Some books are so good, they make you feel as if you and the author could honestly have been friends. As if you could sit down over a cup of tea and talk for hours…
You know, if only you’d both been alive at the same time…
The book I read this week is one of those books.
Night and Day
by Virginia Woolf
Published in 1919
I knew from the very first page that I was going to like Night and Day: it begins with a tea party.
Virginia Woolf’s second novel, Night and Day, published in 1919, is, at heart, a book about love. Undying love. Unrequited love. Comfortable, old love. Passionate new love. And the complete absence of love. It’s about all kinds of love, actually.
Our heroine, Katharine Hilbery, is a beautiful, upper-middle class woman in her early thirties, who lives with her rich, yet bizarre parents. Her grandfather was a famous English poet, which, for Katharine, is both a blessing and a curse. The family home has become a shrine, with Katharine as its high priestess. Any victim
visitor to the Hilbery’s home must be subjected to a tour of the room where they keep all the great poet’s things, shown relics, such as the poet’s pen, the poet’s desk…even the poet’s mangy old slippers. Oh, joy.
Being related to a famous British poet, everyone expects Katharine to have some kind of a talent for poetry, or at least an opinion on all things literary. However, Katharine’s secret passion has nothing to do with words at all. More than anything else in the world, Katharine wants to study mathematics – a secret she’s kept hidden her entire life.
But Katharine has a problem – or, rather, she has two problems. William Rodney is an odd, self-obsessed poet and Ralph Denham is a poor lawyer who lives in a rundown old house with his enormous family and a tame rook. Katharine’s problem? William and Ralph are both in love with her. And, to make matters worse, she loves neither of them in return. She’s never been in love, and doesn’t believe that she’s capable of falling in love with anyone.
And as if things aren’t twisted enough, there’s one more problem. Katharine’s new friend, Mary Datchet, has fallen madly in love with Ralph Denham…
When you think of Virginia Woolf, chances are you don’t think of Night and Day. She’s most remembered for her classics, like Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse and The Years, and, of course, her essay A Room of One’s Own. I have to confess – I’ve never read any of Woolf’s books before, hence I had no idea what to expect from her writing.
For instance: I wasn’t expecting to find Night and Day so funny. Night and Day is, essentially, 1919’s version of a romantic comedy. The reader is presented with four very different characters, and a love triangle that’s so complicated, it’d be more appropriate to call it a love dodecahedron.
But it’s not that simple. Night and Day is a love story that explores and ultimately deconstructs the very idea of romantic love itself, leaving us wondering…what on earth is love, anyway? Is love a genuine, authentic feeling – or is it merely something we read about in books and make up for ourselves?
At the very start of the book, this is how Ralph Denham describes falling in love with Katharine Hilbery after meeting her for the very first time:
“He was still thinking about the people in the house which he had left; but instead of remembering, with whatever accuracy he could, their books and sayings, he had consciously taken leave of the literal truth. A turn of the street, a firelit room, something monumental in the procession of the lamp-posts, who shall say what accident of light or shape had suddenly changed in his mind, and led him to murmur aloud:
‘She’ll do… Yes, Katharine Hilbery’ll do. I’ll take Katharine Hilbery.'”
– Virginia Woolf, Night and Day, pages 15 and 16
By the end of the book, Ralph is professing his undying love for Katharine, waiting outside her home at night in the hope of catching a glimpse of her (helloooo, Stephenie Meyer!) – and it all begins with the highly unromantic sentiment “She’ll do”. Hmph. “She’ll do” almost makes Katharine sound like a function, rather than a woman. Indeed, the paragraph after the one I’ve quoted above continues to describe how immediately after making his decision out loud, Ralph is filled with a sense of relief – as if a gap in his life has been filled.
And Katharine’s other suitor, William, isn’t much better. He summarises his view of marriage to Katharine with the words:
“Why, you’re nothing at all without it, you’re only half alive, using half your faculties; you must see this for yourself”
– Virginia Woolf, Night and Day, page 52
Wow. He’s a keeper. Not. William’s more interested in moulding Katharine to suit his needs, rather than appreciating her for what she is.
Chances are, you won’t like all the characters of Night and Day. If you’re the kind of reader who simply can’t read about a character you hate, you’d better steer clear of this book. You might not like some of the characters. It’s quite possible you mightn’t like any of the characters.
I think you’ll like Mary, though. She’s a Suffragette, who spends her days in an office, in front of a typewriter, fighting for the rights of women. She’s modern, independent and courageous – the only character who remains consistent throughout the whole book, while everyone else changes around her. She mightn’t be the main character of Night and Day, but I’ll never forget Mary.
Virginia Woolf’s skill for creating characters is sheer genius. The narrative follows the book’s four main characters, jumping in and out of their thoughts; between them with a degree of skill that, as a wannabe writer, takes my breath away. Transitions between the perspectives of the characters are so flawless, you barely even notice them.
Woolf’s penchant for short, witty sentences that cut straight to the heart of things is unequalled. For instance; describing Mrs. Hilbery, Katharine’s eccentric mother:
“She was perfectly adapted for life in another planet.”
– Virginia Woolf, Night and Day, page 33
ZING! Gold! I wasn’t joking when I said that Night and Day is a forerunner of the modern romantic comedy. There are several moments that will have you actually laughing out loud – many of them concerning Mrs. Hilbery and her latest absurd obsession. However, in the end, Mrs. Hilbery reveals she’s nowhere near as useless and absent-minded as she appears…
Night and Day is a largely ignored little book that actually has a surprising amount to say – in particular, about feminism; the work of women, the myth of femininity, the roles of men and women in society, the polar differences between men and women…if I even start to talk about it, this poor review will turn into an essay. But, suffice to say, you love literature that really gets you thinking, you’ll love Night and Day. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I turned the last page.
On the surface, Night and Day reads at times like a funny little love story, in the tradition of Jane Austen. However, take a look beneath – a really good look – and you’ll discover a love story that subverts the very notion of romance itself. It’s funny and devastatingly sad at the same time. It’s decades ahead of its time. It’s cheeky. And I think it’s wonderful.
Honestly, if Night and Day is Virginia Woolf’s most overlooked work, I can’t wait to read some of her great masterpieces…
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should I read it?
Night and Day is Jane Austen, with claws. Read it. It’s funny, it’s beautifully written – what more could you ask for? Oh – okay. It’s a bit long. Don’t try and read it in a week. Especially if you’ve got a full-time job. That would be plain idiotic.
In a word: