Monday, 16 March 2015

Virginia Woolf’s "The Voyage Out" turns 100: The Difficult Birth of a Debut Novel.


The end of March 2015 marked the centenary of Virginia Woolf’s debut as a novelist. Although she had already published a number of reviews and filled notebooks and diaries with her spidery hand, the thirty-three-year-old had been working on her first full-length fiction for around eight years. It had indeed been a difficult birth, an agonising process of editing, criticism and revision which took her through at least five drafts. In fact, the novel had been scheduled for publication by Duckworth and Co. a whole two years earlier, in 1913, then delayed as Virginia’s mental health plunged her into a post-marital, post-completion depression and anxiety. Copies of The Voyage Out finally appeared on March 26, 1915.

As a debut novel, it is a mixed bag, as, to be fair, most debut novels are. Telling the story of the young Rachel Vinrace’s journey of discovery on board ship heading for South America, it combines the lucid and beautiful prose we expect from Woolf, with unevenly drawn characters and the heroine’s frustratingly premature death. While the passages describing Rachel’s final brief awakening are skilfully handled, her demise lacks the poignancy of the eponymous hero of Jacob’s Room or of Percival in The Waves. The loss of Rachel provides narrative closure rather than resolution. And yet, this is a key factor of the novel’s Modernity; its refusal to try and make sense out of the senseless.

Woolf had first-hand experience of personal loss. Her mother died when she was thirteen and her father nine years later, after a lingering and difficult illness. Yet, as Claudius reminds us in Hamlet, the death of parents is a common theme in nature: it was the loss of her brother Thoby at twenty-six that left its mark on Virginia’s first book; her glittering, much-admired Cambridge graduate and future barrister brother, whom his adoring contemporaries likened to Johnson and nicknamed “The Goth” for his monolithic qualities. The siblings had travelled to Greece in 1906, where Thoby contracted typhoid fever and returned home to undergo an unsuccessful operation. The shock among his friends was profound. Writing to inform Thoby’s friends of his death, Lytton Strachey felt that “to break it to you is almost beyond my force. You must prepare for something terrible,” and “the loss is too great, and seems to have taken what is best from life.” Walter Lamb, later an unsuccessful suitor of Virginia’s, returned to Hamlet for comfort, stating that Thoby “was likely, had he been put on, to have proved most royal.”

From this disaster, new lives were forged. Two days later, Virginia’s sister Vanessa agreed to marry Thoby’s Cambridge friend Clive Bell. Shortly after their wedding, Virginia began to confide in her new brother-in-law about her “unfortunate” work in progress, then bearing the unusual working title Melymbrosia, which was apparently an invention of Virginia’s. Hesitantly sharing her ambitions to “re-form the novel and capture multitudes of things at present fugitive, enclose the whole and shape infinite strange shapes,” she took Clive’s advice to rewrite passages that were “immature” and “crude” and “jagged like saws that make (his) sensitive parts feel very much what the Christian martyrs must have felt.” Yet he was full of praise for her writing, which was more “beautiful as anything that has been written these hundred years” and left him “stunned and amazed by (her) insight, though… (he) had always believed in it.” The recent publication by Louise de Salvo of a reconstructed version of Melymbrosia bears out some of these points and shows how significant were the changes that Virginia made: no doubt Clive did The Voyage Out a service, if only in allowing its author to sharpen her literary teeth on his bones. He was a fruitful co-parent, but by the time of its completion in 1913, the thought of The Voyage Out’s birth contributed to Virginia’s increasing state of emotional turmoil.

Virginia had married Leonard Woolf in 1912. Their attempts at intimacy were disastrous and quickly abandoned, probably as a result of trauma Virginia suffered as a result of sexual abuse as a young woman. Through 1913, she experienced headaches, sleeplessness, anxiety and loss of appetite: she turned on Leonard and refused to see him, spending part of 1913 in a nursing home. “It is the novel which has broken her up,” wrote her supervisor Jean Thomas, she “thought everyone would jeer at her. Then they did the wrong thing and teased her about it… the marriage brought more good than anything else till the collapse came from the book… it might have come to such a delicate brilliant brain after such an effort.” 

