Woolf’s picnic on the summit of Monte Rosa, a fictional place in South America, is the high point (pun intended) of The Voyage Out (1915). Journeying on donkeys walking in single file, the narrator creates the image of “a jointed caterpillar, tufted with the white parasols of the ladies, and the panama hats of the gentlemen.” *
The view from the summit is “splendid,” but the picnickers are buffeted by wind so that their tablecloth is spread in the lee of a ruined wall where they lunch on cold chicken, sandwiches, wine, fruit, bananas, and tea. The mood is jolly, especially when “… Miss Allan, who was seated with her back to the ruined wall, put down her sandwich, picked something off her neck, and remarked, “I’m covered with little creatures.” In fact, “The ants were pouring down a glacier of loose earth heaped between the stones of the ruin-large brown ants with polished bodies.” The picnickers retaliate: “The table-cloth represented the invaded country, and round it they built barricades of baskets, set up the wine bottles in a rampart, made fortifications of bread and dug fosses of salt. When an ant got through it was exposed to a fire of bread-crumbs, until Susan pronounced that that was cruel, and rewarded those brave spirits with spoil in the shape of tongue. Battling the ants becomes a game that removes the veneer of decorum that usually inhibits good society. Mr. Perrott removes an ant from Evelyn’s neck and Mrs. Mrs. Elliot remarks confidentially to Mrs. Thornbury that it would be no laughing matter “if an ant did get between the vest and the skin.”
This amusement is short lived; so is Rachel Vinraces’s, the heroine. After their descent the picnickers separate, Rachel pairs off with Terrence Hewitt, but their relationship is erratic and a downward spiral that ends when she contracts jungle fever. Confined to bed, she lingers for ten days and dies.
Woolf’s decision to “kill’ her fictional heroine was a figurative response to her own troubles. Before it was finally published in 1915, the novel’s narrative sputtered tortuously. When she married Leonard Woolf in 1912, instead of smoothing her troubles, she spun headlong into a deep depression. Even the title, The Voyage Out, suggests Woolf is searching to resolve her problems in fiction if not in life. After suffering multiple attempts at suicide, she eventually persevered, until her successful suicide in 1941.
*Monte Rosa is fictional in the context of the novel, but it is the second highest mountain in the Alps. It’s probable that she was familiar with her father, Leslie Stephen’s Playground of Europe, a mountaineering classic. Her caterpillar metaphor is an improvement on his observation of alpine climbers. “I watched,” he wrote, “through a telescope the small black dot, which were really men, creeping up the high flanks of Monte Rosa or Mont Blanc.”
Featured Image: Terrence Hewett’s invitation for a picnic on Monte Rosa.
See: Virginia Woolf. The Voyage Out. London: Duckworth, 1915; Leslie Stephen. Playground of Europe. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1871.