Thursday, February 10, 2011

Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

Edition: Between the Acts

Woolf began Between the Acts, initially titled Pointz Hall in 1938. The process of writing continued through the Dunkirk evacuation in May 1940, the Battle of Britain, and the London Blitz. The book, set in the summer of 1939, is about as "of its moment" as possible.

Woolf's suicide in March 1941 left the manuscript without final revisions. Leonard published her manuscript posthumously later that year.  

The novel opens with Bartholomew Oliver, Mrs. Haines, and her son Rupert (a gentleman farmer), at the Olivers' countryside estate known as Pointz Hall. They are discussing a cesspool, and the year is 1939. Isa, the wife of Giles Oliver (a stockbroker and Bart's son) interrupts the conversation and her thoughts indicate that she is in love with Rupert. The narration skips to describe Mrs. Swithin, Bart's widowed sister who stays with them in the summer. Mrs. Swithin is fascinated by a book, The Outline of History, which details the history of the earth in geologic terms, stretching back to prehistoric times. It soon becomes clear that she is very different from her brother: he is rational, reasonable, and reads the Times, and she is pious, imaginative, interested in superstition, and reads about London in prehistoric times. Consequently, they get into a bit of a quarrel wherein Bart snubs Mrs. Swithin's faith and superstitious tendencies.

Isa interrupts Bart as he is reading the Times to let him know that she has ordered a fish but that she worries it is not fresh. In her mind, Isa repeats lines of poetry. When she glances at the newspaper, reflecting on how newspapers were the literature of the day and not books, she is for a moment imaginatively transfigured by some lines describing a sexual assault of a woman in the barracks. Meanwhile, Mrs. Swithin is preparing for an annual pageant which she puts on; the cook, Mrs. Sands is preparing in the kitchen, and some class tensions are revealed when Mrs. Swithin tries to help out in the kitchen. Mrs. Manresa, a cosmopolitan, gossipy woman who lives in London has stopped by Pointz Hall with William Dodge (a younger man whom she says is an artist, though he keeps rejecting this label). Though many of the characters at Pointz Hall resent Mrs. Manresa's forwardness and uncensored speech, she is a kind of breath of fresh air at the otherwise stagnant Pointz Hall.

Giles Oliver arrives at Pointz Hall. Giles bears a silent rage against Aunt Lucy because she seems "foolish, free" while he has ended up as a stockbroker. He would have wanted to be a farmer. When Giles arriges, Mrs. Manresa and Bart are talking about some old portraits, one of an ancestor of Bart's, and one depicting a lady which Bart bought simply because he had liked it. Some tensions are apparent from their seemingly lighthearted conversation; Giles is attracted to Mrs. Manresa's charm, Isa is jealous and feels love and hate for Giles at the same time, Giles feels hatred towards Mr. Dodge whom the narration hints is gay. Meanwhile, Miss La Trobe, the producer of the pageant, is busy directing the preparations. Miss La Trobe has sexually transgressive qualities, a Slavic look, and a mysterious occupational history--like Mrs. Manresa, they don't quite fit in with the rest of the villagers. 

The conversational tensions prove too much for Isa, who keeps thinking that she desires a beaker of cold water. Mrs. Swithin decides to get up and show the house to the guests; only Mr. Dodge follows. Mrs. Swithin shows Dodge the rooms where she grew up, and in a moment of intimacy, Dodge wishes he might confess his life to her, but he doesn't. While the two of them are up at the house, the pageant begins. It is to be a pageant which traces the great scenes of English history and literature, and a little girl begins, calling herself England. She is shortly replaced by a slightly older girl who is England at the time of the Canterbury Tales. Villagers sing in the background, and the history moves into the Elizabethan era, in which a play within the play is acted out. The play within the play tells of a baby left in a basket and an old crone in later years recognizing that the baby is the rightful heir. Between the acts, the audience shuffles, talks, laughs, and snippets are given of their conversations.

The end of the Elizabethan era is followed by an "Interval." The audience disperses as the grammophone repeatedly wails, "Dispersed are we." Giles, full of lust for Mrs. Manresa, and hatred for Lucy and William Dodge, sees a snake choking on a toad which it cannot swallow. He crushes the head of the snake and the toad, feeling that "[a]ction relieved him." The audience members commence tea at the barn; behind the scenes (or perhaps, "between the acts") servants prepare everything. Mrs. Manresa and the gentry are the first to take their teas. At the barn, Mrs. Swithin is fascinated by the movement of swallows up above. Isa continues to recite poetry to herself as others talk about what they read in the newspapers. Dodge looks upon Giles and seems transfixed by his virility. Mrs. Manresa, too, is interested in Giles and brings him over to the Barn--she feels snubbed, however, when Giles leaves the barn on account of avoiding Mrs. Swithin, who is there talking of swallows with Bart. Isa and William reach a kind of unspoken understanding, as they are both "seekers after hidden faces" (for both, their authentic lives are lived inside). 