Virginia was allowed home that summer but shortly after her first wedding anniversary, she took a potentially fatal overdose of veronal. Her life was saved by the prompt actions of a doctor friend, Geoffrey Keynes, but the road to recovery was a long one. The standard Edwardian response to a suicide attempt was institutionalisation. With her sister considering that Virginia had “worn her brains out,” Leonard made a promise to undertake the necessary care for his wife to prevent her being incarcerated in a home, potentially for life. Without that promise, The Voyage Out might have been the only work by Woolf to make it into print.

It was not until the spring of 1915, that Virginia’s health had recovered sufficiently to allow for the exposure of publication. Lytton had already read The Voyage Out and wrote to assure Virginia that Shakespeare would not have been ashamed of her characters, with the handling of detail being quite “divine.” Most of all, as he was writing his iconoclastic Eminent Victorians, he admired Virginia’s rejection of Victorian values: “I love too, the reigning feeling throughout- perhaps the most important part of any book- the secular sense of it all- 18th century in its absence of folly, but with colour and amusement of modern life as well. Oh it’s very very unvictorian.” Virginia was delighted, replying that he almost gave her courage to read it, which she hadn’t since its publication.

Soon the novel appeared in print, the long-anticipated critical responses began to follow. E.M.Forster’s review appeared in the Daily News and Leader, pleasing Virginia greatly with his comment that “here is a book that achieves unity as surely as Wuthering Heights, though by a different path.” Forster continued: “while written by a woman and presumably from a woman’s point of view, soars straight out of local questionings into the intellectual day” but he made the observation, which Virginia would take seriously, that her characters were not vivid enough. Another reviewer in the Nation praised the novel’s insight but felt the author was too “passionately intent upon vivisection,” inviting Virginia to try again with a second novel but wondering whether it would have many readers. This was balanced by the warmth of Allan Monkhouse’s response in the Manchester Guardian, who recognised that “beauty and significance come with Rachel’s illness and death” which was written with “delicacy and imagination.” He believed that “a writer with such perceptions should be capable of great things.” It was a “remarkable” first novel that showed “not merely promise, but accomplishment.”

Virginia would accept the challenge offered by the Nation. Undaunted, although not unaffected, she would go on to write eight more novels, as well as a proliferation of stories, biographies, essays and non-fiction, beside her many volumes of diaries. The Voyage Out was published to critical acclaim in the United States in 1920, and her mature works, particularly Mrs Dalloway (1925), To The Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931) secured Woolf’s place as a shaper of the Modernist aesthetic. Virginia was always sensitive to criticism, but perhaps not as much as has been suggested: it was the opinions of friends rather than strangers that affected her most deeply. It was not until the final years of her life, overshadowed by the Second World War and fears of personal failure, that the spectre of illness clouded her vision in the same way that it had in 1913. Most remarkable of all is that Woolf’s work remains fresh, challenging and innovative a century after the difficult birth of her career as a novelist. A hundred years after its publication The Voyage Out charts the awakening of consciousness and a grappling with the essential questions of life that is still relevant to a post-modern audience.

 My book on Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, "Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles: the Lives and Loves of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group" will be published by Amberley in May 2015:

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

An extract from Kristie Dean’s new book “The World of Richard III,” published by Amberley.

“My favourite part of researching this section was actually walking the coronation route. Somehow while tracing Richard’s steps, I stopped seeing the modern city and found myself focusing on the history.  At times, I almost expected to see the procession pass me by as it winded its way through the streets”
Kristie Dean

Once Richard decided to accept the citizens’ petition and take the crown for himself, he set events in motion that ultimately led to the Battle of Bosworth. From his grand coronation to his death at Bosworth, Richard had a short reign, but he is one of England’s best-known kings.

