Between the Acts takes place at Pointz Hall, an elite estate in rural England, in the summer of 1939. The setting reflects the tensions of the period immediately preceding Britain’s entry into World War II. On September 3, in response to Germany’s invasion of Poland, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany. Virginia Woolf died by suicide in March 1941; this was her last book.
In setting the novel at the estate of an upper-class family, Woolf reveals how provincial English elites remained tied to the past rather than confronting the declining viability of their way of life. The erosion of British imperial control on a global scale is indicated by Bartholomew Oliver, who has retired from the civil service in India. The family’s staging of an elaborate pageant on the grounds points to their continued claim on local power.
The ambivalent attitude of both the elites and the state toward modernization is shown through the goals of this pageant. The majority of the elaborate play is devoted to British history, which is the elderly Lucy’s obsession; however, the younger participants include satirical skits about the past. The purpose of the pageant is to raise funds for the electrification of the village. The fact that individual families must undertake such a project points to the lack of national and state investment in basic public services.
Other upcoming changes in rural society are indicated through the soldiers’ presence in rural areas. In particular, their negative interactions with the young women are shown through the newspaper account of a rape.