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.