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Virginia Woolf

Night and Day (1919)

In Night and Day, Virginia Woolf appears to have taken the plot of her husband Leonard’s 1914 novel, The Wise Virgins, and refitted it to accommodate the facts of her own engagement to him, with the significant difference of patterning the new heroine not upon herself but upon her sister, Vanessa, in every way a woman whom we would call more normal and adjusted (however ‘liberated’) than Virginia. As always with Woolf, familiarity with the facts of her life will afford the satisfaction of watching a writer turn life into art. Night and Day stands out in Woolf’s shelf of novels, however, as an example of romantic comedy in the high, melancholy-tinged style of Shakespeare and Mozart.

At the outset, Katharine Hilbery does what everyone has expected her to do and accepts the suit of William Rodney, a poet with a good job (apparently) at the Board of Education, while Mary Datchett, an independent young woman who’s volunteering at a Suffragist office while living alone near the Strand, conceives a passion for Ralph Denham, a junior solicitor who does some writing on the side for a Review edited by Katharine’s father. This last connection, of course, introduces Ralph to Katharine, and they get off to the kind of bad start that would later become a staple of screwball comedy (although without the pratfalls). The scheme of these interrelationships, however, is buried in leisurely, at times almost aimless, opening scenes. All we know at first is that Ralph and Katharine are meant for each other, and that their respective other halves, William and Mary, share not the slightest soupçon of mutual interest.

The impossibility of fashioning two loving couples out of the four characters who dominate the bulk of the book produces the only lapse of economy in the structure of Night and Day. A fifth character must be called to the dance. Because Night and Day is at heart a romantic comedy in the tradition of All’s Well That Ends Well, the only way to dispose of William is to kindle his interest in another woman, and since Mary Datchett won’t do, the role of second ingénue falls to Cassandra Otway, Katharine’s country cousin. Cassandra makes her first, oblique, appearance at a Christmas family gathering at the Otway’s house somewhere outside of Lincoln, and the reader will be forgiven for not paying her the attention that her subsequent history will merit. Only later will the reader learn that while Woolf occupied us with Katharine’s extremely disenchanted feelings about William, her cousin Cassandra and he were discovering a promising, if innocent, compatibility. For the moment all we can tell is that Katharine and William get on each other’s nerves.

Meanwhile, Mary Datchett is entertaining Ralph Denham at her father’s vicarage – also outside of Lincoln. The novel’s seventeenth chapter brings the two couples together in the most beautifully choreographed set-piece, equivalent to an ensemble in Mozart, that I’ve come across in Woolf’s fiction. It begins with Mary and Ralph walking to Lincoln for the day, and heartily avoiding the roads.

They agreed, unconsciously, in a mute love for the muddy field through which they tramped, with eyes narrowed close by the concentration of their minds. At length they drew breath, let the argument fly away into the limbo of other good arguments, and, leaning over a gate, opened their eyes for the first time and looked about them. Their feet tingled with warm blood and their breath rose in a steam about them around them. The bodily exercise made them both feel more direct and less self-conscious than usual, and Mary, indeed, was overcome by a sort of light-headedness which made it seem to her that it mattered very little what happened next. It mattered so little, indeed, that she felt herself on the point of saying to Ralph:

‘I love you; I shall never love anybody else. Marry me or leave me; think what you like of me – I don’t care a straw.’ At the moment, however, speech or silence seemed immaterial, and she merely clapped her hands together, and looked at the distant woods landscape through the steam of her own breath. It seemed a mere toss-up whether she said, ‘I love you,’ or whether she said, ‘I love the beech-trees,’ or only ‘I love – I love.’184

This is the beginning of the most beautifully choreographed set-piece that I’ve come across in Woolf’s fiction. Ralph and Mary make their way to Lincoln and have lunch at an inn there while Woolf treats us, with characteristic exactitude, to the stream of disappointments, misinterpretations, and sudden revelations that run beneath the surface of their conversation. Then Ralph sees Katharine through the window, and imperceptibly the focus shifts from one couple to the other. Katharine and William are also in Lincoln, having accompanied Mrs. Hilbery in the Otway carriage. On the way back to Stogdon House, however, William stops the carriage and alights with Katharine, so that they can walk the rest of the way in the privacy that he demands for the airing of his grievances with his fiancée. The chapter, then, fairly ends as a reverse of its beginning, with Katharine’s thoughts and remarks counterpointing Mary’s.

We have known almost from the beginning that William is not the most prepossessing of lovers.

