“I’ve seen more trouble come from long engagements than from any other forms of human folly.”
Night and Day – Virginia Woolf’s second novel is a social comedy and a love story but also a subtle examination of women’s roles. The narrative, like that of The Voyage Out – which I read last year – is much more conventional than her later modernist novels To the Lighthouse, and Mrs Dalloway that I read in January. Although a little over four hundred pages it is a novel with a very simple plot – it is however, the complex, changing relationships between the central characters, which give the novel its depth. I enjoyed it enormously – it isn’t a difficult read, and these were characters I liked spending time with.
Night and Day is a slightly longer novel than I associate with Woolf, I confess on a busy tiring week it took me the whole week to read. The prose is less poetic than To the Lighthouse for example and Orlando which I read last year. The structure of the novel and the narrative are tighter – more so even, I think than her first novel, which had a more meandering quality at times. Woolf uses several recurring motifs throughout the novel, the sky, stars the River Thames and walking – especially through London recur time and again. Women’s suffrage and the question of whether love and marriage can co-exist are explored in this novel through the fortunes of four main characters. Set in the very early twentieth century before or around the First World War – this is a society on the brink of change – Victorian attitudes still abound in many quarters – while a younger generation look toward the future. It has been suggested that Woolf’s fragile mental state during this period can account for her not making any reference to the wider political world, or the war – the reports of which had severely traumatised her.
Katharine Hilbery is beautiful and privileged, her family one of the foremost in the country – her mother the daughter of a famous poet. Uncertain of her future, frequently restless, Katharine must choose between two men. The first; William Rodney is a poet and dramatist; he is attracted to Katharine fascinated by the stories of her grandfather. Margaret – Katharine’s mother spends much of her time trying to organise documents and her own recollections of her famous unconventional father into a biography. Mrs Hilbery counts on Katharine’s help, and Katharine quietly submits to helping her mother.
William Rodney seems the obvious choice – he is certainly more of Katharine’s class. At the tea party which is in full swing as the novel opens, Ralph Denham is captivated by Katharine of whom he says to himself when alone following their first meeting;
“She’ll do …Yes, Katharine Hilbery’ll do… I’ll take Katharine Hilbery.”
Ralph is a middle class lawyer – obliged to earn his living – he must also support his mother and several younger siblings. Contributing the occasional article for Katharine’s father’s journal, Ralph has vague aspirations to living in a cottage and writing a history book. From the moment Ralph leaves the Hilbery house in Cheyne Walk after that tea party he is in pursuit of Katharine.
Mary Datchet is the daughter of a country vicar – living independently in London Mary chooses to work rather than having to. Mary works for an organisation campaigning for Women’s suffrage. In her office – realistically portrayed by Woolf – we meet Mr Clacton and Sally Seal who Mary works alongside. Mary is a friend of both Katharine and Ralph, frequently the person they each, separately run to confide in over tea in her rooms. Mary falls in love with Ralph, dreams of a future with him in the country cottage he sometimes speaks of, but when Ralph does recklessly propose (frustrated in his own romantic hopes) Mary senses his insincerity – and backs away. Mary was definitely my personal favourite of the characters – I would have liked to have much more of her in the novel.
Unsurprisingly Katharine does become engaged to William Rodney. Katharine is not always convinced of the need of marriage – she is less shocked than others by news of a cousin living with a woman out of wedlock. It is Katharine who first has doubts – but shocked by William’s distress when she begins to talk to him – she allows the engagement to stand. There remains a coolness between the couple, and when it seems their marriage must be delayed for several months – neither of them seems very concerned.
“…to be engaged to marry someone with whom you are not in love is an inevitable step in a world where the existence of passion is only a traveller’s story brought from the heart of deep forests and told so rarely that wise people doubt whether the story can be true.”
William believes that it is only with marriage that a woman’s existence can be truly validated; he rather resents any signs of Katharine’s independence. During the Christmas holidays, spent at the country home of Katharine’s relatives William had met Cassandra Otway – a cousin of Katharine’s – Cassandra is very representative of Victorian womanhood – a good sweet kind of girl, she’s not as clever as Katharine; who studies mathematics in secret. Now back in London, William begins to wonder what his own feelings are after all. Katharine, Ralph and Mary each represent the changing attitudes, new ideas and modernism.
“Why, she reflected, should there be this perpetual disparity between the thought and the action, between the life of solitude and the life of society, this astonishing precipice on one side of which the soul was active and broad daylight, on the other side of which it was contemplative and dark as night? Was it not possible to step from one to the other, erect, and without essential change? Was this not the chance he offered her – the rare and wonderful chance of friendship.”
Ralph sees Katharine from time to time, discouraged by her engagement, feeling she will soon be lost to him forever; Ralph takes to following Katharine through the streets – standing outside her home hoping to catch a glimpse. This all makes Ralph sound rather more sinister – he isn’t – though he is an intense young man, a man of ideas, and frustrations, he sits brooding in his room at the top of his family home with a tame rook for company – gazing out over London from his window.
As other people may be reading this for phase two of #Woolfalong in the next few weeks I’ll stop short of saying anything about the ending. Night and Day is very beautifully written, the characters fully fleshed out, it’s probably Woolf’s most conventional novel, as well as her longest, and so I have read somewhere, the one she came to like least. I liked it very much indeed. In a way Night and Day is one of those perfect English novels, although it might not be the kind of novel we associate with Virginia Woolf.