I’m sure you’ve all heard of To the Lighthouse or maybe Mrs Dalloway? Orlando perhaps? Virginia Woolf has become one of the most famous authors of the twentieth century. However her earlier novels such as The Voyage Out and Night and Day , have always been sorely neglected by those pretentious lists produced by the Times Literary Supplement and the BBC.
Perhaps this is because it is so early on in her writing career, her second novel published in 1919 and arguably the most traditional, but this novel is often overlooked and overshadowed by the presence of its successors in the canon of English literature.
This is a shame because it has been one of my favourite novels of Woolf’s thus far.
Set in prewar Edwardian London, it revolves around four principal characters, Katharine Highbury; from a respected literary family despite having no interest in literature herself, Ralph Denham; a middle class legal clerk from Highgate that is struggling to make something of himself and support his family, William Rodney; a self-important but kind-hearted would be poet and Mary Datchet; a wealthy country vicar’s daughter that chooses to work in the suffragist movement in the heart of London.
The plot revolves around the love triangles between the four; Rodney and Denham love Katharine and Mary loves Denham. Mapped out like a Shaksperian comedy, and literary references like this are threaded throughout, it follows the traditional form of the novel and you can see the influence of older female writers like Jane Austen and Edith Wharton but with its ideas Woolf is starting to break out of the mold and you begin to see the new style that she eventually became famous for.
The most intriguing thing about Night and Day is the characters. Katharine is probably one of the most unusual and least stereotypical characters literature of this period has produced. Instead of being usually either headstrong and quick-witted or shy and naive, she is a combination of strong will and a lack of understanding of the way the world works. Most heroines of this sort seem to be obsessed with human emotion but she wants to distance herself from it as far as possible as she associates emotions with folly and the absurd formalities of Edwardian society. Through her Woolf flies in the face of two hundred years of female literary characters by asking whether Katharine should really bother getting married.
The suffragette movement and feminist theory at are the heart of the novel with Katharine typifying the restrictions on women of her class at that time; she wants to be able to live independently and study maths and astronomy like an Oxbridge scholar but is confined to the traditional role of society lady and Mary Datchet being the new suffragist woman who chooses to work and asks whether anyone can truly be happy without an occupation?
In all, Night and Day is unique amongst Virginia Woolf’s collected works. The only one to have a conventionally happy ending it takes a more conventional and upbeat tone than most of her later works. However, whilst she is treading carefully along the lines the thoughts and ideas expressed in the novel show she is getting ready to reject the morals and assurances of the society governing the novel to create her own individual morality.
In Night and Day, Woolf is learning the rules so she is better prepared to break them later.
Publisher: Oxford World Classics
Price: £5.49 (from Amazon).