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 fiancé 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.