English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

26 March 2015

Marking the Centenary of Virginia Woolf’s first novel: The Voyage Out.

This month marks the centenary of the publication of Virginia Woolf’s first novel The Voyage Out. The novel was published by Duckworth & Co. on the 26 March 1915 in an edition of 2,000 copies. It follows the development of Rachel Vinrace on board her father’s ship the Euphrosyne on a voyage to the fictional South American port of Santa Marina. The novel satirizes British colonialism and society, and has also been seen as reflecting Virginia Woolf’s personal journey from an upper middle class Victorian upbringing; to the freedoms she was to experience as part of the Bloomsbury Group. The group had its antecedents at Cambridge University among the friends of her brother Thoby. After leaving university the debates and conversations of Cambridge were to carry on in the squares around the London district of Bloomsbury, most famously at 46 Gordon Square. One of the characters in the novel, St John Hirst, is clearly based on Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury friend Lytton Strachey, and perhaps through this character we learn something of the flavour of what Bloomsbury conversation was like, as Hirst discusses philosophy and life with his friend Terrence Hewett. In The Voyage Out Woolf also introduces the reader to Richard and Clarissa Dalloway. Clarissa Dalloway would of course reappear later as the central character in Woolf’s 1925 novel, Mrs Dalloway. Clarissa Dalloway also appears in a number of short stories written by Woolf in the 1920s.

Voyage out
Title-page of the first edition. Cup.407.c.37

The Voyage Out had a long and difficult journey itself. Hermione Lee in her biography of Woolf has suggested she may have begun work on the novel as early as 1906, certainly the novel is mentioned by Woolf in letters from 1908 where it is referred to by the title, Melymbrosia. The novel underwent many drafts and revisions over the years and was put aside for a period when Woolf was too ill to continue with it following a breakdown in 1910. It is the long development of the novel which allowed Woolf to use events and experiences in her personal life to be reflected in the novel. In August 1912 Virginia married Leonard Woolf. The nature of marriage occupies the thoughts of the heroine Rachel Vinrace and would likely have reflected one of Woolf’s own preoccupations at the time. Woolf also used her experience of illness during the writing of the novel in the description of Rachel’s delirium when she is struck down by fever.

The novel was finished in the spring of 1913 and the manuscript delivered to her publisher on 9 March. However, the strain of completing the novel led to another breakdown this time far more serious than that of 1910, occasioning Woolf to be cared for in a nursing home from July and subsequently attempting to take her own life in September. The severity of her illness accounts for the long delay between submitting the manuscript and the book appearing in print. The proofs of the novel were meticulously revised by Woolf, a task she was unable to undertake until her health had sufficiently improved.

Around the time of publication the Woolfs had been looking for somewhere to live outside London and had settled on a house in Richmond.  Because of Virginia’s incapacity, Leonard was left to make most of the practical arrangements of the move himself as Virginia continued to recover in the nursing home. Eventually they moved to Hogarth House in the spring of 1915 where, a couple of years later they established the Hogarth Press. The purpose of the press was twofold; partly to provide a therapeutic distraction for Virginia, and secondly to provide them with the freedom to publish more experimental works. The first publication by the press was Two Stories written and produced by Virginia and Leonard in 1917. However, for her second novel, Night and Day Virginia was again committed to using Duckworth’s, the publishing company of her half-brother Gerald Duckworth and an establishment somewhat conservative in outlook. After the publication of Night and Day Virginia was particularly relieved to be released from what she felt to be the restrictive nature of editors at Duckworth and her subsequent works were published by the Hogarth Press. The Hogarth Press eventually obtained the rights to The Voyage Out from Duckworth’s in 1929.


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