So I am going to spoil this novel about part way through the review, and I will indicate that it’s coming, so be forewarned.
This is Virginia Woolf’s third novel, and according to my looking into it, this one forms a kind of departure in style. I haven’t read The Voyage Out or Night and Day, her first two novels, but I have read her next two novels after this one, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and given those two, it surprises me not that this book situates in a kind of transitional way between those two phases of her writing. This book mostly takes place within a series of vignettes at a variety of points in Jacob Flanders’s life growing up in Essex, going to Cambridge, moving to London, and travelling through Europe. He is headstrong, intelligent, arrogant, youthful, and entirely and incredibly male in his sensibilities, but the novel spends very little time investigating his own consciousness except through what others know and feel about him, and the energy the third person narrator puts into understanding him.
It’s an interesting book, and at times a very good and affecting book. But it’s as not good, affecting, or interesting as her next two. It feels a little early to me in the sense of stepping back in her writing, so reading it in a straightforward manner is a little disappointing, but I have to imagine it was quite interesting to read as her career developed.
Here are the spoilers:
So Jacob dies at the end of the book fighting in France. My copy saw fit to tell me that in the opening line on the back cover, but the book doesn’t tell you this until the very end. So while my copy did create this sense of false dramatic irony going in, the book itself doesn’t. And this led to a little confusion for me. However, I think the final small chapter of this book of the mother and sister looking at his room, left cluttered and disarrayed, is affecting. His letters are scattered, and his mother asks “Did he think he was coming back?” and it’s an entirely sad question. But it’s also a very interesting look at the kinds of presumptions and assumptions men make regarding the women in their lives.
I think that Virginia Woolf played around with names a lot in this book. I think you are meant to know he dies from the very first mention of his name, or I think it’s possible: for me, reading his name Jacob Flanders put me immediately in the mind of the John McCrae poem “In Flanders Fields” and I there’s also some early flower imagery that told me as much as well. Of course, I knew from the back cover, so I might have been searching for clues. But given the names like Barfoot for an incompetent military leader, and Mrs. Wargraves, and Nick Graves….well, I had my suspicions.