London: The Coronation

A grand and majestic exhibition, a coronation was an elaborate affair and had been for centuries. Richard has been maligned for his extravagance, but it is fair to state that he was only following in his predecessors’ footsteps. The procession was one stage of the coronation. It allowed the citizens of London to see the king leaving from the Tower. At the head of the coronation train were lords and knights, then the alderman of the city, dressed in vivid scarlet. The newly created Knights of the Bath would follow, along with other members of the train. Directly in front of the king would be the ‘king’s sword’, along with the Earl Marshal of England and the Lord Great Chamberlain.

                                  Tower of London, London. The White Tower rises in the distance in this view across the Thames.

According to Anne Sutton and P. W. Hammond in The Coronation of Richard III: The Extant Documents, the king wore blue cloth of gold with nets under his purple velvet gown, furred with ermine. Four knights carried a silk brocade canopy of red and green above his head. Behind the king rode more lords and knights. The queen, her hair streaming down her back, wore a circlet of gold and pearls on her head and rested on cushions of cloth of gold. She was carried on her litter by two palfreys covered in white damask, with saddles also covered in cloth of gold. Anne, her jewels glistening in the sun, was clothed in damask cloth of gold furred with miniver and garnished with annulets of silver and gold, and was carried under a canopy similar to Richard’s. Following behind the queen’s henchmen and horse of estate came the noble ladies. The women were carried in four-wheeled carts, pulled by horses covered in crimson cloth of gold, crimson velvet and crimson damask, fringed with gold.

Houses along the way would have hung rich tapestries outside their windows. The citizens of London would have lined the procession route, standing on streets that had been cleaned and covered with gravel. The procession was slow as it stopped in Cheapside, at the Standard, the Eleanor Cross and the Little Conduit, along with other stops where stations were set up for speeches and performances in honour of the king and queen. The procession route would have
followed those of previous coronations and would go through Cheapside, St Paul’s, Ludgate Hill, Fleet Street and then the Strand, ending at Westminster Hall. Here, the king and queen would have been served ‘of the voyde’, which meant they partook of wine and spices beneath the cloths of estate in the Great Hall. Afterwards, the monarchs would have retired to chambers to change clothes and then take an evening meal.

Westminster Abbey, Westminster, London. Richard’s coronation was held within the walls of the great abbey.

In preparation for the joint coronation, a stage would have been set up between the choir and altar at Westminster Abbey. Steps would have led up to the stage on both the west and east sides. St Edward’s Chair, with Scotland’s Stone of Scone underneath, would have sat here for the king, and a richly decorated chair would have been set up on a lower part of the stage for the queen. At the presbytery another pair of chairs would have been set up for the royal couple upon their entry into the abbey.

Early on 6 July 1483, Richard would have arisen, bathed, and then been clothed by his Great Chamberlain, the Duke of Buckingham. Dressed in his white silk shirt, a coat of red sarcenet
and silk breeches and stockings, covered by a red floor-length robe of silk and ermines, Richard must have appeared regal. He would have gone to the hall to be raised by nobles into the marble chair of the King’s Bench. Anne would have joined him here. She was dressed in a robe of crimson velvet with a train, kept in place with silk and gold mantle laces, covering her crimson kirtle, which was laced down the front with silver and gilt. Together, they must have looked an imposing pair.


… A lavish feast would conclude the coronation ceremonies for the day. The first course was served on dishes of gold and silver. Beef, mutton, roast, capons, custard, peacocks, and roe deer, along with many other dishes, made up the first course. Richard and Anne entered the hall dressed in fresh robes of crimson velvet embroidered with gold and made their way to the dais.

At the beginning of the second course, Robert Dymoke, as the King’s Champion, came into the hall on a horse trapped in white and red silk. He came riding up before the king and made his
obeisance. The herald asked the assembly, ‘If there be any man who will say against King Richard III why he should not pretend and have the crown’. Everyone was silent, and then in one voice cried, ‘King Richard!’ The King’s Champion threw down his gauntlet three times and then again made his obeisance to the king. After being offered wine, he turned the horse and rode out of the hall with the cup in his right hand as payment for his service. Afterwards, the
heralds and four kings of arms came from their stage. The senior herald announced Richard as the King of England and France and Lord of Ireland. The ceremony ended so late that the third course could not be served. Hippocras and wafers were served to the king and queen, and they departed from the hall.

