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Between the Acts
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41 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on October 2, 2002
"Between the Acts" was the last novel Virginia Woolf wrote, and it appropriately feels like a swansong; a sorrowful farewell to a country on the eve of a war that very well might have spelled its devastation. While it uses the modernist experimentation that characterized "To the Lighthouse," it is very easy to follow, but still invites several rereadings to explore its depths more fully.
The novel takes place on a single day in June of 1939 at an English country manor called Pointz Hall, owned by the Olivers, a family with such sentimental ties to its ancestry that a watch that stopped a bullet on an ancient battlefield is deemed worthy of preservation and exhibition. Every year about this time, the Olivers allow their gardens to be used by the local villagers to put on a pageant for raising money for the church. This year, the pageant is supposed to be a series of tableaux celebrating England's history from Chaucerian times up to the present.
The Olivers themselves are tableaux of sorts, each a silent representation of some emotion separated from the others by a wall of miscommunication. Old Bartholomew Oliver and his sister, Lucy Swithin, both widowed, are now living together again with much the same hesitant relationship they had as children. Oliver's son Giles is a stockbroker who commutes to London and considers the pageant a nuisance he has no choice but to suffer. Isa, his discontented wife, feels she has to hide her poetry from him and contemplates an extramarital affair with a village farmer.
Attending the pageant is a garrulous woman named Mrs. Manresa, who is either having or pursuing an affair with Giles. She has brought with her a companion named William Dodge, whose effeminate sexual ambiguity is noticed with reprehension by Giles and with curiosity by Isa. The somewhat romantic interest Isa shows in Dodge implies that she knows Giles would be annoyed less by her infidelity than by his being cuckolded for a fop like Dodge.
The other principal character is not an Oliver at all, and this is Miss La Trobe, the harried writer and director of the pageant. At first, she appears to serve the mere purpose of comic diversion, as she frustrates herself over details that nobody in the audience notices anyway; however, when the pageant is over, a new aspect of her character is revealed, one that has made her an outcast among the village women. Nevertheless, she graciously accepts the role of a struggling, misunderstood woman artist, and in this sense, she echoes the character of Lily Briscoe in "To the Lighthouse," as does Isa with her repressed poetry.
At the end of the pageant, to celebrate the "present," Miss La Trobe has planned something special and startling: She has the players flash mirrors onto the audience as if to say, "Look what England has become. Shameful, isn't it?" Likewise, with this novel Woolf holds up a mirror to humanity, reflecting our unhappiness in her characters. It's not a cheerful notion, but it's a fitting one to sum up the career of a writer like Woolf, one of our greatest chroniclers of sadness.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on June 18, 1999
Between the Acts (BtA) was Woolf's last novel, finished but not yet revised before her death in 1941. It is, like Woolf's other novels, experimental. She takes some of her already established techniques and adds new things. She sets it in the span of a single day (i.e. Mrs Dalloway), depicts and parodies historical events (i.e. Orlando). Woolf centers the action around a village play (a bad play, but that is part of the fun). The social commentary on Britain is there, but BtA is far from the "usual British stuff." In the course of the novel the reader should look at the actors and the audience, drawing parallels to our own daily acting. Woolf includes a number of literary allusions. See if you can find the use of Gerard Manley Hopkins in the narrative, for example. As with Woolf's other writings, plot is not the focus. Even though she died thinking it was unsuitable for publication (she was mistaken), BtA is a fine novel from a master writer.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon July 15, 2013
There is something about Virginia Woolf's writing that lends itself to introspection, meditation, and sometimes confusion. She was prone to drift in various directions and switch character perspective willy nilly. This is often the case in "Between the Acts" her final novel that was published after her suicide without any revisions made by the author. Perhaps there would have been changes, but the central story certainly would have remained the same, a gauzy examination of a married couple experiencing difficulties.

The novel focuses on one household and its guests for the summer pageant, a recap of English history through the ages that serves as counterpoint to the characters. It is often difficult to separate the actors in the play from the acts that the central characters are putting on for one another. The main character is Isa, the wife of a stockbroker. She finds that she loves and hates her husband, and finds herself drawn to another man, but she would never act on those feelings. Her husband, Giles, meanwhile, is willing to act on such feelings, especially when he becomes captivated by a guest at the house, Mrs. Manresa, a supposedly free spirited woman, whose "freeness" feels very much like an act. As these characters watch the pageant unfold, their emotions surface and they are forced to confront this array of feelings that all of this playacting has brought up.

