Aboard her father’s cargo ship, young Rachel Vinrace meets Helen and Ridley Ambrose, her aunt and uncle, who invite her to join them at a South American resort for the winter. Shy and introspective, Rachel tentatively agrees, and soon finds herself on a voyage of liberation and self-discovery as she experiences the excitement and calamity of young love.
With an appearance by Clarissa Dalloway—and a fateful encounter between her husband and Rachel—Virginia Woolf’s debut novel anticipates the groundbreaking brilliance of her later works while displaying all their wit, insight, and heartbreaking sensitivity.
“For all its tragic interest, The Voyage Out is not low-keyed; it even has a slight buoyancy of tone, as if clear perception itself brought a continual zest to its writer. Woolf has the diversity of power which makes the great writer of narrative.” —New Republic
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About the Author
Date of Birth:January 25, 1882
Date of Death:March 28, 1941
Place of Birth:London
Place of Death:Sussex, England
Read an Excerpt
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. If you persist, lawyers' clerks will have to make flying leaps into the mud; young lady typists will have to fidget behind you. In the streets of London where beauty goes unregarded, eccentricity must pay the penalty, and it is better not to be very tall, to wear a long blue cloak, or to beat the air with your left hand.
One afternoon in the beginning of October when the traffic was becoming brisk a tall man strode along the edge of the pavement with a lady on his arm. Angry glances struck upon their backs. The small, agitated figures – for in comparison with this couple most people looked small – decorated with fountain pens, and burdened with despatch-boxes, had appointments to keep, and drew a weekly salary, so that there was some reason for the unfriendly stare which was bestowed upon Mr. Ambrose's height and upon Mrs. Ambrose's cloak. But some enchantment had put both man and woman beyond the reach of malice and unpopularity. In his case one might guess from the moving lips that it was thought; and in hers from the eyes fixed stonily straight in front of her at a level above the eyes of most that it was sorrow. It was only by scorning all she met that she kept herself from tears, and the friction of people brushing past her was evidently painful. After watching the traffic on the Embankment for a minute or two with a stoical gaze she twitched her husband's sleeve, and they crossed between the swift discharge of motor cars. When they were safe on the further side, she gently withdrew her arm from his, allowing her mouth at the same time to relax, to tremble; then tears rolled down, and, leaning her elbows on the balustrade, she shielded her face from the curious. Mr. Ambrose attempted consolation; he patted her shoulder; but she showed no signs of admitting him, and feeling it awkward to stand beside a grief that was greater than his, he crossed his arms behind him, and took a turn along the pavement.
The embankment juts out in angles here and there, like pulpits; instead of preachers, however, small boys occupy them, dangling string, dropping pebbles, or launching wads of paper for a cruise. With their sharp eye for eccentricity, they were inclined to think Mr. Ambrose awful; but the quickest witted cried 'Bluebeard!' as he passed. In case they should proceed to tease his wife, Mr. Ambrose flourished his stick at them, upon which they decided that he was grotesque merely, and four instead of one cried 'Bluebeard!' in chorus.
Although Mrs. Ambrose stood quite still, much longer than is natural, the little boys let her be. Some one is always looking into the river near Waterloo Bridge; a couple will stand there talking for half an hour on a fine afternoon; most people, walking for pleasure, contemplate for three minutes; when, having compared the occasion with other occasions, or made some sentence, they pass on. Sometimes the flats and churches and hotels of Westminster are like the outlines of Constantinople in a mist; sometimes the river is an opulent purple, sometimes mud-coloured, sometimes sparkling blue like the sea. It is always worth while to look down and see what is happening. But this lady looked neither up nor down; the only thing she had seen, since she stood there, was a circular iridescent patch slowly floating past with a straw in the middle of it. The straw and the patch swam again and again behind the tremulous medium of a great welling tear, and the tear rose and fell and dropped into the river. Then there struck close upon her ears –
Lars Porsena of Clusium By the nine Gods he swore –
and then more faintly, as if the speaker had passed her on his walk –
That the Great House of Tarquin Should suffer wrong no more.
