Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

After reading Alexandra Harris’ enthusiastic descriptions of the beauty of Virginia Woolf’s final novel in Romantic Moderns, I was at last inspired to pluck my copy from the shelf where it has been languishing for several years. I have a difficult relationship with Woolf; I read most of her novels when I was a teenager because I felt I should, but never really understood or appreciated them. I was more interested in her life, in her essays, in her diaries and letters; her novels, with their flights of fancy, stream of consciousness style and just downright difficult to read prose totally failed to light my literary fire. I didn’t see the point in them at all. I was far more interested in the suffocating clutter of the Victorian novels Woolf was railing against, and her feathery, daydream like novels frustrated me. To my surprise, I found Between the Acts nothing like I remembered Woolf’s novels to be. I am delighted to say that I have well and truly had my opinions changed. I found Between the Acts so hauntingly beautiful and utterly mesmerising that I read it again as soon as I had finished. It is a truly magnificent novel.

Set in June 1939, in a small village ‘three hours by train’ from London, the action centres on Pointz Hall, a comfortable manor house not grand enough for the guide books, but impressive enough to incite admiration in passing motorists. For the past seven years, the annual village pageant has been staged at the Hall, a tradition enjoyed across the social spectrum of the surrounding community. The novel opens on the morning of the pageant, and closes as night falls; it is a brief glimpse, but one in which whole lives are revealed – pasts, futures, hopes, dreams – through lyrical, insightful, hauntingly lovely prose that forms a paean to the England Woolf so loved. The pageant itself is a History of Britain; the audience are taken through eras of British history, from the Canterbury pilgrims to the present day, and they are each touched in different ways by the thoughts, memories and emotions these produce. Outside of the pageant, Woolf also explores the complex relationships of the Oliver family, the owners of Pointz Hall; the old Mr Oliver, his widowed sister Mrs Swithin, Mr Oliver’s adulterous and handsome son Mr Giles and his beautiful, unhappy wife Isa. Their sadnesses, fears, loves, memories and desires flow underneath the surface, expressing the uncertainty of the times as well as how history is made not by events, but by the power of human emotion. Woolf paints at once a broad and narrow canvas, impressionistic in the dreamlike quality of its prose but razor sharp in its understanding of the shared roots of human experience.

What is so marvellous about Between the Acts is how clever it is while still being so wonderfully readable and absorbing as a story. We are drawn into the love-hate relationship between Giles and Isa, we sympathise with the ageing Mrs Swithin and her  retrenchment to the sidelines of life, we laugh at the flashiness of Mrs Manresa, a dashing newcomer to the village, and we too feel a pinprick of tears at the memory of childhoods gone, of loved ones gone, of how transient all of our lives are. As much as Between the Acts is a love song to Britain; its history, its traditions, its idiosyncrasies, it is also an exploration of what it means to be human, to be impermanent yet an indelible part of history, to have your life and your emotions and your relationships tied up in a collective past and a collective memory. During the pageant there is a scene set in Victorian England; the religious nature of everyday life is mocked by these thirty years’ distant actors, their outlandish costumes of mantles and crinolines and bonnets deliberately meant to look absurd. For many of the older generation in the audience, this now maligned period was the scene of their childhoods; these religious and strict adults their much loved parents. It is not for them just a stereotyped set of dates, but a part of themselves. Anger and sadness swells in the old women who remember Papa reading in the fern and mahogany cluttered drawing room after dinner; ‘It was beautiful,’ one thinks. History is not something to be put into boxes, with periods of time dismissed as being like this or like that; it is part of a continuous experience, each era feeding into and informing the next.

