Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

The Voyage out as Voyage In: Exotic Realism, Romance and Modernism

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

The Voyage out as Voyage In: Exotic Realism, Romance and Modernism

Article excerpt

Three characteristics featured in the contemporary reviews of Woolf's first novel: its feminine character, its disjointedness and, arguably, failed aesthetic execution, and the fact that The Voyage Out was, in fact, a voyage in. "[N]ever was a book more feminine, more recklessly feminine," wrote the Times Literary Supplement on 1 April 1915, tracing its femininity through its emotional and artistic diversity in particular (Majumdar 49-50). Its move from cleverness to sentimentality, cynicism to wit, frivolity to tragedy is in the end considered by the reviewer a "failure of design," a verdict many other reviews directed at the novel. The Morning Post called the novel "bewildering" and its incidents "disconnected" (Majumdar 51); the latter assessment was picked up by the Athenaeum, which considered incidents "too loosely put together, and [with] a great deal of superfluous material" (Majumdar 59). "[T]he framework is so clumsily constructed," wrote author W. H. Hudson to Edward Garnett, a reader for Gerald Duckworth who had published the novel (Majumdar 61), and the Nation came to the conclusion that "[i]t is hardly a work of art, partly because of its form" (Majumdar 60). (2)

If problems concerning plot execution were the most obvious to reviewers, characters fared no better as these did apparently not create novelistic cohesion either. Poet and journalist Gerald Gould called the novel's people "unreal" and "none of [their depictions] knit[ting] into the narrative with the others" (Majumdar 53). E. M. Forster also lamented that Woolf's "chief characters are not vivid," but he did applaud the author's attempts at an interiorizing narrative mode, the aspect that established the third theme in contemporary reviews (Majumdar 53).

Allan Monkhouse, novelist and playwright, suggested in his Manchester Guardian review that "the interest and success of this book is the penetration into certain modes of consciousness": characters "are not content with facts and habits and exteriors" (Majumdar 57). The Athenaeum, too, praised how characters "explore each other's natures" while in South America (Majumdar 59), and the Nation reviewer pushed this line of thought further by asking:

Why is it that people will read about anything rather than about themselves? Is it sheer modesty, or moral cowardice, or a method of escape, or a pathetic confidence in something they believe beyond their escape or what? If they would only realize that their own psychology is far more romantic, mysterious, unknown, exciting, and potentially emotional than the adventures, heroisms and melodramas with which they are fed! The Voyage Out, for instance, is an analysis and, in parts, a powerful and significant one, of the personalities of some English visitors in a South American hotel. (Majumdar 60)

This essay takes its point of departure from the above quotation: what interests me is how the reviewers' observations on the novel's mode of interiority are linked with the exotic South American setting. In this context E. M. Forster also wrote that "[i]t is for a voyage into solitude that man was created," and that the main characters in The Voyage Out "learn this lesson, which is exquisitely reinforced by the setting of tropical scenery" (Majumdar 54). There are, as I will suggest, two modes of exoticism in the novel: the external description of otherness in the portrayal of the fictitious colony, Santa Marina, and an internal exoticism which realizes, through the voyage into consciousness, that the stranger lies often within. In this understanding of, and distinction between two modes of, exoticism I follow Victor Segalen's explications in his unfinished fragment Essay on Exoticism, written between 1904 and 1918. Here, Segalen endeavors to replace the "cheap finery" of an external exoticism with a more refined epistemological understanding. Among the limited notions of exoticism he counts both the conceptualization of the exotic as solely within a tropical setting ("palm tree and camel; tropical helmet; black skins and yellow sun"[18]) but also as a strictly unilateral relationship in a "colonial exoticism" in which diversity only exists for the subject "in so far as it provides him [the colonialist] with the means of duping others" (35). …

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