The novel, as is usual with Virginia Woolf, is set during one day in 1939, just before the outbreak of World War Two.
Number of pages: 256
Number of characters: 21
Date published: 1941. An unfinished work. Published posthumously by Leonard Woolf, who makes a point of saying, although the book had been finished, that Virginia probably would have “made a good many small corrections or revisions”.
Bartholomew Oliver – a retired Indian civil servant.
Lucinda Swithin – Oliver’s widowed sister, a bit eccentric.
Giles Oliver – Oliver’s son. Married to Isa Oliver.
George – Oliver’s grandson, Isa and Giles’ son.
Rupert Haines – a farmer, married to Mrs Haines (first name unmentioned).
Amy and Mabel – nurses at Pointz Hall, owned by Bartholemew Oliver.
Mrs Sands – cook at Pointz Hall
Sohrab – an Afghan hound
Candish – the gardener at Pointz Hall
Ralph Manresa – a Jew, married to Mrs Manresa.
William Dodge – A possibly gay clerk.
Miss La Trobe – an author and playwright, homosexual.
Albert – the village idiot.
Bond – a cowman
Eliza Clark – acts Elizabeth I
Mabel Hopkins – plays ‘Reason’.
Mr Page – a journalist for the small, local newspaper.
We are introduced to Mr and Mrs Haines, who are discussing with Bartholomew Oliver the issue of the village cesspool. Soon, Isa comes in wearing a dressing gown, having not been expecting guests. She apologises; her son is not well. The scene moves to Mrs Swithin and we learn she stays at Pointz Hall in the summer, but retires to Hastings during the winter. The scene shifts again to Amy and Mabel, the nurses, walking George around the garden.
In a conversation between Mr Oliver and his sister, Cindy, we learn they have a pageant annually, held in their barn. Mrs Manresa is the first to arrive. A stranger to the family, she noticed the family had a barn, and so she stopped in to eat her lunch there. She has brought a friend, William Dodge, with her. They realise it is the day of the pageant and feel intrusive but they are persuaded to stay. Giles arrives.
Miss La Trobe is introduced, she has written the play to be performed at the pageant. Giles is disgusted that Wilian Dodge is gay; he can’t even say the word homosexual. Mrs Swithin offers to show William around their house.
Everyone gathers in the garden to begin the play. Mr and Mrs Haines arrive late. The theme of the pageant is a History of Britain, and so the play follows just that; British history from the Canterbury pilgrims to the present day. The narrative flits between the play and character’s thoughts. William and Isa talk briefly, but find that they get along very easily. Giles however is thinking about the war that is currently in Europe, but that he is sure will hit England soon. He is a bit annoyed that a play is being performed in such hard times. Isa does not really understand the play.
Eliza Clark acts Queen Elizabeth. The play is currently in the Elizabethan era. Using a Shakespeare-esque technique, Woolf puts a play within a play within a novel. Queen Elizabeth has a play performed for her, a comedy entitled “”Where There’s a Will There’s a Way” about an aunt scheming to marry off her nephew to a woman.
During the interval, Mrs Manresa and Giles sneak off to the greenhouse. They’re having an affair, and the reader suspects that Isa knows about it; she calls Mrs Manresa an “old strumpet”. Once Giles and Mrs Manresa return, Isa suggests her and William go for a walk through the greenhouse.
The pageant continues on into the Victorian era. The play is a short lovers comedy however it turns into Pandemonium, as devils and elves parade around the stage with mirrors, to show the audience their own reflections.
None of the audience understand the meaning of the play and Miss La Trobe feels like a failure. War planes are soon heard overhead, a symbol that Giles was right; the war has come to England. The audience leaves and Oliver and Mrs Swithin go to bed, leaving Isa and Giles alone for the first time in the novel. The narrator says that they must fight before they can reconcile, and that that reconciliation must bring new life.
Virginia Woolf, as always, flits very quickly between characters perspectives and it is often difficult to tell who is narrating at any given time. She even gives the perspective of baby George, near the very beginning of the novel: “Down on his knees grubbing he held the flower complete. Then there was a roar and a hot breath and a stream of coarse grey hair rushed between him and the flower. Up he leapt, toppling in his fright, and saw coming towards him a terrible peaked eyeless monster moving on legs, brandishing arms” (p. 17). This description of the dog, Sohrab, running towards George, who is assumed to be about two or three, is so clear in our minds, we can almost see it running towards us as if we are George. Woolf makes use of all the senses so we can really imagine it; the roar, the hot breath, the coarse grey hair. Even when Isa is speaking on the phone, Woolf does not fill in the side of the conversation the reader would not be able to hear if they were in the room. We only hear Isa’s side of the conversation: “Mrs Oliver speaking…What fish have you this morning?” The ellipses demonstrates the gap in the conversation where there is clearly someone speaking down the other end of the phone.
The book, in places, has very Victorian views of society. While one of the house maids is wondering around the lily pond, she thinks of the old story that tells of a woman drowning herself in the pond. A thigh bone was recovered ten years later, but it was a sheep’s and not a human’s. The maid goes on to think about souls. She thinks that “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”. The idea of souls and the afterlife was a big thing in the Victorian era, especially after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. The public began to question their religion; had Darwin essentially disproved God by providing evidence that humans have been around for millions of years? The numbers in Christian churches began to dwindle during the Victorian era. People began to question if there was an afterlife, a heaven and a hell, or if there was nothingness. The second thing the Victorians, and even the Romantics, thought about was the sublime. Something that is sublime holds aesthetic beauty, it is something that holds the viewer in awe when they look at it. The viewer questions how it got there. The sublime is often in relation to a landscape, a mountain range, a waterfall, etc. In Between the Acts, the family are sat on their terrace enjoying the view. Mrs Swithin exclaims: “that’s what makes a view so sad…and so beautiful. It’ll be there,” she nodded at the strip of gauze laid upon the distant fields, “when we’re not”. This is not only thinking about the sublime, but also connects the Victorian view of the afterlife, and where we go after death.