely her own, one that used stream of consciousness and symbolism, not plot, to organize her material. These novels do not build to a climactic conclusion as much as they travel through a series of cascading epiphanies. In The Voyage Out, however, Woolf was still writing under the shadow of E. M. Forster and the traditional novel; she was not yet ready to venture into such new terrain. One can see her experimenting, slowly honing the style that was to become her hallmark, but where later she was fearless, here she is tentative, still depending on plot, not style, to drive the narrative.
On the surface The Voyage Out is structured around the tried-and-true marriage plot perfected by Jane Austen. A young, naive single woman, Rachel Vinrace, leaves on a voyage for South America and is taken under the wing of her more experienced Aunt Helen, who vows to educate Rachel in the ways of the world. Instinctively the reader feels the story will center on the question of whether Rachel will be successfully "educated" and assimilate into society through marriage. The introspective quality of the novel, however, contradicts this assumption; this is a story about not what people do or say but what they feel and how they experience.
The Voyage Out is also a meditation of sorts on three open-ended questions: What is love? Why do people marry? And what choices do women have in the here and now? Interwoven with these questions are several recurring themes, most notably the arrogant hypocrisy of the English middle class and the limits of communication. Woolf displays a light and ironic touch in several sections, particularly when she is satirizing English attitudes, but ultimately this is a contemplative novel about the solitary nature of our experience as human beings. Woolf signals her more serious intentions through an unconventional approach: She displaces the traditional marriage plot with uncertainty, confusion, suffering, and ultimately death.
The story of Woolf’s early life is itself overshadowed by uncertainty, suffering, and death. She was born in 1882 to Leslie and Julia Stephen, an upper-middle-class London couple. Leslie Stephen was an accomplished writer well known for his intellectual honesty, his atheism, and his stubbornness. He first married Minny Thackeray, niece of William Thackeray, and they had a daughter, Laura Stephen, before Minny died young. Julia Stephen, born Julia Jackson, was a relative of the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron; she had three childrenGeorge, Stella, and Geraldfrom a previous marriage to Herbert Duckworth, before Herbert’s sudden death. Julia and Leslie had four children of their ownVanessa, Thoby, Virginia, and Adrian.
The house, then, that Virginia grew up in was full and chaotic; there were eight children, two parents, four stories, and seven servants. Leslie worked at home, writing in his library, while Julia tutored the Stephen children in an enthusiastic but somewhat unsystematic fashion. In recollections of her childhood Virginia said she rarely spent more than five minutes alone with her mother, who was always rushing to attend to the needs of Leslie, the house, the children, or her charity projects, and yet Virginia recalled a relatively happy childhood. Her fondest and indeed her most primal memory was that of the waves breaking outside the family’s summer house in Cornwall, a womblike memory she vividly describes in her autobiographical essay "A Sketch of the Past": "It is of hearing the waves breaking one, two, one, two and . . . feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive" (Moments of Being, pp. 64–65). The vision of the sea as nurturing is prominent throughout Woolf’s work, and The Voyage Out is no exception in this regard. Rachel turns to the sea again and again when she is confused or troubled; she endows it with a mysterious but calming power, although water is inextricably linked throughout the narrative to both desire and death.
When Virginia was thirteen her childhood ended suddenly when her mother caught a fever and abruptly died. The whole family was crushed, and Leslie was all but inconsolable, but for Virginia the blow was devastating. She began to exhibit signs of nervous tension and to hallucinate, and then had a full-scale nervous breakdown. There was already a pattern of mental illness in Virginia’s family: Her half sister Laura had been placed in an institution; her cousin J. K. Stephen had gone mad and also been institutionalized; and her father, Leslie, suffered from depression. Clearly there was a possibility that Virginia’s illness was genetic and biochemical, but at the time mental illness was seriously misunderstood and mistreated. The family doctor prescribed outdoor exercise four hours a day, regular glasses of milk, and no unnecessary excitement. Stella, Virginia’s older half sister, who had taken over as matriarch, supervised Virginia’s treatment, and Virginia slowly recovered.