After reading Vanessa and Her Sister, I was reminded of how much I’d enjoyed The Voyage Out when I’d read it a few years ago. So I decided it was time to revisit Virginia Woolf, this time in the form of Night and Day. With a different understanding of her as a writer and with more experience and awareness of certain feminist issues, I found Night and Day an intriguing look at the way that love and marriage were presented and understood by society in Woolf’s day contrasted with the thoughts and feelings of characters that resonate with a transcendent timelessness.
Katherine Hilbery is the granddaughter of a nationally renowned poet, giving her family a certain level of prestige and putting them under added social scrutiny. Because of the literary nature of their brand of fame, Katherine is used to people making assumptions about her own poetic tendencies, though in reality, they are nonexistent. She is used to being around people who are unaware of their own false illusions of her. Katherine develops a jaded view of love and marriage but desires the freedom that marriage and a home of her own can offer. Her friends and family offer their own understandings and advice on the subject and a new acquaintance, young solicitor Ralph Denham, serve to further confuse Katherine’s feelings and beliefs. Soon all the young adults in her circle of friends find themselves asking what is love? How does one know one is in love? And if you are in love, what can you do about it?
Beyond simply examining love and marriage in the context of a world when the practice of marrying for advantage and convenience was beginning to shift to a preference of marrying for love, Night and Day has a distinctly feminist tinge that is impossible to ignore. There is, of course, the background politics surrounding the women’s suffrage movement in England during the first few decades of the twentieth century. Katherine’s friend, Mary Datchet, is particularly active in the women’s suffrage cause and throws herself into her work in a way that was very modern for the time the novel was published. Katherine is similarly modern in what she desires from a marriage and her preference for, what was considered at the time, the unfeminine world of mathematics and the natural world.
In many ways, Night and Day is reminiscent of Jane Austen’s novels. There is a similar lack of presence from the extremely poor, preferring the privileged lives of the middle and upper-middle classes. The young people involved are very much invested in finding love and preoccupied with how to do so within the bounds of societal propriety. There are even a number of humorously eccentric secondary characters to meddle in the lives of the main players. But where Jane Austen’s novels are straightforward in their critiques of society and the people who form it, Woolf leans more to a philosophical examination of the individual and the nature of love itself. It leads the novel down a more somber path than Austen ever trod and makes for a denser, but no less enjoyable, reading experience. I don’t think I will wait so long before I read another Virginia Woolf novel.