Night and Day by Virginia Woolf.

Night and Day is the second published novel of Virginia Woolf, first published in 1919 (following The Voyage Out, 1915). It's what I think of as the second and final 'traditional' novel of hers as there is, it seems to me, a little of the Victorian in Woolf's first two novels: in Jacob's Room (1923) Woolf would break with that and become more experimental - more of a modernist. For now, though clearly in Virginia Woolf's distinctive voice, this is a more plot-based novel. 

Dedication to Vanessa Bell.
It centres around four characters, all friends or acquaintances: Katharine Hilbery, Mary Datchet, Ralph Denham, and William Rodney. Katharine Hilbery, modelled on Woolf's sister Vanessa (Night and Day is in fact dedicated to Vanessa), is a young upper middle class woman from a family of literary intellectuals (her grandfather was a great poet, and she and her mother are writing his biography). Mary Dachet is the daughter of a country vicar and works in an office for an organisation campaigning for women's suffrage. She is in love with Ralph Denham, a lawyer, who is in turn falling in love with Katharine, who herself is engaged to William Rodney, a mediocre writer very much attracted to Katharine's heritage and, ultimately, her cousin Cassandra Otway. All rather complicated!

Vanessa Bell, 1914.
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Despite what I said in the first paragraph, Night and Day is, as Woolf's novels are, about characters more than plot, though this plot is more central than in her other novels. Much of it is concerned with personal freedom; the frequent reference to the suffrage movement is certainly a motif, but the characters, especially Katharine and Mary, seek to break from their shackles. Katharine's family, name, and way of life weighs heavily upon her. In one memorable scene, right at the very start of the novel, we see her making tea as all young women did, as Vanessa did:
It was a Sunday evening in October, and in common with many other young ladies of her class, Katharine Hilbery was pouring out tea. Perhaps a fifth part of her mind was thus occupied, and the remaining parts leapt over the little barrier of day which interposed between Monday morning and this rather subdued moment, and played with the things one does voluntarily and normally in the daylight. But although she was silent, she was evidently mistress of a situation which was familiar enough to her, and inclined to let it take its way for the six hundredth time, perhaps, without bringing into play any of her unoccupied faculties. A single glance was enough to show that Mrs. Hilbery was so rich in the gifts which make tea-parties of elderly distinguished people successful, that she scarcely needed any help from her daughter, provided that the tiresome business of teacups and bread and butter was discharged for her.
She will marry because this is what is expected of her, however Mary, despite being in love, fears marriage; her passion and talent is thus expressed in her work for the suffrage movement. In the two characters there is a contrast between what is suitable, right, and expected, and what is desired and needed. Another more subtle contrast is the highly frequent mention of stars and the universe giving a strange sense of repetition, inevitability, isolation, fate, and almost meaninglessness or futility. Here are four examples (the word "stars" appears about twenty-nine times in Night and Day):
On the whole, the balance was nearly even; and, writing down a kind of conclusion in her mind which finished the sum for the present, at least, she changed the focus of her eyes, and saw nothing but the stars.
And yet, after gazing for another second, the stars did their usual work upon the mind, froze to cinders the whole of our short human history, and reduced the human body to an ape-like, furry form, crouching amid the brushwood of a barbarous clod of mud. This stage was soon succeeded by another, in which there was nothing in the universe save stars and the light of stars; as she looked up the pupils of her eyes so dilated with starlight that the whole of her seemed dissolved in silver and spilt over the ledges of the stars for ever and ever indefinitely through space.
"When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don't seem to matter very much, do they?" she said suddenly.
She saw to the remote spaces behind the strife of the foreground, enabled now to gaze there, since she had renounced her own demands, privileged to see the larger view, to share the vast desires and sufferings of the mass of mankind. She had been too lately and too roughly mastered by facts to take an easy pleasure in the relief of renunciation; such satisfaction as she felt came only from the discovery that, having renounced everything that made life happy, easy, splendid, individual, there remained a hard reality, unimpaired by one's personal adventures, remote as the stars, unquenchable as they are.
Michael Whitworth in his biography of Virginia Woolf (2005) writes in detail on the developments in astronomy and Woolf's translation in her novels (there are many star references in many of Virginia Woolf's works) and mentions, like Thomas Hardy in Two on a Tower (1882) she "contrasted the stars with 'minute human loves'". It is a melancholy novel for that, and for other reasons. Even so, it is a very beautiful novel though it lacks the force of her later ones, and Woolf writes very evocatively on the streets of London. It seems very much an old story placed set during that 'bridge' between the old Victorians and the new Modernists. I loved that aspect: Victorian ways of life, their rules, norms, are very much alive, but their time is all but over, and the young generation know it. Night and Day is a great read, not Woolf's finest, but a very curious example of this changing period.

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Further Reading

Comments

  1. virginia's interest in time and space became a lot more evident in "the waves" and her later work. from my reading, she was influenced by societal changes, her father's interest in science, recent discoveries re relativity, and her own experiences which involved the phenomenon common to many, of time appearing to stop for an instant and then starting again, having to do with "frozen brain" syndrome or a sudden autistic hiatus. trying to include some of these ideas in her books caused her much labor and thought and led to migraines and other bodily infirmities; her satisfaction occurred only when she had finally finished rewriting and editing her own work and she had a space to enjoy a bit of freedom. until another idea for a book came along and enslaved her again... (these impressions are from a perusal of her diaries as edited by her husband leonard whose autobiography i'm now reading). nice post. tx...

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    1. Yes, I think your impressions are spot on! You should read that Michael Whitworth biography of Woolf - it's all in there, very helpful it is too. :)

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  2. I don't remember a lot of detail about the plot of this book, but I do remember liking it, enough that I actually bought a copy in case I ever wanted to read it again. Which I kind of feel like doing right about now. :) But then Woolf, for me, is an author to revisit. Great review!

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    1. I do get a lot more from Woolf in re-visiting her works. I tend to enjoy them the second time round, though that said I do think I preferred my first read of Night and Day :)

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  3. Since the last Woolf I read was The Voyage Out, I plan on reading this one next. It's really helpful reading your reviews to put Woolf into perspective. She's not always easy to figure out. :-)

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    1. No, but I think a lot of reading-around makes it a bit easier. Think it's good to follow The Voyage Out with this, though I do MUCH prefer 1920s Woolf :)

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  4. I really enjoyed this when I read it at the start of the month. Woolf does capture that feeling of those old Victorian mores, and then Mary and Ralph seem to herald the future changing world.

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    1. Indeed. This was my favourite aspect of it, the contrast of the old and the new :)

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  5. Great review. Like The Voyage Out, which I have just reread, it begins to break away from the Victorian model of what novels are, both in theme and form. Caroline

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  6. I'm looking forward to reading this in April.

    I think that is what I have liked most about Woolf's works - her attention to people (and their emotions and thoughts), as you mention her novels are more about her characters than the plot.

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    1. Yes, I do like that. Usually I prefer more plot-based novels to be honest (which makes me sound old-fashioned and a little stupid), but she writes so well and goes far deeper.

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    2. You? A little stupid? Not even! For one, it is a natural inclination to look for a plot. Our brains want to make sense of what we are reading, otherwise, one is lost. (I know I am.)

      With Woolf, I have given up any kind of chance for plot; so I focus on characters.

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    3. Definitely the right approach I think :)

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