Between the Acts (and World Wars)

Virginia Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts, is situated right in the interwar period; it is 1938 when she begins writing the novel and she continues until her death in 1941, which exactly aligns with the period between World War I and II. The novel is written under this context of looming war and political unrest, and is set in the Oliver’s family country house. Due to the magnitude of the historical events unfolding around her, Woolf worried that Between the Acts was ‘too silly and trivial’ to be published (“Between the Acts…”). Rather than focusing on the war explicitly, the novel fixates on pageant culture of English county homes and the grand mansion, Poyntz Hall, of the Oliver family. Mrs. The spinster-esque character, Mrs. La Trobe, conducts the performance and planning of the pageant, which is a showcase of sorts of British history. The whole village community attends to watch this spectacle. Although I have yet to read the novel, I would infer that the pastoral escape-to-the-county trope combined with the distraction of the pageant could be a means of coping with the horrors of industrialized wartime and bombing. Perhaps Woolf felt this “frivolous” during the time, but such a plot seems to give a glimpse of civilian life and British societal culture that is female centered and just as valuable historically in comparison to the masculine, political sphere of war. The country house as a safe space for this to happen is also crucial, as it is grounded in nature rather than a city or urban landscape. In this setting, there is some distance from the war for creativity and a sense of stability for characters who are most likely under the threat of facism and the encroaching second world war. In fact, Woolf at the time is also struggling with her own mental health, a battle she fought throughout her life but likely worsened by the anxiety of the times. In her suicide note to her husband Leonard, who was a Jewish man facing persecution, she writes; “Dearest, I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time” (“Between the Acts…”). The historical and social context of wartime is integral to the reading of Between the Acts and to Woolf, as she writes during the tumultuous time while grappling with her own mental health.

Clark, Alex. “Between the Acts: Virginia Woolf’s Last Book.” BBC Culture, BBC, 23 Mar. 2016, 

4 thoughts on “Between the Acts (and World Wars)”

  1. Another World War history post about women in England! This post takes a more personal read as you’re focusing on what Virginia Woolf’s perspective would’ve been as she wrote this novel with both wars influencing her, as well as examining her complex mental health issues. I wonder if there are other authors (preferably female) in this time period who wrote about the war as well, and how it affected them that you might be able to cross-reference to understand how women felt about the wars overall.

  2. Thanks for this piece, Jackie; a light into Woolf’s resort to nature in her novelistic art and the social/political context that influences it. “Although I have yet to read the novel” seems like a dangerous point to begin a claim about the novel. Perhaps when you go to the text, do a 10 on 1 on the possibility of Woolf’s entanglement with nature; local context within the text is key. So far, there seems to be one interpretation about Woolf’s psychology (her coping mechanism or escapism from the encroaching time of war she was caught in); is there more? Good luck!

  3. It’s super interesting to think about how Woolf herself saw her work and the depiction of a female experience in England as being frivolous. Of course during a time of such destruction and male death, perhaps everything seems frivolous. It could be interesting to think about this in the context of reader reception. We often discuss nature as a moment of escapism for people in fiction and in reality. Perhaps, in this case, focusing on a frivolous physical location/event/mansion, in the countryside no less, rather than the war is in itself a type of escapism for readers during this terrible time.

  4. The connection between the world wars and women’s shift in socio-economic expectations is very interesting to me. I always wonder about the effect the world wars have had on men. In most entertainment mediums, world wars are always depicted to have changed men in a multitude of ways. Most significantly, their outlook on life and value structures. I wonder if Woolf experienced any of this first hand and if it is articulated in any of her novels.

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