Night and Day, Virginia Woolf (1919)

You come and see me among flowers and pictures, and think me mysterious, romantic, and all the rest of it. Being yourself very inexperienced and very emotional, you go home and invent a story about me, and now you can’t separate me from the person you’ve imagined me to be. You call that, I suppose, being in love; as a matter of fact it’s being in delusion…I won’t have you do it about me.

 

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If I were to sum up Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day I could easily do it in one sentence: It is about a group of young men and women contemplating marriage, but illusions about love are a stumbling block: if true love does not come is compatibility the better alternative? But the book clocks in at 450 pages, so there must be more to it than that. The difficulty with this review is that though there is a narrative, so much of it is contained in the thoughts and conversations of the characters. And as shall be explained below, they followed a multi-lane winding road.

Katharine Hilbery lives with her parents in the Chelsea area of London where she spends her days assisting her mother with the biography of her grandfather, the well-known poet Richard Alardyce. Katharine is bored with her life, and her impending marriage to William Rodney, himself a writer and poet, does not give her peace. She is not in love with him, but has consented to the marriage and it is understood by all they are a couple, which adds to her discomfort. William has been invited to the apartment of Mary Datchet a suffragette who opens her apartment to young writers to showcase their work. Katharine accompanies William on this particular evening and it is here she sees Ralph Denham, a young lawyer who writes for her father and whom she met recently at a tea given by her mother. Katharine feigns interest in him, but Ralph’s feelings are strong. Mary has known Ralph through her job and is in love with him, but he sees her only as a friend. When Cassandra, Katharine’s younger cousin comes to visit, she and William find themselves in love with each other.

These attachments and attractions to and for each character form the ebb and flow of the narrative. Their inner lives are melodramatic as their thoughts twist and turn. And when they converse they are never honest, speaking of marriage when they are not in love or declaring friendship when they really mean they are in love. They are both false and brutally honest with each other forcing confusion and turmoil into their relationships.

I did say I would marry you, but it was wrong, for I don’t love you William; you’ve noticed it, every one’s noticed it; why should we go on pretending? When I told you I loved you, I was wrong. I said what I knew to be untrue.

Indecision impairs each with an uncertainty as to their future. Do you marry for love or friendship? For romance or compatibility? Can Katharine Hilbery marry William Rodney because she loves, but is not in love with him? Should Ralph Denham ask Mary Datchet to marry him because he only likes her very much and should she say yes, even though she is in love with him?

strolling2When not ruminating in their individual heads one of the great features of this novel is the quality of the conversations. In fact, there is a certain irony in the fact that the main characters speak so often to each other about their feelings, yet the words are never honest so there is a continual confusion over where each stands. And even when they have come to a decision and know what they feel, they do the opposite. This is never more startling as when Ralph, who is mad for Katharine, proposes to Mary anyway telling her his relationship with Katharine has been a fantasy he made up in his mind. Mary, however, wants a marriage based on love. Answers Ralph:

But love—don’t we talk a great deal of nonsense about it?…It’s only a story one makes up in one’s mind about another person and one knows all the time it isn’t true. Of course one knows; why, one’s always taking care not to destroy the illusion. One takes care not to see them too often, or to be alone with them for too long together. It’s a pleasant illusion, but if you’re thinking of the risks of marriage, it seems to me that the risk of marrying a person you’re in love with is something colossal.

It is easy to become exasperated with the continual indecision of the characters, but there is a certain humorous quality about a group of well-liked intelligent young people who can’t make up their minds, who are unable to tell anyone the truth of their feelings, to be gossiped about being seen alone with someone they tell people they only ‘like,’ yet everyone can see they are actually in love with them!

The characters do have rich inner worlds that Woolf plumbs and dissects. And there is a plot and a sense of the narrative, but it is wide-ranging and convoluted. If you skip a page or skim a conversation, you will miss something important, because Woolf relishes the intimate details that make up a person. Katharine’s mother, for example, floats in and out of the novel and though is often lost in the world of her father’s biography comes up with gems. Surprising Katharine, who has finally declared to her that she is in love with Ralph Denham and not William Rodney, she tells her, “Do not marry unless you are in love!…Who knows where we are bound for, or why, or who has sent us, or what we shall find—who knows anything, except that love is our faith—love.”

