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, www.bbc.com/culture/article/20160321-between-the-acts-virginia-woolfs-last-book. 

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