Sea History 137 - Winter 2011-2012

Page 28

Virginia Woolf's Maiden Voyage by C hristie Jackso n and Richard J. King

This past summer a team of researchers based at the Williams College-Mystic Seaport Maritime Studies Program in Mystic, Connecticut, in the US, and Bath Spa University, in the UK, examined The Voyage Out through a maritime history lens, exploring the novel's maritime imagery and viewing the work within the long tradition ofliterature of the sea. irginia Woolf, preemin ent English writer, looked to the sea fo r inspiratio n fo r such novels as To The Lighthouse (1927) and The Wtzves (193 1). She was one of the first majo r female novelists o n either side of the Atlantic to write extensive scenes depicting life at sea, as well as vo icing these acco unts through her novels' female characters. From her childhood summers spent seaside to ocean-going journeys to her tragic sui cide by drowning in a river, Woolf's life was marked by a tranquility and turbulence that was profoundly shaped by water.


Virginia Woolf(1882-1941) The autho r's pull to the sea was most apparent in her debut novel, The Voyage Out (1 91 5), a story in which the first quarter is set upon a ship and the rest of the novel is saturated with wa ter imagery. The Voyage Out is abo ut a young English woman who travels across the Atlantic to a port at the mouth of the Amazo n, where she falls in love, then tragically dies from a fever that she p resumably contracted during a boat trip upriver. The Voyage Out begins on rhe Lo ndon wa terfro nt with characters boarding the Euphrosyne, a cargo ship, fo r a transAtl anti c voyage. Using the Euphrosyne as a pivotal backdro p for her story-


telling, Woolf follows the movem ents of a gro up of unlikely travel companio ns across the Atlanti c. The ship is bo und fo r the Amazon to load a cargo of rubber while carrying a small complem ent of passengers. Woolf's descriptio n of this fi ctio nal shi p, its interio rs, and shipboard routines reveal a fairly accurate pictu re of transAtlantic travel at rhe turn of the twe ntieth century. Woolf had traveled on ocean-going voyages in 1905 o n the Anselm and Madeirense, two vessels owned and operated by the Boo th Steam ship Company, and iris clear rhar she drew upo n these experi ences in her writing. Ocean-liner enthusias ts and ship histo ri ans will not only greatly appreciate Wool f's vivid descriptio ns of life aboard the fi ctitious Euphrosyne, but also will enjoy uncovering the details that link Woolf's own personal voyages to those of her characters. In 1905 Virginia W oolf and her brother Adrian boarded the steam er Anselm (II) in Liverpool fo r a trip to Lisbon . The Anselm was a 400-foo t, 5,442-gross- ton intermediate cargo vessel powered by a triple-expansion-steam engine turning a single screw. The Booth Line offered passenger service from Liverpool and H amburg to va rious ports, including Lisbon, on the way to Brazilian destinations such as Para (now Belem ) and M anfos (M anaus), where its ships wo uld take on Amazo nian rubber. Woolf and her brother joined the Anselm in M arch on its m aiden voyage and had a sea-kindl y passage across the Bay of Biscay. Woolf wrote in her diary rhar Biscay "was a little ro ugh , but nothing to keep up its reputation." As the passage went on , however, the engines "slowly ceased beating." The Anselm lim ped into O po rto, Po rtugal, and Woolf and her brother disembarked and too k a train to Lisbo n. D espite her sho rt time o n boa rd, Woolf wrote vivid letters to fri ends and family th at extensively described shipboard life, including how boring she fo und the company and that she was "our of doo rs a good 8 hours a day, inhal ing sea breezes enough to m ake the dead walk, and eating hugely, to pass the time." The type of characters she encountered and the ro utines she established on the Anselm find their way into The Voyage Out, adding to the novel's authenticity and humo r. After their holiday, Vi rginia and Adrian returned to Liverpool aboard another Booth Line steamship, the smaller 2,83 1-gross-ton Madeirense, which also m ade regular voyages across the Atlantic. During this return passage, Woolf wrote in another letter that she "wore [her] fur coat and sat wrapped in a rug all the voyage"-pracrices her characters embrace in The Voyage Out. Woo lf co ntinued her blending of fictional story w ith fact ual acco unts when describing the Euphrosyne, which resembles in size and layo ut rhe Anselm and Madeirense. Although the fictional Euphrosyne is a reliable steam er and can weather fierce Atlantic gales, she is no r o ne of the grand transAtlantic ocean liners so popular d uring rhar peri od . Indeed, Woolf describes the Euphrosyne as seen th ro ugh the eyes of passengers onboard one of rhose massive ships: "Glasses were turned upon her from the decks of great liners, and