Woolf is charmingly tongue in cheek throughout the novel, letting us know that the Olivers are still considered to be newcomers to their village, despite being at Pointz Hall for well over one hundred years – compared to the generations of ‘intertwined and intertwisted’ old families in the churchyard, they have no history there at all. She calls one of the main characters ‘Swithin’ – St Swithin’s Day in July promises to predict the weather for the next forty days – another British obsession. The pageant is incredibly cleverly written, with the final scene a particular triumph (I won’t spoil it). The mentions of servants’ superstitions, Meissen coffee cups, tea on the lawn, the sadness of views that outlive the people who enjoy them, Norman arches, new red brick villas in cornfields; they all express a quintessential Britishness while also providing an intriguing commentary on the rapidly changing ways of British life. While there is still a cook and a parlour maid, a local squire and a village postmistress, an uninterrupted view to the Folly that has remained the same for one hundred years and an ancient stone barn in the garden of Pointz Hall, Giles Oliver commutes to London during the week for his job, Mrs Manresa has a new red brick house in a field and a husband she never sees, Mrs Ball lived with another man while her husband was in the trenches and Miss La Trobe lives with another woman. Tradition and modernity are constantly rubbing against each other, pushing and shoving and threatening to destroy. However, in bringing together the whole community to watch this pageant of Britishness, all are united, despite their diverging ways of life. In this moment of celebration, they become one, standing together to sing their national anthem and rejoice in their shared past. As she wrote Between the Acts, a war waged overhead and Woolf could not know what the ending would be. As such there is a darkness and a melancholy about this novel, a constant reminder of the fragility of human life; but there is also hope and a sense of joy in the notion of commonality, of a shared history and heritage that no war could ever destroy.

Between the Acts is not as experimental as some of Woolf’s novels, but yet it is also nothing like her rather pedestrian early efforts. It is a perfect marriage between the two, providing a readable novel with a heart and soul as well as prose that has a mesmerising beauty so divine that you just want to dive in and swim in it. It feels profound, emotional, human, somehow; it is suffused with an elegiac urgency that is unique of its time period and this gives it an incredibly powerful resonance. I would call this novel a masterpiece; it has transformed the way I think about Woolf and has made me determined to reassess her novels. Do please give this a try; it is a truly remarkable work of art.

36 comments

  1. Splendid review as always, dear Rachel. The photo you included is one of my favorites; it was taken in 1894 when Virginia was 11 or 12; that is she on the left and the other young lady is her beloved sister Vanessa. Virginia was a passionate player of cricket and bowls until her dying day.

    1. Thank you Charles! Yes, I love this photo too – I saw it in a biography several years ago and was instantly charmed by it. It always seems so odd to see Virginia in such obviously Victorian dress when I don’t think of her as ever having belonged to that era!

  2. What a lovely review – I have always considered Woolf’s impossible to blog about, although I do love them, but you have shown that it is possible! I’ve only read one or two since I started blogging, although I have read them all once or twice – the thing with Woolf’s novels is that I never remember a single thing that happens, so they’re perfect for re-reading! I just find them beautiful reading experiences – she uses language better than any other writer I’ve read; her style is anything but concise or sparse, but it works beautifully. Language seems to leap to her meanings, rather than Woolf trying to find meaning through language.

    Since you loved this, I recommend you try (re?)reading Jacob’s Room next. It’s quite like Between the Acts, in terms of having hints of the fluidity of her most famous novels, but also having a more recognisable narrative structure. Now I want to go and re-read Jacob’s Room immediately… My favourite Woolf novel changes so often, but it might just be Jacob’s Room.

    1. Well how kind, Simon! I must say I did find the task more than a little daunting, but I am pleased that you think I have done her a reasonable amount of justice!

      I love what you said about language leaping to her meaning…so true. Her writing is like no other, and something that I was obviously not bright enough at 16 to appreciate properly!

      I have read Jacob’s Room, many moons ago…my copy is boxed up at my mum’s house but when I return I shall get it out and read it again. You have convinced me!

      1. Yes that struck me too.

        “Language leaps to meaning” not a reverse.

        I’ve read a bit – a lot compared to the norm with an English degree and
        whatnot – but not as much as you lot! Which means I’ve read no VW.

        Therefore can’t contribute too much blah about this and blah about that in regard to her work.

        However.

        Yes at first I thought that sounds lovely…she is the master of language
        because it bends around and down to her will, flattens and wobbles and blows like grass in the wind. In other words, her authorial presence is such that language is very much intermediary, almost secondary.

        And yet it is precisely language, and its use, which is the idea. So it can’t
        be secondary; on the contrary it is doubly foremost. She wasn’t, after all, a priestess in a grove channeling some ethereal message through the stricture of words. I make that remark, maybe, because just a few days ago I was discussing VW and we made reference to Freud who I think she once met. *Maybe* you could articulate what she does, and how she does it with language, in such psychological terms. I can’t say – because I haven’t read her! But I think there’s a danger making her too ‘statuesque’ – like some kind of priestess – when in fact what that rests on is a particular use of language.

        Hmmmmm.