Yes, she knew she must go back to all that, but at present she must weep. Screening her face she sobbed more steadily than she had yet done, her shoulders rising and falling with great regularity. It was this figure that her husband saw when, having reached the polished Sphinx, having entangled himself with a man selling picture postcards, he turned; the stanza instantly stopped. He came up to her, laid his hand on her shoulder, and said, 'Dearest.' His voice was supplicating. But she shut her face away from him, as much as to say, 'You can't possibly understand.'
As he did not leave her, however, she had to wipe her eyes, and to raise them to the level of the factory chimneys on the other bank. She saw also the arches of Waterloo Bridge and the carts moving across them, like the line of animals in a shooting gallery. They were seen blankly, but to see anything was of course to end her weeping and begin to walk.
'I would rather walk,' she said, her husband having hailed a cab already occupied by two city men.
The fixity of her mood was broken by the action of walking. The shooting motor cars, more like spiders in the moon than terrestrial objects, the thundering drays, the jingling hansoms, and little black broughams, made her think of the world she lived in. Somewhere up there above the pinnacles where the smoke rose in a pointed hill, her children were now asking for her, and getting a soothing reply. As for the mass of streets, squares, and public buildings which parted them, she only felt at this moment how little London had done to make her love it, although thirty of her forty years had been spent in a street. She knew how to read the people who were passing her; there were the rich who were running to and from each others' houses at this hour; there were the bigoted workers driving in a straight line to their offices; there were the poor who were unhappy and rightly malignant. Already, though there was sunlight in the haze, tattered old men and women were nodding off to sleep upon the seats. When one gave up seeing the beauty that clothed things, this was the skeleton beneath.
A fine rain now made her still more dismal; vans with the odd names of those engaged in odd industries – Sprules, Manufacturer of Saw-dust; Grabb, to whom no piece of waste paper comes amiss – fell flat as a bad joke; bold lovers, sheltered behind one cloak, seemed to her sordid, past their passion; the flower women, a contented company, whose talk is always worth hearing, were sodden hags; the red, yellow, and blue flowers, whose heads were pressed together, would not blaze. Moreover, her husband walking with a quick rhythmic stride, jerking his free hand occasionally, was either a Viking or a stricken Nelson; the sea-gulls had changed his note.
'Ridley, shall we drive? Shall we drive, Ridley?' Mrs. Ambrose had to speak sharply; by this time he was far away.
The cab, by trotting steadily along the same road soon withdrew them from the West End, and plunged them into London. It appeared that this was a great manufacturing place, where the people were engaged in making things, as though the West End, with its electric lamps, its vast plate-glass windows all shining yellow, its carefully-finished houses, and tiny live figures trotting on the pavement, or bowled along on wheels in the road, was the finished work. It appeared to her a very small bit of work for such an enormous factory to have made. For some reason it appeared to her as a small golden tassel on the edge of a vast black cloak.
Observing that they passed no other hansom cab, but only vans and waggons, and that not one of the thousand men and women she saw was either a gentleman or a lady, Mrs. Ambrose understood that after all it is the ordinary thing to be poor, and that London is the city of innumerable poor people. Startled by this discovery and seeing herself pacing a circle all the days of her life round Piccadilly Circus she was greatly relieved to pass a building put up by the London County Council for Night Schools.
'Lord, how gloomy it is!' her husband groaned. 'Poor creatures!' What with misery for her children, the poor, and the rain, her mind was like a wound exposed to dry in the air.
At this point the cab stopped, for it was in danger of being crushed like an egg-shell. The wide Embankment which had had room for cannonballs and squadrons, had now shrunk to a cobbled lane steaming with smells of malt and oil and blocked by waggons. While her husband read the placards pasted on the brick announcing the hours at which certain ships would sail for Scotland, Mrs. Ambrose did her best to find information. From a world exclusively occupied in feeding waggons with sacks, half obliterated too in a fine yellow fog, they got neither help nor attention. It seemed a miracle when an old man approached, guessed their condition, and proposed to row them out to their ship in the little boat which he kept moored at the bottom of a flight of steps. With some hesitation they trusted themselves to him, took their places, and were soon waving up and down upon the water, London having shrunk to two lines of buildings on either side of them, square buildings and oblong buildings placed in rows like a child's avenue of bricks.
