|Night & Day / Virginia Woolf|
London: Penguin Classics, 2006, c1919.
We meet the beautiful, rich Katharine Hilbery at the beginning; she's there to prop up her parents and carry on the reputation of her scholar grandfather. Her mother, in particular, depends upon her to help sift through all the documents of her grandfather's life in a never-ending quest to write a biography.
Into their salon comes Ralph Denham, a young man from a different class. He is full of life and spirit, and feels both repulsed and attracted by Katharine. He is also connected with a group of activists, including Mary Datchet, a busy and competent woman who is a supporter of women's rights and is very involved in the world in every way. Katharine eventually meets her and feels quite ineffective and powerless by comparison.
Mary is in love with Ralph, who doesn't notice as he's fallen in love with Katharine, who doesn't notice because she's supposed to become engaged to poet William Rodney who is in their circle. It's a classic love triangle, or perhaps quadrangle. Unlike many of Woolf's later books, this is a love story and a social commentary on a certain class, and women's roles in many aspects in the 1910s, leading to the 20s.
It's very readable, slightly reminiscent of some of Henry James' works. It has action and characters and zest, even while showing her interest in the interiority of her characters. I really enjoyed both the dreamy reflections of Katharine and the more prosaic and practical actions of Mary. I liked both of them though they were so different.
As usual with Woolf, the men don't come off as well. Even the 'hero' of the piece is not fully charming, it's more that the women decide to put up with his lesser flaws. And although it's a romance of sorts, she still gets in her thoughts on tradition:
“Well, I really don't advise a woman who wants to have things her own way to get married.”
Many of Woolf's books are like poetry, the language stands out for itself and the imagery and beauty is key. In this book, the story propels itself in a more straightforward style, but the poetic side does come out with Katharine. She expresses things that Woolf later expresses directly without the need for a character as intermediary. Her later books embody the struggle for truthful expression that Katharine reaches for in this novel.
I really enjoyed this one, though. I like the set of younger characters who are the focus, and their view to the future (as opposed to the really Victorian attitudes of the elder characters). Their different personalities and life circumstances give us a broad picture of life at the time, and allow for various comments on different topics, via a character's eyes. All the way from little things, like should Katharine owe her time primarily to her disorganized mother's projects, or should she be allowed to do as she wishes -- to whether Mary's dedication to the cause of woman's suffrage at the expense of her own interests is noble or not.
There is talk of literature, poetry, tradition vs the new, mathematics vs fiction, women's abilities and desires, well, almost everything here. If you are looking for an easier way in to Woolf's works, this is a good route. The characters are memorable and the setting very clearly London.
Recommended, even with Katharine's bookish preferences, which are completely antithetical to blogging:
“She liked getting hold of some book... and keeping it to herself, and gnawing its contents in privacy, and pondering the meaning without sharing her thoughts with any one, or having to decide whether the book was a good one or a bad one.”