Maybe it’s because this is technically unfinished (a forward from Leonard Woolf states that although the draft was completed, Virginia Woolf died before she was able to make final corrections and revisions, so it was sent to the printers as is), but this one didn’t strike me quite in the way Woolf’s other books have. But that’s not to suggest that it isn’t good – remember, this is Virginia Woolf, so when I say that it didn’t strike me as much as her other ones, I only mean that this book felt like a minor blow to the head, rather than feeling like I was being remade from the inside out.
That being said, this book is an almost perfect example of what makes Virginia Woolf such a unique writer. Like her more famous Mrs. Dalloway, the action takes place over a short span of time (two days) and is concerned primarily with the actions of one small family, although the narration takes us into other characters’ heads occasionally. The main action of the story takes place during the annual village pageant, a history of England. We see the pageant in detail (Woolf even includes stage directions) and, as the title suggests, get to also witness the spectators during the act breaks.
Reading this, I felt like there was something else hiding under the surface of the text – something I wasn’t fully able to grasp or understand. There’s an undercurrent of longing and sadness and frustration running through all the characters, and I felt like there was a whole other story happening just in the margins and the line breaks. I think I could read this book ten times and still not find everything Woolf wants me to find.
Halfway through writing this review I decided to change my rating from three to four stars, because I started flipping through the book to find passages to quote and kept remembering what is so extraordinary about Virginia Woolf’s writing: she had, I believe, an incredible capacity for empathy. Everyone in her stories gets treated, however briefly, like they’re the most important character in the story. Every single character in her books, from the educated landowner to the flighty kitchen maid, has a deep inner life and complex thoughts and emotions, and she makes us see this complexity. No one is ordinary in Virginia Woolf’s books.
Plus, the writing is, as always, killer. It’s not just the people – something as simple as a lily pond suddenly becomes full of deeper meaning and significance when Woolf is describing it:
“There had always been lilies there, self-sown from wind-dropped seed, floating red and white on the green plates of their leaves. Water, for hundreds of years, had silted down into the hollow, and lay there four or five feet deep over a black cushion of mud. Under the thick plate of green water, glazed in their self-centered world, fish swam – gold, splashed with white, streaked with black or silver. Silently they manoeuvred in their water world, poised in the blue patch made by the sky, or shot silently to the edge where the grass, trembling, made a fringe of nodding shadow. On the water-pavement spiders printed their delicate feet. A grain fell and spiralled down; a petal fell, filled and sank. At that the fleet of boat-shaped bodies paused; poised; equipped; mailed; then with a waver of undulation off they flashed.
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.”
Verdict: four out of five stars