The river, which had a certain amount of troubled yellow light in it, ran with great force; bulky barges floated down swiftly escorted by tugs; police boats shot past everything; the wind went with the current. The open rowing-boat in which they sat bobbed and curtseyed across the line of traffic. In mid-stream the old man stayed his hands upon the oars, and as the water rushed past them, remarked that once he had taken many passengers across, where now he took scarcely any. He seemed to recall an age when his boat, moored among rushes, carried delicate feet across to lawns at Rotherhithe.
'They want bridges now,' he said, indicating the monstrous outline of the Tower Bridge. Mournfully Helen regarded him, who was putting water between her and her children. Mournfully she gazed at the ship they were approaching; anchored in the middle of the stream they could dimly read her name – Euphrosyne.
Very dimly in the falling dusk they could see the lines of the rigging, the masts and the dark flag which the breeze blew out squarely behind.
As the little boat sidled up to the steamer, and the old man shipped his oars, he remarked once more pointing above, that ships all the world over flew that flag the day they sailed. In the minds of both the passengers the blue flag appeared a sinister token, and this the moment for presentiments, but nevertheless they rose, gathered their things together, and climbed on deck.
Down in the saloon of her father's ship, Miss Rachel Vinrace, aged twenty-four, stood waiting her uncle and aunt nervously. To begin with, though nearly related, she scarcely remembered them; to go on with, they were elderly people, and finally, as her father's daughter she must be in some sort prepared to entertain them. She looked forward to seeing them as civilised people generally look forward to the first sight of civilised people, as though they were of the nature of an approaching physical discomfort, – a tight shoe or a draughty window. She was already unnaturally braced to receive them. As she occupied herself in laying forks severely straight by the side of knives, she heard a man's voice saying gloomily: 'On a dark night one would fall down these stairs head foremost,' to which a woman's voice added, 'And be killed.'
As she spoke the last words the woman stood in the doorway. Tall, large-eyed, draped in purple shawls, Mrs. Ambrose was romantic and beautiful; not perhaps sympathetic, for her eyes looked straight and considered what they saw. Her face was much warmer than a Greek face; on the other hand it was much bolder than the face of the usual pretty Englishwoman.
'Oh, Rachel, how d'you do,' she said, shaking hands.
'How are you, dear,' said Mr. Ambrose, inclining his forehead to be kissed. His niece instinctively liked his thin angular body, and the big head with its sweeping features, and the acute, innocent eyes.
'Tell Mr. Pepper,' Rachel bade the servant. Husband and wife then sat down on one side of the table, with their niece opposite to them.
'My father told me to begin,' she explained. 'He is very busy with the men ... You know Mr. Pepper?'
A little man who was bent as some trees are by a gale on one side of them had slipped in. Nodding to Mr. Ambrose, he shook hands with Helen.
'Draughts,' he said, erecting the collar of his coat.
'You are still rheumatic?' asked Helen. Her voice was low and seductive, though she spoke absently enough, the sight of town and river being still present to her mind.
'Once rheumatic, always rheumatic, I fear,' he replied. 'To some extent it depends on the weather, though not so much as people are apt to think.'
'One does not die of it, at any rate,' said Helen.
'As a general rule – no,' said Mr. Pepper.
'Soup, Uncle Ridley?' asked Rachel.
'Thank you, dear,' he said, and, as he held his plate out, sighed audibly, 'Ah! she's not like her mother.' Helen was just too late in thumping her tumbler on the table to prevent Rachel from hearing, and from blushing scarlet with embarrassment.
'The way servants treat flowers!' she said hastily. She drew a green vase with a crinkled lip towards her, and began pulling out the tight little chrysanthemums, which she laid on the table-cloth, arranging them fastidiously side by side.
There was a pause.
'You knew Jenkinson, didn't you, Ambrose?' asked Mr. Pepper across the table.
'Jenkinson of Peterhouse?'
'He's dead,' said Mr. Pepper.
'Ah, dear! – I knew him – ages ago,' said Ridley. 'He was the hero of the punt accident, you remember? A queer card. Married a young woman out of a tobacconist's, and lived in the Fens – never heard what became of him.'
'Drink – drugs,' said Mr. Pepper with sinister conciseness. 'He left a commentary. Hopeless muddle, I'm told.'
'The man had really great abilities,' said Ridley.
'His introduction to Jellaby holds its own still,' went on Mr. Pepper, 'which is surprising, seeing how text-books change.'
