History: This is the first novel by Virginia Woolf, published in 1915.
Writing in 1926, E. M. Forster described it as "... a strange, tragic, inspired book whose scene is a South America not found on any map and reached by a boat which would not float on any sea, an America whose spiritual boundaries touch Xanadu and Atlantis" And, reviewing the book a decade earlier, he wrote this: "It is absolutely unafraid... Here at last is a book which attains unity as surely as Wuthering Heights, though by a different path.”
This book had a long and difficult gestation. It was written during a period in which Woolf was especially vulnerable. She suffered from periods of depression and at one point attempted suicide. The resultant work contained the seeds of all that would blossom in her later work: the innovative narrative style, the focus on feminine consciousness, sexuality and death. And there is more. "No later novel of Woolf's," said one critic, "will capture so brilliantly the excitement of youth." And also the excitement and challenge of life. "It's not cowardly to wish to live," says one old man at the end of the book. "It's the very reverse of cowardly. Personally, I'd like to go on for a hundred years... Think of all the things that are bound to happen!"
In 1981, Louise DeSalvo published an alternate, earlier version of The Voyage Out featuring its original title, Melymbrosia. Professor DeSalvo worked for seven years on the immense project of reconstructing the text of novel as it might have appeared in 1912, before Woolf had begun serious revisions. She reviewed more than 1,000 manuscript pages from Woolf's private papers, sometimes relying on organizational clues as small as the color of ink used or where the pen or pencil last left off writing. DeSalvo's Melymbrosia attempts to restore the text of the novel as Woolf had originally conceived it, which contained more candid political commentary on such issues as homosexuality, women's suffrage, and colonialism. According to Desalvo, Woolf was "warned by colleagues that publishing such an outspoken indictment of Britain could prove disastrous to her fledgling career". The work was heavily revised until it became the novel now known as The Voyage Out, which omits much of the political candor of the original. DeSalvo's edition was rereleased by Cleis Press in 2002.
Plot: Rachel Vinrace embarks for South America on her father's ship and is launched on a course of self-discovery in a kind of modern mythical voyage. The mismatched jumble of passengers provide Woolf with an opportunity to satirize Edwardian life. The novel introduces Clarissa Dalloway, the central character of Woolf's later novel, Mrs. Dalloway. Two of the other characters were modeled after important figures in Woolf's life. St John Hirst is a fictional portrayal of Lytton Strachey and Helen Ambrose is to some extent inspired by Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell. And Rachel's journey from a cloistered life in a London suburb to freedom, challenging intellectual discourse and discovery very likely reflects Woolf's own journey from a repressive household to the intellectual stimulation of the Bloomsbury Group.
Review: First published in 1915, The Voyage Out is Virginia Woolf's first novel. It begins as Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose embark on a sea voyage for South America. Throughout their voyage and once they reach land there are many characters that float in and out of the text. Indeed, one is not sure who the main characters are until halfway through the novel. Clarissa and Richard Dalloway, the main characters of Woolf's later novel Mrs. Dalloway, even make an appearance.
Once reaching land, Mrs. Ambrose along with her niece, Rachel, explore the environs and make friends with other tourists-notably with two young men, Hewet and Hirst. Here these four friends form several intertwining and interesting relationships that guide us through the rest of the story.
Woolf's style is striking in the almost exclusive use of dialog interspersed with short, vivid descriptions of the characters' inner thoughts. Through this innovative style she is able to communicate, among many other things, a candid and realistic portrayal of the act of falling in love and all emotions that come along with it-heartbreak and loss, desire and contentment, longing and questioning, quiet happiness and quiet despair.
Several interesting details in the novel will strike the modern reader, such as the almost total absence of interaction with the natives. Geographically, the location is supposed to be near the Amazon river system, but Woolf has imagined an Amazon where the natives speak a mix of Spanish and French, the mountains rise majestically out of the sea, and one lights the fire after dinner. While Woolf can easily be criticized for neglecting to research the technical details and for writing only about the upper classes and their manias, to dwell on these issues would be entirely beside the point.
Opening Line: “As the streets that lead from the Strand to the Embankment are very narrow, it is better not to walk down them arm-in-arm.”
Closing Line: “Across his eyes passed a procession of objects, black and indistinct, the figures of people picking up their books, their cards, their balls of wool, their work-baskets, and passing him one after another on their way to bed.”
Quotes: What did she feel? Did she love him, or did she feel nothing at all for him or for any other man, being, as she had said that afternoon, free, like the wind or the sea?