The play begins again, with a Restoration comedy. In the comedy, an older lady tries to sell out her niece by getting a male conspirator to marry her niece and then share the niece's inheritance with her. The niece, however, runs away and marries her lover, and so the aunt asks her conspirator if perhaps they should just marry. The conspirator leaves her in disgust, and moreover, her servant leaves her too. During the play, nature supplements in the form of cows bellowing--the affect of their "primeval voice" actually helps retain the emotion of the play even when its words are snatched away by the wind. At the end of this act, Miss La Trobe frantically gets her players in order for the Victorian Age; between the acts, Mrs. Manresa and Giles go off together and Isa looks on jealously.

As the Victorian Age plays out, older women of the village remember bits and pieces of the era, trying to piece together whether what they were seeing was faithful to their remembrances or not. They note the loss of a community in the present-day. The pageant's representation of the Victorian era is satirical: a constable waves his truncheon, speaking of empire, English purity, and prosperity; a young woman confesses that it is her life struggle to "convert the heathen"; an older woman is obsessed about marrying her daughters off to the new clergyman. The gramophone blares out "there's no place like home," celebrating Victorian domesticity. 

The final act of the pageant is "present day," and for a while, the audience is left pondering why nothing is happening. They fidget, and Miss La Trobe panics that she is losing her audience. Suddenly, it rains, and once again (as with the bellowing cows), "nature...had taken her part." Following this, children rush out holding scraps of metal, using them as mirrors to capture the faces of the audience. The audience is indignant, and most of them turn away, except Mrs. Manresa, who uses the occasion to powder her face.   Miss La Trobe's voice rings out in a didactic speech which suggests that all are sinners, regardless of class or position in life, but that also there is kindness to be found everywhere too. She says that they are all "orts, scraps, and fragments"--to recognize this requires an act of humility. After La Trobe's speech ends, a clergyman hesitatingly gives his interpretation and collects money to go to the lighting of his church. After the effect that the pageant has had on the audience, his words seem inadequate and his project trivial. The audience eventually disperses, and as they leave, the people make critical remarks about the play, trying to assay its meaning and its worth. They return to their ordinary lives, speaking also of logistical issues like parking. 

Back at Pointz Hall, Lucy Swithin and Bart disagree again: Lucy would like to thank Miss La Trobe for the performance, but Bart thinks that all La Trobe will want to do is to seek shelter at a tavern. It turns out Bart is right, for that is in fact what she does. Lucy looks upon the lily pool, and imagines the lilies on the surface are nations: she imagines also the depths below, of faith, mystery, and the primeval past. The narration gives that the two of them will remain opposed to one another: "He would carry the torch of reason till it went out...For herself, every morning, kneeling, she protected her vision." Isa and Giles end the novel with their strange reconciliation--though she knows (and he knows that she knows) that he has lusted for Mrs. Manresa, in the dark, "they must fight; after they had fought, they would embrace." 

As many critics have noted, completed just before WWII, Between the Acts is closely concerned with questions of history, and history in relation to art. As Woolf's biography bears out, it was an anxious period of time for herself and Leonard--she had made suicide plans that were contingent on if the Germans should occupy England. We should be cautioned, however, against back-reading bleaker commentaries in Woolf's novel as prophetically critical and opposed to "grand" history; alongside revisionist critical accounts like Jed Esty's, I think that Woolf's novel reveals a hopeful turn towards "cultural solidarity" (even if it is a rather strange and cautious one).

And now to some more specifics on this. Miss La Trobe's pageant, which follows history through literary genres and subjects, deliberately opposes the history of wars, conquests, and commercial advances which are part and parcel of "grand" history. This tension between literary and grand history is loosely mapped in the oppositional relationships which structure the novel "between the acts": Lucy versus Bart, Isa versus Giles, Dodge versus Mrs. Manresa. Lucy, Isa, and Dodge are united in their contrapuntal attitudes towards grand history. Isa's focus on a fragment from the Times and digestion of this fragment into the world of her poetics and imagination resists the masculine, national, jingoistic ideology of the newspaper. Lucy reads Wells's Outline of History which offers another alternative history, one which traces primeval forces which underly all relationships and considers humans as part of rather than separate from nature. Though Dodge doesn't literally "read" as Isa and Lucy do, what he senses (or knows?) about his own sexuality counters the masculine scripts by which Giles and Bart abide. 

It seems, both in the momentary unity which Miss La Trobe effects upon her audience ("Dispersed are we, who have come together") made up of "orts, scraps, and fragments," and the intimacy which underlies Bart and Lucy's as well as Isa and Giles's quarrels with one another, that a kind of synthesis is possible. The final coming together of Isa and Giles which ends the novel is violent but it is the violence that is a necessary requisite for the embrace. The terms of such a cultural synthesis which the novel imagines is fraught, messy, and ambiguous, but nevertheless there.

1 comment:

Sylvi-Ann Og Tina said...

It seems you have good knowledge about this novel. I am studying for my bachelor in british litterature, and I am writing about Between the acts and coming up for air by George Orwell. My thesis is angeled on the project of modernity and how things were changing and the importance of the rural landscape. Would you be interested in helping me with my paper? I am afraid I feel a but stuck at the moment.