A blog for everything bookish

Sunday 12 October 2014

Reading Virginia Woolf: Night and Day

Virginia Woolf’s second book is described as a portrait of her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, and the dedication in the opening is quite adorable:


But, looking for a phrase,
I found none to stand
beside your name.

Written before Woolf had developed her experimental approach to fiction, this is another somewhat conventional story which stands out largely because of Woolf’s strength in characterisation, her humour and observational skills.

Woolf & Bell
Night and Day tells the story of Katherine Hilbery, a young women possessed of a significant heritage both in terms of broad familial connections and a Grandfather who was an extremely famous poet. When the book opens, Katherine is entertaining at afternoon tea. It is immediately apparent that this is an activity with which Katherine is familiar and which barely absorbs her attention. As Woolf says: “Perhaps a fifth 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 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 sixth hundredth time, perhaps, without bringing into play any of her unoccupied faculties.” Thus we are introduced to the stifling world of Katherine Hilbery, a world which does not absorb her and neither allows her the facility to express herself normally and naturally.

Quickly we are introduced to the character of Ralph Denham. A young man who works in the law and writes articles for Katherine’s father’s paper and is a very capable young man. Ralph is most uncomfortable sitting to tea, and more uncomfortable when Katherine is engaged to introduce him to the family relics: a small room containing artefacts, paintings, literature all to the glory of her family history. In consequence, Ralph, driven by discomfort, proceeds to demolish the idea of a significant heritage in a somewhat brutal manner:

“’You’ll never know anything first hand,’ he began, almost savagely. ‘It’s all been done for you. You’ll never know the pleasure of buying things after saving up for them, or reading books for the first time, or making discoveries.’”

So we are introduced to the key players of the story. Awkward, poor and somewhat cold and savage Ralph Denham and the privileged but stifled Katherine Hilbery. Of course Ralph falls in love with Katherine very quickly. Katherine, however, becomes engaged to be married to William Rodney, a poet with a delicate ego with whom she has been linked for some time. Ralph, on the other hand, contemplates marriage with Mary Datchet, an independent woman who works in a society campaigning for women’s suffrage. Mary Datchet is in love with Ralph, and though her feelings are not returned (and what more, she knows it) she still harbours, yet tries to quash, hopeful feelings for a relationship with Ralph. Their encounters are awkward and difficult, and Ralph as a character rarely behaves in a conventional way.

The story is, as I’ve mentioned, nothing groundbreaking and is, in some respects, quite predictable. Despite this, it is an excellent read. I found Night and Day extremely entertaining, joyous even. It is something of a comedy of errors, a book with a twinkle in its eye (perhaps because it slow closely mirrored Vanessa Bell’s own life). In many ways it reminded me of a George Eliot novel (Middlemarch, specifically) with the same sharp sense of humour, complex characterisation and witty interaction. As with all Woolf’s novels it is beautifully written, like here:

“Into the same black night, almost, indeed, into the very same layer of starlit air, Katherine Hilbery was now gazing, although not with a view to the prospects of a fine day for duck shooting on the morrow. She was walking up and down a gravel path in the garden of Stodgon House, her sight of the heavens being partially intercepted by the light leafless hoops of a pergola. This a spray of clematis would completely obscure Cassiopeia, or blot out with its black pattern myriads of miles of the Milky Way. At the end of the pergola, however, there was a stone seat, from which the sky could be seen completely swept clear of any earthly interruptions, save to the right, indeed, where a line of elm-trees was beautifully sprinkled with stars, and a low stable building had a full drop of quivering silver just issuing from the mouth of the chimney.”

Where Woolf excels herself is, again, in her characterisation. Perhaps aided by having modelled her characters on real people, she is adept at drawing out key character traits and magnifying them to create complex, but realistic people. Thus Katherine is stifled, strange and unknowable, not very kind and somewhat calculating (especially when studying mathematics!); Ralph Denham is awkward, gruff and difficult but with a poetic and philosophical soul; William Rodney is ridiculous and easily offended, and yet can be extremely kind and considerate; Mary Datchet is strong and industrious, a truly independent woman whose role in the society may be somewhat minor and the society itself a little laughable and yet she has passion and will work solidly towards achieving her goal. There is even a ridiculous mother, who turns out to be something more, and a father who is idealistic but lazy and weak willed. Every character that appears has clearly definable features and acts in an entirely consistent way.

Perhaps the surprise character in Night and Day is London, a character Woolf returns to repeatedly amongst her fiction. Night and Day, if a love story, is a love story to the city. Woolf’s pleasure in London shines through the pages; she paints it in night and day as a city of attractions, of simple pleasures: travelling on the omnibuses or merely walking its streets. Having recently stumbled across Russell Square, I was able to visualise the houses in which the societies meet, and Mary Datchet walking across the gardens to take her lunch. It is vividly drawn, a very real presence in the novel.

Night and Day is a highly entertaining read, perhaps more so that The Voyage Out which is more tragically drawn. If you enjoy the novels of Eliot or Austen there is much to be treasured here. In its essence it depicts society in its pre-War era, a golden era of Victorian Britain with the Tube system operational, omnibuses on every street, Kew Gardens and afternoon tea. It is twee and quaint, yet there is change striving between the comedic moments: women’s suffrage, the breakdown of strict social conventions (Katherine and Ralph consider not marrying). It is easy to miss the serious points because the book is otherwise so playful, yet it contains Woolf’s customary insight and wisdom, and there are many fine moments that will make you think.

I enjoyed Night and Day immensely. For sheer enjoyment, this has been my favourite of Woolf’s works so far.

Night and Day receives a pleasureable 9 out of 10 Bii’s.  

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