‘Night and Day’ by Virginia Woolf (Review)

Whenever I get a little behind on my reviewing, the usual strategy is to resort to my personal library and spend some time with books I’ve read before.  However, as foolproof as that plan sounds, there is a subtle flaw, as my recent experiences will show.  You see, I recently decided to reread Virginia Woolf’s excellent feminist essay A Room of One’s Own, and (of course) what do you think I did on finishing it?  I picked up another of her books – one I hadn’t read, or reviewed, before (the best-laid plans etc…). You can see where this is going, so without further ado, here’s what I made of the book.  Please read it while I get back to my rereading 😉

Night and Day, Woolf’s second novel, set in pre-WWI London, focuses on two main characters, Ralph Denham and Katharine Hilbery.  The story traces the course of their relationship from a first encounter at an afternoon tea at the Hilbery’s comfortable Chelsea mansion through a number of meetings, and the complications of other romantic entanglements, with the pair struggling to admit their true feelings to themselves or those around them.

One of the obstacles in their way is the class gulf between them.  Ralph lives in an old house in the suburbs with his widowed mother and a horde of brothers and sisters; Katharine, meanwhile, the granddaughter of a famous poet, lives a life of ease in a fashionable part of London, spending her time entertaining guests along with her parents.  However, despite the difference in their backgrounds, there’s a spark between them, which gradually builds a connection allowing them to show their true selves in the other’s company.

In a novel like this, there are bound to be complications, and these are provided here by the supporting characters.  Ralph is initially drawn to Mary Datchett, a young woman working in an organisation fighting for female suffrage, while William Rodney, a well-to-do would-be poet, is Katharine’s suitor.  Then there’s Cassandra Otway, Katharine’s flighty cousin.  Her visit late in the novel proves to be the final catalyst required to bring the main relationship to the boil, with Ralph and Katharine forced to decide whether they will follow their hearts or common sense.

Night and Day has a very different feel to other Woolf novels I’ve read.  It’s fairly long, and its romantic focus lends it the air of a Victorian novel, with more than a nod to works by the likes of Anthony Trollope (a feeling enhanced by the time the London contingent spends in the country).  It’s not always successful, and in fact Dorinda Guest’s excellent introduction describes it in places as a story where little happens; it’s certainly true that drama is at a minimum in the novel.

This is far from the whole story, though.  Night and Day is less Victorian than modernist, and the pessimistic atmosphere of the story makes it more of an elegy to Victorian literature than the real thing.  There are some similarities here with the work of Henry James (a writer I’ve never quite got along with), and there are more than a few glimpses of Woolf’s later style, especially with regard to the preference for thoughts over words.  The reader is frequently guided by what the characters are thinking rather than doing, with the writer telling us more than the characters themselves know:

“She loves me,” he thought.  The woman he admired more than anyone in the world, loved him, as he had given up hope that she would ever love him.  And now that for the first time he was sure of her love, he resented it.  He felt it as a fetter, an encumbrance, something which made them both, but him in particular, ridiculous.  He was in her power completely, but his eyes were open and he was no longer her slave or her dupe.  He would be her master in future.
p.249 (Wordsworth Editions, 2012)

This comes from the mind of William Rodney, but he shouldn’t be so sure of himself.  Feelings, like thoughts, change constantly, with the characters unable to work out what the other is thinking, and usually unwilling to ask.

In comparison with Victorian works, there’s also a slightly wider view of the world here.  These are changing times, and the classes are starting to mingle and merge, opening up the possibility of Ralph and Katharine coming together.  I was reminded by Ralph’s struggles of a slightly earlier novel, E.M. Forster’s Howards End, in particular when it comes to his desire for privacy and respect:

This particular afternoon was a step in the right direction, because it was part of his plan to get to know people beyond the family circuit, just as it was part of his plan to learn German this autumn, and to review legal books for Mr Hilbery’s Critical Review.  He had always made plans since he was a small boy; for poverty, and the fact that he was the eldest son of a large family, had given him the habit of thinking of spring and summer, autumn and winter, as so many stages in a prolonged campaign. (p.34)

Another important theme is introduced by Mary’s ‘job’ at her society.  She’s fighting the good fight, working towards votes for women, but it’s only seen as a hobby by outsiders.  Even one of her colleagues assumes that her best ideas are simply borrowed from her male friends, a sobering reality check when read in conjunction with A Room of One’s Own

The novel is full of stark contrasts between opposites and extremes, whether it’s Ralph and Katharine, Katharine and Cassandra or London and the country.  The home lives of the main protagonists are clearly different, with the (relative) poverty of Ralph and Mary in their cramped homes unmistakable.  However, Katharine’s life is not as perfect as it first appears, as her beautiful home takes on the form of a gilded cage.  She allows herself to be pulled into the impossible task of assisting her flighty mother in the writing of her grandfather’s biography, and far from providing a stimulating diversion from boredom, this becomes a stone weighing her down and dragging her back into the past.

The starkest of these contrasts, however, as the title suggests, is that between night and day, and the way the main characters behave at those times.  Ralph is surprised when he meets Katharine for a day trip, realising that she’s not the woman he remembers from their evening encounters:

He was struck dumb by finding that Katharine was quite different, in some strange way, from his memory, so that he had to dismiss his old view in order to accept the new one.  The wind was blowing her crimson scarf across her face; the wind had already loosened her hair, which looped  across the corner of one of the large, dark eyes which, so he used to think, looked sad; now they looked bright with the brightness of the sea struck by an unclouded ray; everything about her seemed rapid, fragmentary, and full of a kind of racing speed.  He realised suddenly that he had never seen her in the daylight before. (p.185)

Katharine is also struck by the contrast.  The Ralph of the daytime is gentle, amusing and courteous, but during the long evening walks through the streets of London, the pair struggle to share their emotions, as if the fading of the light causes the couple to close off their emotions to one other.

Night and Day is interesting rather than essential, and it’s certainly not the first book I’d recommend to someone wanting to try Woolf (although for lovers of V-Lit it might perhaps prove a comfortable first step).  It’s a novel showing a society in flux, and people (whole genders and classes, even) taking their first steps towards understanding the other half.  Like reading minds, though, it’s not quite as simple as it sounds, and the characters have a long way to go before they truly understand each other – but then, little changes…


7 thoughts on “‘Night and Day’ by Virginia Woolf (Review)

  1. This is probably the only Woolf I haven’t re-read over the years, I guess because I remember it as being very traditional.I prefer her when she takes off and really shakes things up, but then Mrs. Dalloway was the first of hers I read. I should earmark it for a revisit when I eventually retire! 🙂


  2. I really loved this one, it doesn’t really feel like Woolf at all, but I so love those traditional English novels I couldn’t help but love it. I think VW’s true brilliance though shines out of Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Orlando.


    1. Ali – Yes, I was rather surprised when I started reading this as it felt like a book by many other writers, just not Woolf!


  3. It does sound rather Victorian and inessential. Given how much great Woolf I have yet to read I think I’ll have to leave the lesser Woolf for now. Good luck getting back to your reading!


    1. Max – Well, we all have to start somewhere (it would have been a bit too impressive if Woolf had kicked off her career with ‘Mrs Dalloway’ and ‘To the Lighthouse’!).


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