Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day

14272407.jpg I have now finished Virginia Woolf’s novel Night and Day, and have mixed but mostly positive feelings about it. As I expected, it doesn’t live up to her masterpieces, To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, and, as I didn’t expect, it has some odd moments and some tedious ones, but overall it’s an enjoyable, interesting novel.

The novel tells the story of five young people who fall in and out of love with each other. There’s Katherine Hilbery and her fiancĂ© William Rodney, first of all; Katherine is the granddaughter of a famous poet and she and her mother are working (not very successfully) on his biography. They spend their days surrounded by his papers and their memories; in spite of her family history, however, Katherine is not terribly literary and prefers to work on mathematics problems in secret. William is a rather surprising choice for Katherine — while she’s fairly free-thinking and open-minded, he’s conventional to a fault, particularly so in his views about proper womanly behavior. His ideal woman is not likely to spend her free time working at math.

And then there are Mary Datchet and Ralph Denham, both of whom come from decidedly less comfortable circumstances than the other characters. Mary lives on her own and spends her days working for women’s suffrage; Katherine envies her independence, although Mary worries where it is taking her — she doesn’t want to end up like the eccentrics she works with, so devoted to a cause that they can’t see beyond it and begin to lose their common sense. Mary and Ralph are good friends; Ralph lives with his family and works as a lawyer, although he dreams of owning a cottage in the country where he can work on his writing.

These four meet early on in the novel and later are joined by a fifth, Cassandra, Katherine’s cousin, who steps in to make this already-complicated love quadrangle even more complicated. I won’t tell you all the twists and turns of who falls in love with whom; I’ll just say that much of the novel involves these young people agonizing over what it means to be in love, whether love is even possible for them, what kind of marriage they want, and when and if they should confess their feelings to each other.

The novel is fairly traditional in its structure — it’s about romance after all — and yet it doesn’t quite feel like a Victorian novel; there’s so much focus on introspection and shifting states of consciousness that it seemed to me clearly a 20C work (published in 1919). In fact, it reminded me a little of D.H. Lawrence’s work (although it’s been a while since I’ve read him) and also of Elizabeth Bowen’s in the way that the characters didn’t act like any people I know and didn’t talk like them either; they do things like suddenly appearing at each other’s houses, making strange pronouncements, and then just as suddenly leaving. But a novelist doesn’t have to create characters who are like people I know, after all, and Woolf seems to have another purpose in mind: capturing the ins and outs of consciousness in all its shifts and ambiguities. What is familiar to me is the back and forth movement of the characters, the way they struggle to know themselves when the “selves” they are exploring never stay the same.

Familiar as it is, this back and forth could get a bit tedious at times, especially towards the end — in fact, the book starts off more traditionally than it ends, I think — and I wished now and then that the characters would just make up their minds. I was flummoxed by one bizarre moment when in the midst of a heated discussion between Katherine and William all the sudden Cassandra appears from behind the curtains, having apparently been hiding there, although Woolf doesn’t prepare us for this and never offers any explanation. It was just a clumsy way of advancing the plot, I suppose. But the plot seems less important than character development, and a device like this one serves to put the characters in an interesting new situation.

In spite of some flaws, though, I enjoyed the way Woolf captures the fleeting moods and emotions of her characters, and particularly the way she portrays the dynamics among men and women in a time when women were close to gaining the vote. It’s painful to watch William casually dismiss women’s intelligence as unnecessary, but even Ralph, a much more sympathetic character, can be dismissive at times, and Katherine remains uncertain about whether she believes in women’s right to vote or not. Mary is the most modern character among them in this respect, but she is also the character who suffers the most, a fact that speaks, perhaps, to the difficulty of taking the political stand that she does.

I plan to read the chapter on this novel from Julia Briggs’s book Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life; I’ll let you know if I find new insights on the novel there.

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

12 responses to “Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day

  1. How very interesting! I am a fan of The Years, which is often considered not such a Woolf-y book as some of her great classics. But I quite like her in more conventional frames of mind (for all its brilliance, I have never been able to read The Waves all the way through). Great review, Dorothy!

  2. Wonderful review. You remind me how little of Woolf’s fiction I have read. How interesting though to see how her style changed as she developed as a writer.