Or in Mary Datchet’s world love is her work. While Katharine and Ralph and William and Cassandra pair up, Mary’s partner will be her work. Mary is a character I wish Woolf gave more attention. She is put-upon by the other characters who treat her like a cross between a Mother Confessor and an ill-used personal assistant. Katharine shows up at her apartment at any time of night or day when her thoughts are too much to handle suff2alone. Ralph, too, depends on Mary to make his fears of commitment to Katharine bearable, yet Mary is in love with Ralph and they both know it. I wanted from Mary more fight, more push against this meanness and sadly Woolf uses her strength to keep her alone, but in love with her work failing, in my opinion, that she can’t have both.

Work…I’ve only found out myself quite lately. But it’s the thing that saves one—I’m sure of that…—Where should I be now if I hadn’t 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, Ralph…It’s all turned out splendidly for me. It will for you, too. I’m sure of that. Because, after all, Katharine is worth it.

The ending was no surprise and in fact, quite a relief after all the angst and push pull of feelings, rumination and the endless talking; honesty triumphed, decisions were made and proposals accepted.

Conclusion

If I would dare criticize Woolf, I would beg for some heavy editing. But I also have to admit I enjoyed what I am criticizing, because the writing, especially the myriad conversations, are so well done. Still, the repetition…I suppose I just wanted to reach into the book to shake up Katharine and the rest and ask, “don’t you know the definition of insanity is doing (in this case, thinking) the same thing over and over again expecting a different result?” Ah well, in a few years I may do a reread after I’ve read more Woolf and maybe I will understand the point of Night and Day a little better.

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Title: Night and Day
Author: Virginia Woolf
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Device: Paperback
Year: 1919
Pages: 442

CCSpin, Classics Club, Back to the Classics, Roof Beam Reader’s TBR

 

WorldsEndDistillery

Welch Ale Brewery, Kings Road, Chelsea. Absolutely irrelevant to this post and sadly, no relation 🙂 But a girl can dream!

 

 

 

 

 

Madame de Treymes, Edith Wharton (1907)

And Madame de Treymes has left her husband?
Ah, no, poor creature: they don’t leave their husbands—they can’t.

 

treymesMadame de Treymes, published in 1907, is Wharton’s first work after The House of Mirth. As one of the themes in most of her fiction, this novella is very much concerned with the male/female dynamic around marriage. In this short work Wharton’s prose weaves a consummate tale of cunning and deceit, good intentions, hope and promise and the final let down.

The story revolves around the American Fanny de Malrive (née Frisbee) and her wish to divorce her husband. At this time in France, the husband must initiate the proceedings and though he granted a separation six years ago, he has not allowed for this greater termination of their union. As John Durham has proposed the need for a divorce is pressing and they hope the influence of Christiane de Treymes, her husband’s sister, can convince him. One of the issues holding back her consent to marry Durham is the requirement in the separation that she remain in France where her husband’s family has full access to their young son, which she believes will also be part of any divorce settlement. It is this control she fears and something she knows Durham cannot understand:


The moment he passes out of my influence, he passes under that other—the influence I have been fighting against every hour since he was born!—There is nothing in your experience—in any American experience—to correspond with that far-reaching family organization, which is itself a part of the larger system, and which encloses a young man of my son’s position in a network of accepted prejudices and opinions. Everything is prepared in advance—his political and religious convictions, his judgments of people, his sense of honour, his ideas of women, his whole view of life…Already he is only half mine, because the Church has the other half.

Gallantly, John responds, “If you’ll marry me, I’ll agree to live out here as long as you want, and we’ll be two instead of one to keep hold of your half of him.” And so, they are resolved.

We are never certain about the crimes Fanny’s husband committed, be they against her and their marriage or something else, but his family willingly supported the separation. Divorce is another matter entirely, though. Christiane is the most important member of his family and she has always been sympathetic to Fanny, so it is to her she and John turn. However, when John asks for her support, she asks him for help with her own serious matter: she is in debt after having taken her husband’s and family’s money and now has no means to pay it back. The debtor turns out to be her lover and she wants John to bail him out. Blackmail? He hesitates with his answer as such a despicable request sinks in. She responds:

Do you mean to give me nothing—not even your sympathy—in return? Is it because you have heard horrors of me? When are they not said of a woman who is married unhappily? Perhaps not in your fortunate country, where she may seek liberation without dishonor., But here–! You who have seen the consequences of our disastrous marriages—you who may yet be the victim of our cruel and abominable system; have you no pity for one who has suffered  in the same way, and without the possibility of release?…I don’t pretend to deny that I know I am asking you a trifle. You Americans, when you want a thing always pay ten times what it is worth.

