Virginia Woolf’s “Night and Day”- book review

It took me a long time to get through Night and Day. It was advertised to me as one of the most traditional of Virginia Woolf novels- complete with a happy ending. It was even compared to a Mozart opera (!) What’s not to like?

Instead, hm. I’m not sure what I got. It was physically tiring. One’s thoughts were forced into endless movement, a set of oscillating strings that are not allowed to stay still.

Be warned. This review is full of spoilers.

One of our heroines is Catherine, who is based on Virginia’s sister, Vanessa. She is the grandchild of a well-known poet. Her mother has a quixotic mission to write the great man’s autobiography: Catherine meanwhile is supposed to make notes and serve the tea.

But Catherine doesn’t care much for literature and would much rather be doing mathematics in a corner. Still, she is betrothed to William Rodney, a would-be playwright of good family, who she doesn’t really care for.

Enter Ralph Denham, a young contributor to a literary review run by Catherine’s father. A poor lawyer, he is meant to dislike the establishment Catherine represents, but he falls helplessly in love with her. Hence, the love triangle – or rather, quadrangle.

The most sympathetic character in the novel by far is Mary Datchet, Ralph Denham’s friend who works for women’s rights. Not as rich or as pretty as Catherine, she is in love with Ralph, but fails to attract his attention.

As I was writing this short summary, it struck me how the setup reminds one of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

At one point, Ralph, dejected by the fact that Catherine is engaged to another man, proposes to Mary. But she realizes that he doesn’t love her and so refuses him. Thankfully, William Rodney is attracted to one of Catherine’s cousins…

Anyhow, you can see the setup what’s coming- you can be pretty and rich and happily married- or you can be poor and plain and work and single for women’s rights. Compromise is not an option.

And even though Catherine is apparently based on Vanessa, it is undoubtedly Mary Datchet who gets the best lines:

“Where should I be now if I had not got to go to my office every day? Thousands of people would tell you the same thing – thousands of women. I tell you, work is the only thing that saved me”

I’m not entirely sure about this novel. It is certainly worth reading – and there are bits of it that stand out far above the rest. But ultimately, it’s nowhere near Virginia Woolf at her finest.

2 thoughts on “Virginia Woolf’s “Night and Day”- book review

  1. I agree that Katherine is the beautiful, rich girl who seems to wander through life, oblivious to the reality of what is entailed is living a practical life and earning a living. That is not the choice that Mary, the practical working girl, has the priviledge to make and therefore appears to be a whimpy way out. However, I found that Katherine was more complex than just being a frivolous rich girl with nothing but time on her hands. She is truly a creative, artistic spirit and lives most of the book inside her own head. The images that float in and out of her conscious and subconscious mind show a young woman struggling to break through the constraints and barriers of the time and place to find a greater, more elemental truth. I think the fact that she is able to express these wonderings and searchings to Ralph is what pulls them together and binds them. The Edwardian Era during which these characters live is both a continuation and rebellion against the very bizarre and repressive period of the Victorian Era. This novel expresses the views of young people trying to feel their way into a new time of change and possibility. We have seen such times ourselves, such as in the 1960’s, which served as the catalyst for rebellion and self-assertion, against the conventions of the 1950’s, etc. This novel marks the changing world of the teens of the new 20th century through the eyes of these five primary young characters, Katherine, Mary, Ralph, William, and Cassandra, as well as the tertiary characters of Katherine’s parents, and other older relatives. Everyone has challenges before them in a new and rebellious age, and so Katherine and Mary meet these new challenges and opportunities with fortitude and bravery.


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