  3. I read this one some years ago now, and recall it as not so “Woolf-y” as Mrs. Dalloway etc. I want to reread it now that I’ve read more of Woolf and might have a better idea of where it fits in her work. (I still like “The Waves” best of all…)

  4. I read this last year Dorothy, and I know what you mean–it is on the long side and somewhat dragged out. It seems I read that Woolf was not really happy with this book after the fact, so I suppose it must have been sort of transitional for her. I was disappointed with Ralph–that he fell for Katherine when all along she seemed so indecisive and Mary seemed to know her mind so well. Typical, though, really. I guess it reflected well the times and mentality though.

  5. You might find it interesting to read the sections in Woolf’s journal that correspond to the writing of the novel. You don’t have to go for the whole thing, there is a selected edition called ‘A Writer’s Life’ which just pulls out the entries to do with the books.

  6. Litlove — I struggled with The Waves too, although I’m going to try again. I’m planning on reading all her novels in order, so I’ll get to The Years eventually — I’m looking forward to it!

    Stefanie — thank you! I’m enjoying my very leisurely read-through of her work; I’ve never done this before, and I like it!

    Melanie — I admire you for admiring The Waves so much! I’m looking forward to reading it again, actually, to see if I appreciate it more the second time around.

    Danielle — I read that about Woolf too, that she didn’t like this novel so much. I’m glad I didn’t learn that before I picked up the book! Yeah, Ralph’s choice was kind of annoying; Mary seemed much worthier a person, didn’t she?

    Ann — I’ll have to get that book! I want to read all the journals, but it will take me forever to do it, so A Writer’s Life would be a good book to get.

  7. I could not finish Night and Day. I seem to drop out of every novel where characters spend considerable effort speculating about how the others feel and think while they sabotage every single opportunity of expressing their real feelings and thoughts when they are face to face.

    Sometimes, victorian novels seem to be telling us that life would be better without speech or writing, because these two means of communication seem to systematically counter-productive in human relations.

  8. Mandarine — I can see how Night and Day could be frustrating! I felt frustrated at some points. I suppose I was more sympathetic to the story because what you describe strikes me as highly realistic — I mean, I’m quite likely myself to do the kind of agonizing you describe, counter-productive as it is. That doesn’t mean it makes for wonderfully stimulating reading, though.

    And you hit on the difficulty of speech and writing so well — we need them for communication, yes, but how well do they actually work??

  9. verbivore

    Wonderful review, Dorothy. Looking at Gordimer right now the way I think you have been studying Woolf reminds me how fascinating it is to look at an author from the beginning to the end, at their development. It’s clear that Woolf was fascinated with the inner life aspects of her characters but finding a “plot” or a story arc to express all she wanted to reveal must have been difficult.

  10. Thank you Verbivore. You’re right, I think, that it took Woolf a while to figure out how to say what she wanted to say. She shows she can do the traditional novel, but that it’s not really where her heart is at.

  11. Dakota

    I am currently reading this novel and can’t seem to convince myself to finish it — which is unfortunate. I like the odd moments where you’re left suspended in anxiety wondering along with the characters what exactly the other is thinking, but I can only endure so much (especially since certain chapters can be tedious).

    As opposed to mandarine’s interpretation, I actually view this novel as portraying not that speech and writing are counter-productive, but that societal norms and expectations often cloud and interrupt our ability to properly express ourselves.

  12. Cliff Cook

    I picked up the novel randomely from the shelf, thinking that I might as well give it another chance, having abandoned it several times before. My copy is a paperback, perhaps 30 years old, yellowing and spotted, so this was perhaps the last chance…

    For about the first half i was swept up with the insights offered and the dynamic between the characters. In fact I couldn’t put it down but had to restrict myself in order to get my daily routine done. i think that this was because the first half was all uncertainty, and this is what woolf explores so well. The more the characters come together, though, the more sentimental and stereotyped do things become – tears, in particular, turning me off – and the constant reversals – Do I love him, do I not? Does he love me, does he not? – make me care less and less. To be even more exact; every time that word LOVE crashes in – and it crashes in too much – it’s as though the beautiful, sharp Woolf style softens into a kind of gunge.

    Since the writing and reception of “The Voyage Out”, her first novel, brought about a breakdown, it is perhaps natural that she tried to make something more solid, conventional and safe of “Night and Day”, (which, incidentally, is a really inept title for a book which should be called something like “Choices”.)

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