15 February 2020

Night and Day by Virginia Woolf

Oh how I loved this story.  Blend together a literature-loving middle-class family in Cheyne Walk, a large and loving family of lesser means in Highgate, and a feminist campaigning from Russell Square for the right to vote.  Then add five characters who are either eager to propose, be proposed to, or questioning the point of marrying at all.  With Woolf's clever prose and some snort-inducing scenes of razor-sharp wit, Night and Day is one of my favourites by this author.  And it begins with a tea party.....

'A single glance was enough to show that Mrs Hilbery was so rich in the gifts which make tea-parties of elderly distinguished people successful that she scarcely needed any help from her daughter, provided that the tiresome business of teacups and bread and butter was discharged for her.'

Ralph Denham is a young lawyer, working at Lincoln's Inn.  His invitation to take tea with the Hilbery family in Cheyne Walk is through his association with Mr Trevor Hilbery, for whom he has written a few articles.  As the other guests are over the age of forty, Ralph and Katharine Hilbery are drawn together as young allies.  As the young lady of the house, she provides a short tour of the lounge, pointing out works on the shelves by her esteemed grandfather, the poet Richard Alardyce.  Ralph is quietly awestruck as he would love nothing more than to write.  Katharine has a passion of her own, one that would surely come as a shock to her literary family.....she loves maths, science and physics.

Elsewhere in London Mary Datchet, in her mid-twenties, readies her flat for a gathering of 'free thinkers'.  It's possible that Woolf''s snobbery comes out while describing Mary's clumsiness as a suggestion of country birth and a descent from respectable hard-working ancestors.  Or we can give Woolf the benefit of the doubt and label her description as a humourous one.  Mary is the counterbalance to many Edwardian women in that she is fiercely independent, loves going to work in an office each day, and would rather be a spinster than marry a man for the sake of it.  Ralph Denham appears at her door as a member of the free-thinkers group.  The banter between Mary and Ralph flows easily; they're the best of friends. 

And then there's William Rodney.  He works as a clerk in a government office.  During his time out of office he is a frustrated poet.  He scores full marks with Katharine's parents in this regard but oh he comes across as one of the wettest characters I've stumbled across for some time.  It's been ages since a character has reminded me so much of Austen's Mr Collins.  After some hesitation and inner turmoil (and my silent pleas of 'Oh dear god, no!') Katharine becomes engaged to William.  Being a 'good' daughter during the Edwardian era wasn't easy; her head and her heart are all over the place.  She heeds the words of her parents, but since her acquaintance with Ralph that day over tea he has become unforgettable.  But Katharine's fate is not solely based on a man, she also considers the possibility of a future in the world of equations, something her mother describes as ugliness.  This comes from a woman who swoons over all things to do with Shakespeare.

Another character I thoroughly enjoyed was Aunt Celia.  She pops up now and then to meddle with other people's children because she's got none of her own.  Also, as a point of interest when it comes to London's tea shop history, this is the first time I've come across an A.B.C. tea shop in a novel.  There were at least two hundred of these shops in which a lady could rest and enjoy a cup of tea or small meal without a male escort but it's usually the Lyons Corner Shops that get the mention.

Night and Day is a brilliant novel for anyone looking for an undemanding introduction to Woolf's writing.  Which might be part of the problem.  When it was published in 1919, critics and friends found it to be slightly lacking, a bit light.  It doesn't even rate a mention in my copy of The Reader's Companion to the 20th-Century Novel which is such a shame.  I will be doing my bit to spread the word about this novel, and why a producer at one of the studios hasn't taken a look at this story as a series to get us through the winter, I'll never know.

    Edwardian Portrait of a Woman by F. H. Michael
(1922)