"Between the Acts" is an elusive story, one that is hard to sum up and one that can be even harder to follow. This last work of Woolf's is truly more like elegiac poetry than prose. The beauty is in the rhythm and sounds of the words on the page, floating around like the cabbage white butterflies the author describes. In the same manner, the author flits from character to character, hardly lingering long enough to satisfy their story, but Woolf weaves an intriguing tapestry as this family tiptoes along the expected lines of proper decorum. It would be interesting to know what, if anything, Woolf would have changed in the editing process.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on August 1, 2000
This under-appreciated work is slowly gaining the recognition it deserves from Woolf critics... but I would say that, since I wrote my dissertation on it! Woolf's fiction is never light reading, but Woolf lovers will here find a masterful synthesis of descriptive power, her exhaustive knowledge of English history and literature, her feminism, her passionate hatred of war and her conviction that only aesthetic experience can enable humanity to question the status quo and *perhaps* create a better world... interested readers might consider reading it alongside The Years, Three Guineas, Moments of Being, the last volumes of the diary, or such Woolf essays as "Thoughts on Peace During an Air Raid," as well as Shakespeare's Tempest. This slim novel speaks volumes; it is a work of mature genius by one of the 20th century's greatest writers.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2014
Wonderful views of the spectrum of English class and society just before World War II, including the famous mirror scene at the end. Her lyrical writing is much in evidence, and her spectrum is surprisingly broad in such a succinct novel.
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on January 16, 2015
To me there is never a grand coming together or summation of all the disparate points in this novel. But maybe it's me.

Just to clear up a few errors in the review by Elisabeth Jay, Westminster College, Oxford, Giles is not married to Mrs. Manress. He's married to Ilsa and Mrs. M isn't married to anybody. Also, Bart's sister is Lucy. And I don't see any evidence Mrs. M is a "Child of nature," but maybe that's open to interpretation.

As for the novel, I don't find as much of what makes Virginia Woolf magical here as I do in other works. It feels a little forced, but others feel differently. Certainly the strain of WWII must have made writing this much harder than her other novels, and she found writing them difficult enough.

The lives between the acts are what make the novel interesting: how Bart and his sister Lucy are both widowed and now living together much as they did when they were children--more, I thought, could have been done with this--and how his son is "a modern man" of the times, a stockbroker who commutes to London and finds this whole pageant a bit off-putting and old-fashioned--not in a good way. One of Woolf's most frequent themes is the old bumping up uncomfortably against the new and she does that here per her usual quality. I found Miss La Trobe the most fascinating character--outcast, artist, Woolf herself (?)

The novel is short, but as with most Woolf's work is heavy. Best read in an annotated version; both this and the Harcourt edition are fine.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 12, 1999
This book is not about what goes on outside the play so much as it is about Woolf's new expression of her continued criticism of English society. There is humor in the book. Her Victorian policeman is a biting and explicit critique of the sexism, racism, and general destructive intolerance that was actively supported by the Victorian imperialist discourse. I only wish she'd lived so we could see what she would have tried next.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on July 24, 2007
Virginia Woolf (1882 - 1941) was a well known writer, critic, feminist, and publisher. This was her last novel, and it is a departure for Woolf from prior styles, and many like the novel. It is interesting, but falls short of being a masterpeice.

As background information, I read most of her work starting with her first novel "The Voyage Out" published in 1915, skipped her second novel - which is considered to be a flop, Night and Day from 1919 - and then read "Jacob's Room," her third, then went on and read "Mrs. Dalloway," her fourth, and next read "To The Lighthouse," etc. Also, I read some of Woolf's non-fiction.

"The Voyage Out" is simple and straightforward work and it might remind the reader of a Jane Austen novel, but it set on a ship and then at a remote location. It is over 400 pages long, and has an Austen theme. After her second novel - which did not do very well - Woolf decided to be more risky and creative with the next book. She changed her style and approach to the novel and Woolf uses the stream of consciousness technique to bring a sense of the chaos and shortness of a young man's life around the time of World War I, Jacob's life, i.e.: from the pandemonium of Jacob's life as portrayed by Woolf through the use of the stream of the consciousness technique, we eventually have clarity in the novel. She carries this writing style on into the similarly chaotic story in the novel "Mrs. Dalloway" and most of her later writings - including the present novel - her last written just before her suicide. The subsequent books, including the present novel, are shorter and use the stream of consciousness technique.