                                                          The Author, Kristie Dean.

“The World of Richard III” is available to buy now on Amazon:

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Six Wives fly on the Wall: Six Key Moments from Tudor History.

To conclude my blog tour for my new book, “The Six Wives and Many Mistresses of Henry VIII,” I have been thinking about the key moments in the life of each of the six wives. If I were somehow able to travel through time and witness just one moment from the lives of each, these are the events I would choose. All you have to do to be in with a final chance to win a copy of the book is tell me which of these six you would like to have seen, as a fly on the wall. Enter your comment at the bottom of the blog and I’ll announce a winner on Monday November 3. Good Luck.

1. Catherine of Aragon. The Blackfriars Trial, 1529

I would have loved to see Catherine’s performance in 1529, when Henry summoned her to defend her marriage. She knelt on the floor before him, argued her case, then swept out of the hall, refusing to return. I think she would have mustered all her strength and experience as a Queen that day and it would have been almost her finest hour, although not her happiest one. It would have been wonderful to have seen the expression on Henry’s face as she spoke.


2. Anne Boleyn. The King’s Hall, Tower of London, 15 May 1536.

With all the different moments I could have selected for Anne, again I’ve gone for a sad one, but it is one that would allow me to listen to the evidence that was presented against her and witness her response. I wouldn’t just be watching her though, I’d be looking at all the faces in the room that day, as this process of condemning a Queen was unprecedented and it would be fascinating to see the reactions as her peers and friends lined up against her. We know that her former lover Henry Percy had to leave through “illness”; how many of those men were troubled by their consciences?

3. Jane Seymour. Greenwich, 4 June 1537.

Jane made her public debut as Queen less than a week after her marriage, which took place on May 30, 1536. Accompanied by a great train of ladies, she heard mass and dined in public at Greenwich Palace. It was on this occasion that Chapuys reported that she had to be “rescued” by Henry, whilst in discussion with the Ambassador, implying that she was overwhelmed or out of her depth. I would find it interesting to see just how Jane carried herself on this occasion, when she had the standards of Henry’s previous Queens to follow, and what stuff she was really made of.


4. Anne of Cleves. Rochester, 1 January 1540.

For Anne of Cleves, it would have to be that fateful moment when she was staying at Rochester overnight on the way to London. Henry arrived in her room unannounced, in disguise, and proceeded to embrace and kiss her. For Anne, it was a breach of dignity, from a large, uncouth man she did not know. Her reaction set Henry against her; it would be amusing to see exactly how she brushed him off, and the resulting embarrassment of the court. This was one dent to Henry’s ego he didn’t recover from.

5. Catherine Howard. Bishop’s Palace, Lincoln, August 1541.

At the risk of sounding like a peeping Tom, I would like to have witnessed the illicit meeting between Catherine Howard and Thomas Culpeper that took place on the royal progress of 1541. At the Bishop’s Palace, Lincoln, Lady Rochford helped smuggle Culpeper into Catherine’s chambers late at night via a set of stairs that led to an outside door. They both later claimed that they just talked for hours, and although they desired to consummate their love, had not actually done so. I would really like to know the truth of this secretive relationship.

6. Catherine Parr. The Proposal, 1543.

We don’t know exactly where or when Henry proposed to his sixth wife, but it certainly took place in the late spring or early summer of 1543. Catherine, recently widowed, had fallen in love with Thomas Seymour and was hoping to become his wife, when the King intervened, sent Seymour abroad and made his intentions plain. It would have been an incredible moment to witness, as Catherine struggled to reconcile her duty to the loss of her personal happiness. I wonder if she ever really considered the possibility of refusing the King. What exactly did she say to him? I would love to know.

Which of these six moments would you most like to have witnessed? Tell me below.