Monday, July 30, 2012
Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf
It is June 1939, and Pointz Hall is a handsome house in the English countryside surrounded by trees and a lily-pond. Family and friends of Bartholomew Oliver, retired from the Indian Civil Service, have gathered in anticipation of the annual pageant. Soon the grounds will be swarming with eager villagers looking forward to the entertainment. The patriarch's sister (and one of my favourite characters), Mrs Swithin, is forever meaning to move to Kensington or Kew but each morning during the summer finds her pulling back the old chintz curtains in her room at Pointz Hall. A grand staircase winds its way throughout the house while the servants have a ladder. The maid, Grace, wears a print frock with an apron and keeps the tea trays busily employed while Mrs Sands clatters about making sandwiches in the kitchen.
Well isn't this a lovely picture of English country house domesticity? The arrival of even more characters ramps up the tension as Isa gazes dreamily at a gentleman farmer, Rupert Haines. She refers to her husband quite often as 'the father of her children' rather than any term of endearment. Giles is a stockbroker working in the City and has a roving eye of his own so we don't feel too sorry for him. Just as the reader settles into the storyline the sense of plot begins to waver a bit, details become more abstract and I had to work quite hard to keep up.
'Empty, empty, empty, silent, silent, silent. The room was a shell, singing of what was before time was, a vase stood in the heart of the home, alabaster, cold, holding the still, distilled essence of emptiness, silence.
Mrs Manresa and William Dodge appear as uninvited guests with a picnic in hand after seeing a sign advertising the play. Miss La Trobe, with her dark tights and thick ankles, is the producer of the event. She is a fascinating bohemian character who barks orders and direction from behind a tree and in the final act she stuns the audience but I won't tell you how. The play, about Britain through the ages, was charmingly well-timed with Danny Boyle's presentation during the opening ceremony of the Olympics but I digress.
Goodness knows there is a significant amount of analysis to be mulled over in Woolf's work. While writing Between the Acts England was in the very early stages of World War II, planes flying overhead Pointz Hall bring a sense of foreboding. Even the darting swallows of summer lack their usual cheery representation. Knowing that this novel was Woolf's last before she committed suicide I was intrigued by whether or not there would be any hints as to her state of mind in the months preceding. An eerie passage about a scullery maid cooling her cheeks by the lily-pond and a ghostly tale attached to it gave me the shivers...
'It was that deep centre, in that black heart, that the lady had drowned herself.'
When I finished the book I walked over to the table an plunked it down saying to my husband "I think I am a little bit afraid of Virginia Woolf". But over the past couple of days I keep going back to it, reading passages over again. Where do I go from here?