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.