The first sight of Mr. Rodney was irresistibly ludicrous. He was very red in the face, whether from the cool November night or nervousness, and every movement, from the way he wrung his hands to the way he jerked his head to right and left, as though a vision drew him now to the door, now to the window, bespoke his horrible discomfort under the stare of so many eyes. He was scrupulously well-dressed, and a pearl in the centre of his tie seemed to give him a touch of aristocratic opulence. But the rather prominent eyes and the impulsive stammering manner, which seemed to indicate a torrent of ideas intermittently pressing for utterance and always checked in their course by a clutch of nervousness, drew no pity, as in the case of a more imposing personage, but a desire to laugh, which was, however, entirely lacking malice. Mr. Rodney was evidently so painfully conscious of the oddity of his appearance, and his very redness and the starts to which his body was liable gave such proof of his own discomfort, that there was something endearing in this ridiculous susceptibility, although most people would probably have echoed Denham’s private exclamation, ‘Fancy marrying a creature like that!’

As I think this passage promises, with its kindly smile in the place of a more masculine writer’s inevitable laughter, Woolf’s handling of William Rodney throughout Night and Day is ‘entirely lacking in malice.’ He may look ludicrous, but he is not ridiculous. Katharine Hilbery and her creator both take William’s preoccupation with appearances very seriously, because among well-bred English of 1914 there is simply no alternative to doing so. That’s to say that no alternative has been worked out. Mary Datchett and Ralph Denham both long for one, and Katharine shares their impatience with the forms. But Katharine not only cannot dump William, she cannot even imagine dumping him until Cassandra materializes as a replacement. More than that, Katharine has to keep up the pretence of the engagement so that William’s access to Cassandra – whom he could not possibly see were he to break off with her cousin – won’t be disturbed.

The difference between men and women is arguably the only difference between the lovers. That this is no small thing is the thrust of a notable passage from the description of their outing to Kew Gardens:

She then asked him to inform her about flowers. To her they were variously shaped and coloured petals, poised, at different seasons of the year, upon very similar green stalks, but to him they were, in the first instance, bulbs or seeds, and later, living things endowed with sex, and pores, and susceptibilities which adapted and could be fashioned squat or tapering, flame-coloured or pale, pure or spotted, by processes which might reveal the secrets of human existence.281

In common, however, they both toss between the day of practical affairs and the night of contemplation, and of course it’s in sharing this back-and-forth that marks them as suited. Even though they both meet the demands of everyday life with more than ordinary competence – both, for example, are the functional heads of their households – the lovers long for their dream lives, and admitting that they’re in love with one another isn’t enough. It’s only when they share their dreams – an inadvertent event induced, with Tempest-like magic, by Mrs. Hilbery – that they consent to become engaged. The distance between merely recognizing their love and fully accepting it is sixteen pages in my edition; it’s also the difference between night and day.

The earlier passage bobs on the surface of a climax that in its manipulation of surprises and stage directions is almost comically dramatic. By now, the initially submerged schematics have pierced through the narrative and practically constitute its setting. While William, Cassandra, and the suddenly awakened Mr. Hilbery frantically confront the embarrassment of irregular relations, Katharine and Ralph closet themselves in the dining room and with maddening listlessness hash over what makes their love impossible.

They were trying to explain, not for the first time, as their weary gestures and frequent interruptions showed, what in their common language they had christened their ‘lapses’; a constant source of distress to them, in the past few days… What was the cause of these lapses? Either because Katharine looked more beautiful, or more strange, because she wore something different, or said something unexpected, Ralph’s sense of her romance welled up and overcame him either into silence or into inarticulate expressions, which Katharine, with unintentional but invariable perversity, interrupted or contradicted with some severity or assertion of prosaic fact. Then the vision disappeared, and Ralph expressed vehemently in his turn the conviction that he only loved her shadow and cared nothing for her reality. If the lapse was on her side it took the form of gradual detachment until she became completely absorbed in her own thoughts, which carried her away with such intensity that she sharply resented any recall to her companion’s side. It was useless to assert that these trances were always originated by Ralph himself, however little in their later stages they had to do with him. The fact remained that she had no need of him and was very loath to be reminded of him. How then, could they be in love? The fragmentary nature of their relationship was but too apparent.403

The following afternoon, Mrs. Hilbery returns from her pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s tomb and proceeds to set the lovers’ mess to rights. She rounds up Ralph and William at their offices, brings them back to Cheyne Walk, and sends Ralph straight up to Katharine’s room at the top of the house. He is still holding a piece of paper on which he has been trying to write a letter to Katharine, but only succeeded in decorating with a strange doodle; he finds her also holding the papers on which she has been working her mathematical problems. She drops hers; he picks them up and hands her his.

