Trust in the Future as Little as Possible: The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

I usually devour a 350-page book in a couple of days, but Woolf’s writing, both her fiction and non-fiction, demands careful attention and a slow read. It took me a week to read The Voyage Out, Woolf’s first novel that was published in 1915. She is just beginning to experiment with what will become her signature, stream-of-consciousness style. She pokes fun at the uptight, British upper class who, even while on holiday in a tropical South American climate, insist on wearing furs and formal coats and having tea every afternoon promptly at 5:00. Even though on the surface they engage in polite conversation about politics, suffrage, and social gossip, Woolf gives us a glimpse of what they are really thinking. She introduces us to Rachael, her heroine, by her own thoughts as she sits in her drawing room in solitude on her father’s ship:

To feel anything strongly was to create an abyss between oneself and others who feel strongly perhaps but differently. It was far better to play the piano and forget all the rest. The conclusion was very welcome. Let these odd men and women—her aunts, the Hunts, Ridley, Helen, Mr. Pepper, and the rest—be symbols,—featureless but dignified symbols of age, of youth, of motherhood, of learning, and beautiful often as people upon the stage are beautiful. It appeared that nobody ever said a thing they meant, or ever talked of a feeling they felt, but that was what music was for.

Rachael is a very naïve twenty-four-year old who was raised by her spinster aunts and her widowed father. Her Aunt Helen, who is also on the voyage to South American, invites Rachael to stay at her villa for the winter in the hopes of better educating her about life and bringing her out of her sheltered existence. When they land in South American, Rachael and her aunt socialize with the British upper class men and women who are staying at the local hotel. Among these guests is Terence Hewett, an financially independent twenty-seven-year-old man who likes to travel and dabbles in writing novels. Both Rachael and Terence have never been in love; even though they are mentally and physically attracted to one another they spend a lot of time drawing close and then pulling back from one another because their feelings terrify them.

Once they finally confess their feelings and allow themselves to be happy, Rachael and Terence start planning their wedding and have a few weeks of bliss. But The Voyage Out ends in tragedy. It’s a shame that the lovers wasted so much time before they decided to embrace what would make them both happy. Horace’s Ode 1.11, the famous Carpe Diem poem kept coming to mind as I read Woolf’s novel (translation is my own):

May you not ask to know what end
—for it is not right—the gods might
have in store either for you or for me
Leuconoe, and may you also not consult
Babylonian Astrology. How much better
it is to endure whatever will be, whether
Jupiter has allotted us more winters, or
if this is the last, the winter which weakens
the Tyrrhenian Sea with opposing rocks. May
you be wise, may you strain your wine, and
because life is brief, may you give up any
long-term hopes. As we are speaking, envious
time slips by. Seize the day, trust in
the future as little as possible.

9 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics, Poetry

9 responses to “Trust in the Future as Little as Possible: The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

  1. I really should get around to reading this. It’s taken me a while to get to like Woolf but better late than never….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jonathan

    This was the first book by Woolf that I read many years ago. I loved the way that the narrative slips between each character’s point of view. I’ve been meaning to re-read it for years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it to, Jonathan! I’ve not encountered very many readers who have tried it. This one seems largely ignored in favor of her later writings.

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      • Jonathan

        I haven’t read many of her other works though I keep meaning to. But this one was great. I’m a bit wary about re-reading it as I remember it as such a good novel that I may be disappointed but your review highlights its qualities.

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      • Thanks. I didn’t want to give the ending away but the tragedy is an integral part of the plot.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. “Seize the day, trust in
    the future as little as possible.”

    So that’s where it came from! Thank you!

    I found “The Voyage Out” much better after a re-read decades after myu original encounter. My first Woolf was “Mrs. Dalloway” and then I went back and read her books in order, but I think the contrast was too great. But this really is such a great book and I wish more people *would* read it!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. alilauren1970

    I always enjoy reading your book reviews. I have a love/dislike relationship with Woolf. I have read three of her works: Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Years. I really enjoyed Mrs. Dalloway, and I loved The Years even though the latter book is not admired like the others. I did not enjoy To the Lighthouse though. I would like to try The Voyage Out, as well as Jacob’s Room.

    I do really love her essays, too. I have quite a few collections and dip into them frequently.

    Overall, though, I just can’t decide how I feel about her fiction. I find that people either love her fiction or hate her fiction. And I’m torn! Of course, I don’t really admire wholeheartedly all the work of any one author (I mean much as I adore The Portrait of a Lady or Middlemarch, I also find other works by James and Eliot less enjoyable), but Woolf is one of those who has her die hard followers and her staunch dislikers (that’s not really a word but you probably understand me!).

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    • Yes, I know exactly what you mean. A lot of readers have a difficult time with stream of consciousness narrative. I think you would like The Voyage Out. It’s a shame it doesn’t get as much attention as her later works. Her essays and letters are favorites of mine as well!

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