Review: Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

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 and World War II looms.

I don’t believe I’d even heard of this book before I grabbed it in the library the other day… Which is a bit odd or negligent, I’m not sure which, since I’m supposed to be studying Woolf in great detail this year. Those who follow me on Goodreads may have noticed I’ve been reading a heap of Virginia Woolf books this year, but I haven’t been writing reviews of them. That’s mostly because I’m not really all that fond of her and don’t have all that much to say about the books I’ve read (for reviewing purposes anyway), other than A Room of One’s Own, which I did like but feel a bit too intimidated to discuss!

I ended up quite liking Between the Acts, particularly the first half. I didn’t enjoy it as much once the pageant began, as I found it a bit hard to follow. Perhaps Virginia would have changed the structure a bit if she’d lived, but since Leonard says she wouldn’t have, I don’t hold much hope.

What struck me about this particular novel was the amount of quiet desperation in each and every character. This whole book is Woolf being quietly terrified and sad. There are some heartbreaking passages in here, which made me just bleed for her.

“But she had nothing. She had forbidden music. Grating her fingers in the bark, she damned the audience. Panic seized her. Blood seemed to pour from her shoes. This is death, death, death, she noted in the margin of her mind; when illusion fails. Unable to lift her hand, she stood facing the audience.
And then the shower fell, sudden, profuse.
No one had seen the cloud coming. There it was, black, swollen, on top of them. Down it poured like all the people in the world weeping. Tears. Tears. Tears.”

I also think that perhaps because this is technically unfinished and because of the mental state of Virginia at the time of her writing this, only two weeks before her suicide, it doesn’t have quite the tone of her other novels. It’s less subtle, while still being inherently Virginia. Perhaps this is why I liked it more than To the Lighthouse, I’m not sure. It was a much tougher read though- not stylistically, but because of that deep trauma. I picked it up expecting to finish it in a few hours, since it’s only 150 or so pages long, but it ended up taking longer than that.

What struck me while I read this was how painful it must have been for her husband, family and friends to read this. There were several spots where I stopped and just thought… “oh god, poor Leonard”. It’s that undercurrent of pain and desperation that make this book stand out for me, and I’m not even one who feels deeply connected to her or her work.

“It was in that deep centre, in that black heart, that the lady had drowned herself. Ten years since the pool had been dredged and a thigh bone recovered. Alas, it was a sheep’s, not a lady’s. And sheep have no ghosts, for sheep have no souls. But the servants insisted, they must have a ghost; the ghost must be a lady’s; who had drowned herself for love. So none of them would walk by the lily pool at night, only now when the sun shone and the gentry still sat at table.

I’m relatively sure I’ll go back and read this book again at some point, when I can devote more time and energy into reading it, assuming that I’m not so horribly sick of Woolf by the end of this year that I never want to read her again. This book demands more attention than I could give it this time around, but I found it to be a beautiful, though challenging read.

3.5/5 stars

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9 thoughts on “Review: Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

  1. This is going to sound like a crime, but I have never read a Virginia Woolf novel. Maybe Between the Acts is a good place to start seeing as its one you said you would return to.

    • I don’t think that’s a crime at all! I think if I didn’t have to read her novels for university, I wouldn’t keep persevering with her work!
      I think it’s actually not the best place to start, as the tone is really different and it’s a very emotionally draining read. I’d begin with Mrs Dalloway or To the Lighthouse 🙂 I’ve read Dalloway at least 5 times now for school and uni and my feelings on it have definitely changed as I’ve gotten older 🙂 her essays are also great, I particularly liked A Room of One’s Own. Good luck!
      Ps. My literary crime is that I’ve read no Dickens 😉

      • To the Lighthouse sounds good and so do her essays, I’ll start there. No Dickens? I thought I was bad, we should both be charged for neglecting historically popular literature. 😀

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