The Voyage Out

Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out
(London: Duckworth & Co., 1915)

It was impossible to combine the image of a lean black widow, gazing out of her window, and longing for someone to talk to, with the image of a vast machine, such as one sees at South Kensington, thumping, thumping, thumping. The attempt at communication had been a failure.
‘We don’t seem to understand each other,’ she said.
‘Shall I say something that will make you very angry?’ he replied.
‘It won’t,’ said Rachel.
‘Well, then; no woman has what I may call the political instinct. You have very great virtues; I am the first, I hope, to admit that; but I have never met a woman who even saw what is meant by statesmanship. I am going to make you still more angry. I hope that I never shall meet such a woman. Now, Miss Vinrace, are we enemies for life?’
Vanity, irritation, and a thrusting desire to be understood, urged her to make another attempt.
‘Under the streets, in the sewers, in the wires, in the telephones, there is something alive; is that what you mean? In things like dust-carts, and men mending roads? You feel that all the time when you walk about London, and when you turn on a tap and the water comes?’

Telephones play multiple roles in Woolf’s works: allowing characters to overhear conversations and to interrupt dialogues and movements. Most of all, however, Woolf thinks profoundly about the ontological status of telephones and their impact. In The Voyage Out, for instance, Rachel’s reference to ‘something alive’ that is ‘under the streets, in the sewers, in the wires, in the telephones’ embodies Woolf’s interest in the politics of everyday life and our position within a network of communications. This is also evident in Night and Day, where she describes how ‘the thread of sound issuing from a telephone was always coloured by the surroundings which received it.’ And: ‘We must try to consider ourselves rather in the light of a telephone exchange […] we should consider ourselves the centre of an enormous system of wires, connecting us with every district of the country.’ Woolf even thought of her sister as part of a telephone exchange, writing to Duncan Grant (Vanessa Bell’s lover and companion), ‘I always think of you and Nessa [Vanessa] like the young women at the telephone exchange, with the wires ringing little bells around them, as loves, divorces and copulations and insanities blaze out in London’ (1917). 

by Maggie Humm