The story is a bit similar to "To The Lighthouse" in the setting. It has a rural setting, a home in the country, and it is about a community play held at the home. The story describes some of the family members at the home, the other members of the community, and also, and interestingly here, much of the novel describes the play itself.

I guess what is disappointing here is the structure or plot compared to her best novel, "To The Lighthouse." In that novel, the reader is fully engaged with that story and it is a compelling read, and hard to put down. That book, along with "Jacob's Room," moves the reader emotionally. That is missing here. The novel is short and has a low key "Midsummer Night's Dream" quality. Nothing dramatic happens "between the acts" of the play that one would call interesting or compelling or highly emotional. The reader waits for something to happen - as in her other works - but it never occurs. Also, it lacks sympathetic characters. The story seems very hazy and undefined, and it seems to lack direction. The play itself is interesting and it is unusual to see the play worked into the story. That is a sign of Woolf's genius. But it is not enough to carry the novel and make it a masterpiece.

As a "common reader," as Woolf describes us, we readers of her books, I think her best fiction is "To The Lighthouse" - that is a masterpiece - and her best non-fiction is "A Room of One's Own." I like the Oxford version of the latter published along with "Three Guineas."
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 7, 2014
Virginia Woolf, once the most avant-garde of English novelists, now seems very out of date. None of her books is really a masterpiece, and this, her swan song, is arguably the weakest of all.

Read her essays by all means, even her diaries and letters, but approach her novels with caution. Borrow them from the library before you spend money on them, or you might wind up with a row of books that will do nothing but gather dust on your shelves.

Feminist reading of VW are mostly bad, which is a real problem, because she really was a genuine feminist. But I don't think she'd care for what's being done with her works posthumously by certain critics.

Quentin Bell's bio is better than any other book about her, if you want to know more than her own writing.
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11 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2000
Virginia Stephen Woolf finished Between the Acts in 1941; however, she never revised the novel because of her suicide during the same year. Between the Acts takes place in a small town in England before she has entered World War II in 1939. The novel, which spans one day, is about the annual village pageant at which villagers present a play to the community and guests about the history of England. The action splits between the acts concerning England in the Elizabethan Age, the Age of Reason, the Victorian Age, the present day, and the intermissions between the acts. In Between the Acts, there are many characters that are involved in the immediate action of the novel. Bartholomew Oliver, a retired Indian Civil Service worker, lives in a medium sized home called Pointz Hall with his widowed sister, Mrs. Swithin, his son Giles Oliver, who is a stock broker, and Giles' wife, Isa Oliver. Isa and Giles have a son named George. Two characters show up at Pointz Hall and attend the pageant with the residents. One of these characters, Mrs. Manresa, who is the only non-British character, is very flirtatious with Giles throughout the book. Her companion, William Dodge, is a very poetic yet nervous character. A final major character who is behind the scenes for the entire novel is Ms. La Trobe, the director of the play. There are also some minor characters that are involved in the action of the novel. Mrs. Haines, the wife of a farmer, appears in the opening scene of the novel. Isa hires Mabel, who plays Reason in the play, to take care of George as his nurse. Lynn Jones, a member of the audience during the play, disagrees with a statement made by Badge, an actor in the play. A final minor character, who is an actor in the play, is Albert the Village Idiot. One theme in this novel is unity. Unity is shown through the acts as the come together to create the play. The group of main characters also expresses unity. Another theme, which is a dominant theme in Woolf's writings, is feminism. There are many feminist images and references in the play. The acts of the play are about the woman rulers of England and love stories. The personality of Virginia Woolf can be seen in Mrs. Swithin, Isa Oliver, and Ms. La Trobe. These two themes are both major themes in Woolf's writings. Between the Acts can be viewed as a conversation that moves from point to point throughout the novel. The novel seems choppy and moves around constantly. The narrator sometimes seems like a character in the novel at points where he or she appears almost involved in the action of the scene. This is a dominant trait in Woolf's literature. The novel is whole with no chapters or significant breaks in the action. Instead, the book seems like a play with many scenes divided by long spaces in between paragraphs. The novel is also a combination of poetry and prose. Many people say that this work is not complete because Woolf never revised the novel.
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