Katharine read his sheets to an end; Ralph followed her figures as far as his mathematics would let him. They came to the end of their tasks at about the same moment, and sat for a time in silence.

‘Those were the papers you left on the seat at Kew,’ said Ralph at length. ‘You folded them so quickly that I couldn’t see what they were.’

She blushed very deeply; but as she did not move or attempt to hide her face she had the appearance of someone disarmed of all defences, or Ralph likened her to a wild bird just settling with wings trembling to fold themselves within reach of his hand. The moment of exposure had been exquisitely painful – the light shed startlingly vivid. She had now to get used to the fact that some one shared her loneliness. … She hardly dared steep herself in the infinite bliss. But his glance seemed to ask for some assurance upon another point of vital interest to him. It beseeched her mutely to tell him whether what she had read upon his confused sheet had any meaning or truth to her. She bent her head once more to the papers she held.

‘I like your little dot with the flames round it,’ she said meditatively.

Ralph nearly tore the page from her hand in shame and despair when he saw her actually contemplating the idiotic symbol of his most confused and emotional moments.

He was convinced that it could mean nothing to another, although somehow to him it conveyed not only Katharine herself but all those states of mind which had clustered round her since he first saw her pouring out tea on a Sunday afternoon. It represented by its circumference of smudges surrounding a central blot all that encircling glow which for him surrounded, inexplicably, so many of the objects of life, softening their sharp outline, so that he could see certain streets, books, and situations wearing a halo almost perceptible to the physical eye. Did she smile? Did she put the paper down wearily, condemning it not only for its inadequacy but for its falsity? Was she going to protest once more that he only loved the vision of her? But it did not occur to her that this diagram had anything to do with her. She said simply, and in the same tone of reflection:

‘Yes, the world looks something like that to me too.’

He received her assurance with profound joy.419-21

Thus a hopelessly romantic couple determines to avoid romance. (September 2001)


Woolf in the Kitchen

Who’s afraid of yet another biography of Virginia Woolf? I was. There really haven’t been that many, and off the top of my head the only one I remember is Quentin Bell’s, published here about 25 years ago. It just seemed for a while that Mrs. Woolf and Bloomsbury were everywhere, and then it seemed that everyone got sick of them – and, finally, Bette Midler did her California home over in the ‘Charleston’ style that Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell concocted with Duncan Grant. Thanks to my participation in an Internet reading group, however, I sent off for a copy of Hermione Lee’s and actually got around to reading it. It may have been the best biography of anybody that I’ve ever read, scrupulous but not tendentious, affectionate but not indulgent. No one has ever ‘made sense’ of Virginia Woolf better than Lee; beyond articulating the facts of Woolf’s life, she explains the problems of a very troubled existence.

My reward for plowing through Lee on Woolf was the image of an highly individuated woman overwhelmed by fashionable conceptions class and social purpose. Fashionable, that is, on the left, which is where Woolf perched awkwardly all her life, more out of rebellion than sympathy. A recurring term in her remarks that Lee quotes is ‘egotism.’ Primarily a masculine failing in Woolf’s view, egotism also menaced her from within. Every writer must grapple with the important distinction between adding value to the reader’s mind and merely exhibiting mental quirks. Certainly many critics found Woolf’s novels solipsistic. What seems, from Lee’s account, to have overwhelmed Woolf was the onset of a second Great War. She had spent most the first in thrall to her strange madness, which as far as I can make out combined manic-depressive disorder with a profound uncertainty about her role as a woman. The Hitler war promised to be much worse; Woolf and her husband rightly suspected that their names were on a Nazi list of Britons to be rounded up in the event of invasion. Worse, perhaps, was the inevitable marginalizing of the arts – particularly of an art as tentative and, not incidentally, pacifist as Woolf’s. It’s a pity that she wasn’t evacuated to Canada (not that this seems to have occurred to anybody), but it’s an even greater pity that she was surrounded, throughout her writing career, by people who believed in collective action, in parties, societies, committees, petitions, and the submersion of the individual in the social will. Woolf was never able to remain in any of the groups that she joined; although she made the most of personal encounters, she was constitutionally incapable of making herself behave as part of a larger whole. Being a loner in her highly politicized milieu roused a nagging guilt that in the end, I believe, swamped her faith in herself. (September 2001)

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