What a surprise! While leafing through Sea History, a glossy magazine that my husband David received as a gift, I came across an article called “Virginia Woolf’s Maiden Voyage.” One of the authors, Richard King, teaches a college course called Literature of the Sea and was intrigued by Virginia’s use of ocean and water imagery.
Her first book, The Voyage Out, and her later masterwork, To the Lighthouse, make the most obvious references to the sea and the article focuses mainly on Virginia’s maiden voyage into fiction, The Voyage Out. The book took Virginia five years to write and went through countless revisions.
Like many first efforts at fiction, it is largely rooted in Virginia’s real-life experiences and she depended heavily on details she garnered from several ocean trips that she took. One of them was to Lisbon on a small steamer. While on board, she encountered a cast of characters and established a daily routine that provided much of the day-to-day details for her novel.
While The Voyage Out is a realistic novel that’s very different in flavor from Virginia’s later works of fiction, there are some very lyrical passages in it that give a hint of the freer, more abstract and meditative novels she would write later. Here’s how she describes the ship her heroine travels on: “She was more lonely than the caravan crossing the desert; she was infinitely more mysterious, moving by her own power and sustained by her own resources. The sea might give her death or some unexampled joy, and none would know of it. She was a bride going forth to her husband, a virgin unknown of men; in her vigour and her purity, she might be likened to all beautiful things, she had a life of her own.” Already, we see Virginia writing dangerously: tackling big themes and giving us a glimpse of the universal in the particular.
As the article puts it, “As readers, we experience the sea through the eyes and pen of Virginia Woolf….”And when we do, it becomes vaster and more mysterious. That’s the writer’s alchemy — turning experience into art.