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Virginia Woolf: Between the Acts

This was Woolf’s last novel and published after her death. Though she wrote it and rewrote it, this was probably not the version she would have published had she lived. However, it is still a fascinating novel. It takes place on single day in June 1939, a time which, of course, in hindsight, is fairly significant. The theme is the staging of a village pageant on the grounds of Pointz Hall, owned by an old English family the Olivers. The pageant – an annual event to raise money for the church – is nominally a condensed history of England. Miss La Trobe, the author and director of the pageant, is just one of many slightly disjointed characters. Her pageant is, at first, fairly conventional but then she starts to mock some of the local values and ends by having the cast holding up mirrors to the audience to point out their foibles. This causes much unease.

However, it is the Oliver family that is most disjointed. The Oliver patriarch, Bartholomew (ex-India colonialist), is once again uneasily living with his sister, Lucy. His son, Giles, and Giles’ wife Isa, are clearly having marital problems. Giles flirts with Mrs. Manresa while Isa flirts with Mrs. Manresa’s companion, William Dodge, who is gay. All of these goings-on, of course, disrupt the pageant (hence the title of the book). There is no comfortable ending, unless it is the planes flying overhead warning us all of what is to come to England and her pageants. Instead, Woolf leaves us with a dark portrait of an England uncomfortable with itself and unsure where it is going. Her book also makes us regret her early death, for this is a work of a genius.

Publishing history

First published in 1941 by Hogarth Press