'There was a theory about the planets, wasn't there?' asked Ridley.
'A screw loose somewhere, no doubt of it,' said Mr. Pepper, shaking his head.
Now a tremor ran through the table, and a light outside swerved. At the same time an electric bell rang sharply again and again.
'We're off,' said Ridley.
A slight but perceptible wave seemed to roll beneath the floor; then it sank; then another came, more perceptible. Lights slid right across the uncurtained window. The ship gave a loud melancholy moan.
'We're off!' said Mr. Pepper. Other ships, as sad as she, answered her outside on the river. The chuckling and hissing of water could be plainly heard, and the ship heaved so that the steward bringing plates had to balance himself as he drew the curtain. There was a pause.
'Jenkinson of Cats – d'you still keep up with him?' asked Ambrose.
'As much as one ever does,' said Mr. Pepper. 'We meet annually. This year he has had the misfortune to lose his wife, which made it painful, of course.'
'Very painful,' Ridley agreed.
'There's an unmarried daughter who keeps house for him, I believe, but it's never the same, not at his age.'
Both gentlemen nodded sagely as they carved their apples.
'There was a book, wasn't there?' Ridley enquired.
'There was a book, but there never will be a book,' said Mr. Pepper with such fierceness that both ladies looked up at him.
'There never will be a book, because some one else has written it for him,' said Mr. Pepper with considerable acidity. 'That's what comes of putting things off, and collecting fossils, and sticking Norman arches on one's pigsties.'
'I confess I sympathise,' said Ridley with a melancholy sigh. 'I have a weakness for people who can't begin.'
'... The accumulations of a lifetime wasted,' continued Mr. Pepper. 'He had accumulations enough to fill a barn.'
'It's a vice that some of us escape,' said Ridley. 'Our friend Miles has another work out to-day.'
Mr. Pepper gave an acid little laugh. 'According to my calculations,' he said, 'he has produced two volumes and a half annually, which, allowing for time spent in the cradle and so forth, shows a commendable industry.'
'Yes, the old Master's saying of him has been pretty well realised,' said Ridley.
'A way they had,' said Mr. Pepper. 'You know the Bruce collection? – not for publication, of course.'
'I should suppose not,' said Ridley significantly. 'For a Divine he was – remarkably free.'
'The Pump in Neville's Row, for example?' enquired Mr. Pepper.
'Precisely,' said Ambrose.
Each of the ladies, being after the fashion of their sex, highly trained in promoting men's talk without listening to it, could think – about the education of children, about the use of fog sirens in an opera – without betraying herself. Only it struck Helen that Rachel was perhaps too still for a hostess, and that she might have done something with her hands.
'Perhaps –?' she said at length, upon which they rose and left, vaguely to the surprise of the gentlemen, who had either thought them attentive or had forgotten their presence.(Continues…)
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Reading Group Guide
1. Do you consider Rachel Vinrace a sympathetic character? Why or why not? Discuss Michael Cunningham's reading of her as "an engine of perception."
2. Critics have compared The Voyage Out to Jane Austen's novels, since both involve marriage plots. In what ways are they similar? Different?
3. Both Susan Warrington and Rachel receive marriage proposals in Santa Marina. Compare the attitudes each has toward marriage. How is each woman's social predicament different?
4. In his Introduction, Michael Cunningham writes that it was Woolf's conviction that "what's important in a life, what remains at its end, is less likely to be its supposed climaxes than its unexpected moments of awareness, often arising out of unremarkable experience, so deeply personal they can rarely be explained." Consider this notion in light of Rachel's character. What moments of awareness does Rachel experience? Compare her moments of awareness with those of another character, for instance, Helen Ambrose. What similarities or differences can you draw from the comparison?
5. Discuss the significance of the novel's title. To which "voyage" do you think it refers?
6. In Chapter XVIII, Terence considers the sacrifices women must make in marriage. He then resolves that Rachel, if she will marry him, will be "free, like the wind or the sea." In what ways does his later behavior indicate this may not be the case?
7. Why, ultimately, do you think Rachel dies? What effect does her death have on the novel's structure?
8. In her essay "Modern Fiction," which she published a decade after the publication of The Voyage Out, Woolf writes, "Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." To what extent do you think The Voyage Out adheres to this vision?