        Could you say for example, her language is “poetic” and thereby escaping the expectations of conventional prose? (which in itself is not unique).

        Anyway, I promise I will read her some time partly to enjoy the language and blessings, two Jammy Dodgers, and a nice cup of Darjeeling to our lovely host for another nice post

        Now, back to the pressing reality of my Saturday…..eh what?

      2. Bop, you must try her. I think her language is poetic, yes – all the time she is straining against the conventions of prose, and that is why she can be so hard to read. Her novels aren’t novels, really, but works of art, experiments in language, in how far she can play with it and still have it express a story, albeit a loose one.

        Perhaps start with Between the Acts and then go on to Mrs Dalloway or To the Lighthouse.

        Hope your Saturday was pleasurable!🙂

      3. Bop – I stick to my phrase, because it had ‘seems’ in it! I know that cannot be what she is really doing, but when I read her it feels like she *is* a priestess, and that words lay dormant waiting for Woolf’s meanings.

  3. You are bad news for my bank balance and book-buying habit and good news for my inbox. I love your succinct reviews, but now I’m just wishing I could stop buying every book you recommend. The only good thing is, you’ve covered a number I own already. Long may that last.😉

    1. I am delighted that you enjoy my reviews and certainly not sorry that I cost you money!😉 You need these books in your life and what price is happiness?!?!

  4. Your experiences with Virginia Woolf mirror my own.I read her novels as a teenager, and failed to engage or understand, although I’ve always loved A Room of One’s Own. Recently I’ve read some of her essays, which I really enjoyed, along with extracts from her diaries and letters, which were fascinating, but still felt wary of the novels. Now, having read your post, I feel encouraged to try again. I can’t find Between the Acts or Mrs Dalloway (I think one of my daughters has borrowed them) but I’ve blown the dust off To The Lighthouse…

    1. I think that you can definitely be too young to enjoy or appreciate Woolf. I most certainly was, and that first experience ruined me a little. I should have waited. Don’t be scared – just dive in! To the Lighthouse is beautiful. I would recommend not approaching it as a novel, but as a piece of art…just enjoy the language and let the story wash over you…once you’ve finished, read it again – it will probably be better the second time around as you’ll have become used to her style and can relax into the prose a little more. Saying that I am still terrified of The Waves…I have tried to read it so many times and each time it defeated me. I must try again now I am older and a little better read as hopefully I won’t find it such a struggle!

      1. Hmmm. I think you’ve partially ‘answered’ the above, R.

        SATURDAY: Now Bop. Stop this. You must come back to me.
        BOP: But I don’t want to! Its nice here!
        SATURDAY: Bop, stop it. Come back.
        BOP: OK.

      2. Rachel – the way you’ve described approaching To The Lighthouse is *exactly* how you should approach The Waves! It is even more delicious, I think (although I would never recommend that anybody start Woolf with it.)

    1. Yes, it certainly doesn’t get as much attention as some of her others, but it’s a fantastic read nonetheless – I hope you get to it soon!

  5. I will put this on my list then, Rachel, as you compel me to give it a try.
    I have found that often books are read at the wrong time in life, and this sounds like one of them, or at Woolf’s books in general. Isn’t it exciting to find these treasures as we move along in our reading tastes? Another wonderful review.

    1. I’m glad to hear that, Penny! You are exactly right – it really does have to be a right time with some authors, or the magic just doesn’t quite settle. I am loving being able to appreciate authors more as I get older and wiser…it is one bonus to ageing I suppose! Thank you – I’m so pleased you enjoyed it.🙂

  6. I have now ordered it as I have read all the others. I can’t wait to hear what you thought of the Sybille Bedfords as I just love her having only discovered her last year. All the best from Cape Town

    1. Fantastic! I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did, Enid! Oh, I adored them…I have no idea how I’m even going to begin to write about them though! I shall have to get started before I’ve totally lost the thread of the plot!

  7. The only Woolf novel I’ve managed to finish, apart from To the Lighthouse. Now I’m going to read it again, once I’ve finished The Hunger Games (which my 13 year old daughter is forcing me to read, quizzing me regularly to make sure I’m not skipping). Lord of the Flies meets Logan’s Run meets Big Brother, with prose style borrowed more from the latter than the former…

    1. I think it’s definitely the most accessible of her novels I’ve read so far, James! (apart from the early two, of course). Yes…when I become a teacher in September, I fear I shall be forced to read those in order to ‘get down with the kids’…not locking forward to that in the slightest!!

