BETWEEN THE ACTS by Virginia Woolf | Review

In Woolf’s final novel, villagers present their annual pageant, made up of scenes from the history of England, at a house in the heart of the country as personal dramas simmer.

Between the Acts is also a striking evocation of English experience in the months leading up to the Second World War. Through dialogue, humour and the passionate musings of the characters, Virginia Woolf explores how a community is formed (and scattered) over time. The tableau, a series of scenes from English history, and the private dramas that go on between the acts are closely interlinked. Through the figure of Miss La Trobe, author of the pageant, Virginia Woolf questions imperialist assumptions and, at the same time, re-creates the elusive role of the artist. {Goodreads}

I think it’s safe to say that Virginia Woolf is most popularly known today for three particular works: Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927)and A Room of One’s Own (1929). These are the works I hoped to branch out from through taking a class solely about Woolf’s writing in modernist contexts this term, simply because I rarely hear any of her other writing being discussed. Among the titles on my reading list is Between the Acts, published posthumously after Woolf’s suicide in 1941. From letters with her editor and husband we have gleaned that she thought this to be perhaps her best work yet, although critics have often disagreed and have found it to be rather lackluster. After all, modern reception speaks for itself: How many people not studying literature today have actually read Between the Acts? Clearly, history has not favored it.

Yet I adore this novel.

A key component to understanding and appreciating the brilliance of Between the Acts is knowing about its context. Although the setting of the novel seems peaceful, it is actually set in 1939 against the backdrop of the start of World War II. A sense of terror, despair, and uncertainty lurks beneath the surface of the seemingly whimsical, humorous play that Mrs. Manresa organizes and gradually comes forth to the center stage as the novel goes on. There is a clear feeling of uneasiness in the audience as their ordinary lives continue on in the intervals of the play–literally between the acts (can I just say how much I love the title?). The juxtaposition between the violent context of the novel and the events of the novel itself could easily be overlooked by a reader without knowledge of the time period but are glaringly obvious and rather unsettling to a reader aware of life in England during Woolf’s time.

As always, Woolf’s writing style significantly contributes to the brilliance of her work. Not only is her writing beautiful, lyrical, and captivating, but she also writes in a way that pulls you in and keeps you reading. Woolf is well-known for her stream of consciousness writing, yet I think the main strength of this novel is her ability to provide snapshots of thoughts and scenes involving numerous different characters. While some characters are followed more closely than others by the narration, she takes care to dip in and out of a variety of minds. This novel is also quite different from her other works in that it suddenly takes on the format of a script partway through and continues to alternate between prose and script going forward. The result is a collage of a novel that feels much like the collage of scenes performed in Mrs. Manresa’s play.

My favorite part of the novel is the ending, both of the novel itself as well as the play performed within it. At the end of the play the audience has their reflections revealed through a display of mirrors, forcing them to look at themselves and see each other for who they really are. Is this Woolf urging England to evaluate and reflect on its own position in the world at the outbreak of yet another world war? As the audience disperses after the play concludes, the characters must decide how they will move forward. The last few lines of the novel tie everything together and make you think about the book in an entirely new light. Are we living our own play? If so, who has written it? Is it already written, or is it yet to be created? Whether or not Woolf intended these questions to be asked, I am grateful that this novel brings them to mind.

Overall, Between the Acts completely exceeded all of my initial expectations and has become–dare I say?– perhaps my favorite Virginia Woolf novel thus far? (I know, I know. It’s a bold statement.) If you’ve read the usual To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway and are looking for more remarkable Woolf writing, I highly recommend adding Between the Acts to the top of your list!

What are your thoughts on Between the Acts? Do you have a favorite novel or text by Virginia Woolf? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Advertisements

11 thoughts on “BETWEEN THE ACTS by Virginia Woolf | Review

  1. I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I haven’t read any Virginia Woolf’s novels. I am of course aware of her and am familiar with her writing but have never read any of her books.
    I do want to change that! 🙂 I love when an author starts building atmosphere of uneasiness and your review definitely piqued my interest in reading this one and other of her novels. Any book that will impose questions such as ‘are we living our own play?’ is a book I want to read. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve never read a Woolf novel I didn’t like, so I think it’s safe to say that any and all of her novels would be a great place to start 🙂 Do let me know your thoughts whenever you get around to reading one!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I will for sure! I want to read more classics in general I have been drawn towards war era so it seems like a perfect fit. Thanks for such a great review. 😊

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s