    1. I think she’s definitely someone you need to come back to if you don’t get on with her the first time around. I was definitely too young and too poorly read to appreciate her work when I was a teenager. I hope you’ll give her another go, and glad you enjoyed the review!

  8. I have always felt exactly the same way as you did about Virginia Woolf – interested in the life more than the novels. I have To The Lighthouse on my list of re-reads for this year and I hope I enjoy it as much as you have Between The Acts.

    1. I hope you do, too, Joanne – Virginia Woolf’s prose is very unique and definitely an experience. To the Lighthouse is very beautifully written, from what I remember – it’s probably about time I re-read it, too!

  9. I do love this wonderful book and think it’s a shame it’s often overlooked. I thought your review excellent and really captured it. But The Voyage Out is NOT pedestrian! I can’t remember Night and Day very well, but reread TVO a year or so ago and it is lovely albeit very Forsterish I think.

    Sorry to be constantly argumentative in the comments! But if I am silent, you may be sure I am agreeing wholeheartedly with what you so beautifully express.😉

    1. Hi Helen! Glad you thought I managed to capture Between the Acts – it’s not an easy book to encapsulate in a short blog essay – I could have written about it for hours if I had the opportunity!

      I like to be argued with!🙂 Do you know, I haven’t read The Voyage Out since I was a teenager. I was surprised by its ordinariness compared to her other more experimental novels and felt it lacked the inventiveness I thought she was supposedly famous for. As such I doubt I valued it as it deserves to be, and am always happy to be told that I need to revisit a book (though Forster and I have never been friends – I have also been told I need to revisit him, so perhaps this is all part of the same problem!). Coincidentally, I happened across a nice little 1930s edition of Night and Day on Charing Cross Road last week, so I snapped it up and am looking forward to revisiting Woolf’s earlier fiction over the summer. Will I still find it pedestrian?! We will soon find out!!

      I am ever grateful for your contribution, Helen!

      1. I absolutely agree that TVO lacks the inventiveness of her later novels, and I can see if you don’t care for Forster this wouldn’t be a favourite! But I do think it’s very sensitively written and just a little bit magical too. Although I haven’t really forgiven VW for the fate of your namesake in the novel – why why why?😉

      2. Helen, the fate of my namesake really annoyed me. It felt totally unnecessary and also a bit of a Victorian novel stereotype. It soured the whole reading experience. I must revisit it though, and Forster. I give Edwardian novelists far too short a shrift and haven’t read much fiction from the time at all. Perhaps now I am older and wiser I will get on better. Forster especially I always feel bad about not liking. Whenever I say I don’t like him, people always rush to tell me that I’m missing the point entirely. So I think I should probably stick my finger out and give him another bash.

  10. I was in Key West, FL last week and found a Virago edition of One Fine Day (Panter-Downes) in a second hand bookshop. I was very impressed by it and think that one might read it as a bookend to Between the Acts. I have long been very fond of Between the Acts and am glad that you like it too.

    1. I quite agree Gina – what a fantastic idea! I hadn’t thought of that before. I love One Fine Day immensely and now you mention it, I can see the similarities. I now want to read One Fine Day again!

  11. Thank you for your good information , I need a synopsis of The Between the Acts based on romantic view , can you help me ?

  12. I searched under “between the acts masterpiece” and your post came up! I had a very similar experience reading this novel — I felt stunned by how light Woolf’s touch was while exposing so much. I am in a reading group in Berkeley, and we are coming to the end of a year of reading all of Woolf’s novels. I had read BTA in college and not grasped it at all — I had felt more overwhelmed by the cascading metaphors in the Waves. Somehow, this time, in my 40s and having revisited all of he novels in succession, I felt that with Between the Acts she is at her full power. It is so exhilarating to read and appreciate the way multiple perspectives, multiple time-frames, multiple desires and sensitivities, can all take place — do take place — in the same setting on the same day, wherever people gather. This book has opened me to experience in a new way. (Much as the Voyage Out and To the Lighthouse did — I hope you delved back into her others too?)
    Anyway, thank you! Great and clear commentary.
    I have (had?) a blog you might enjoy, which covered reading the whole of In Search of Lost Time over three years. It’s called readingproustinberkeley.com
    All best,
    Tom

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