He won’t do it. He won’t help her in this way. But in the end, Christiane still presses her brother for a divorce.

Months pass as the proceedings and court papers are worked out and prepared. John has gone abroad with his mother and sisters to wait out the decision. Days before the divorce is finalized, John pays Christiane a visit. When Christiane tells him the particulars of the settlement, which Fanny does not know yet, he is shocked to realize Christiane’s “payback.” It slowly dawns on him this means Fanny may not be able to proceed with the divorce, which of course means their marriage is in jeopardy. The full weight of the deceit contained in the divorce decree will come after the marriage and the only moral thing to do is to tell Fanny the truth now.

Wharton’s long residence in France gives her intimate access to the contrasts between American and French culture and views of American individualism vs French ties to family, church and society, which are of major importance in this novella. The story and characters are just as vivid as if this was one of Wharton’s longer works. And the ending is just as shocking! (A major spoiler, but since this is a novella it won’t take you long to know)!

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My Edition
Title: Madame de Treymes and Three Novellas
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1907
Pages: 70

Challenges: Back to the Classics

Classics Club Spin #17: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte (1848)

Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveler, or to cover them with branches and flowers. Oh Reader! If there were less of this delicate concealment of facts — this whispering of ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience. Acton Bell, Preface to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

 

tenantThe story of Helen Huntingdon is intense. We meet her as a mystery woman new to the neighborhood who appears to all as aloof and disinterested in society. “She doesn’t even go to church,” the gossips exclaim! She is misunderstood and a target of slander from the beginning and though she refuses to reveal the truth about herself none of the townspeople ever ask her outright. Her only trustworthy friend is also very attracted to her and he believes the worst about her until she is finally able to show him her journal, documenting the horrible life of abuse she experienced by her husband and the daring escape with her young son. This is the reason for secrecy and reticence in order not to be discovered by her husband.

Two Aspects of this Book are very Modern: Reading Classics in the 21st Century and Bullying Behavior

I had been book blogging for several months when I reviewed, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The House of the Seven Gables. After I published it on my blog I found a discussion about it on another blog on why is this still an assigned classic in school–it is so densely written and boring it should be tossed into the dustbin of literary history. I was fascinated, because all the criticisms the commenters were making were exactly why I liked it! The writing hadn’t seemed dense to me, because I love Hawthorne’s description of every little detail of a character’s thoughts, the minute details of the house and street it was located on.

In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the journal Helen gives Gilbert tells the story of her abusive marriage. It is achingly repetitive. The book itself is over 500 pages in my edition and the journal takes up at least ¾ of it and frankly it could have benefited from serious editing, the same criticism of The House of the Seven Gables. Even so, my interest was held through Arthur Huntingdon’s perpetual meanness, psychological abuse, leaving to carouse in London, adultery, drinking, the coming home and then doing it all over again. Throughout the journal, even before she marries him, Helen’s friends and family warn her repeatedly about his bad habits and immoral behavior, until it is so obvious she should not do it. And yet, she marries him and this repetition continues leaving the reader to wonder how long will Arthur’s abuse go on and how long will Helen accept it as her duty?

Does the so-called ‘boringness’ of these books for some call into question their relevancy? Do we find them boring because we have a smaller attention span now? Is it hard for teenagers in the 21st century to sit down and read a 500 page book? I suppose this means CliffsNotes will always be in demand.

The second aspect of this book that is very modern manifests in the way Helen bears the consequences of gossip and bullying, the way she believes her husband will change after they are married, the toll it takes in the way Arthur abuses, cheats on and neglects her and the vulnerability she experiences when Arthur’s friends see her as fair game because Arthur is reckless in his affections for other women and ignores her.

Helen has no recourse for this sham of a marriage since only her husband can enact divorce and though the church might take pity on her if she were able to admit and document how bad things are, most people, like her Aunt would still say she has a duty to the marriage and should go back to her husband. And Helen will say she has a duty, too.

Whatever I ought to have done, my duty, now, is plainly to love him and to cleave to him; and this just tallies with my inclination.

Today, there are a fair amount of churches that believe women are locked into the bonds of marriage no matter how harsh the treatment by their husband and continue to counsel against separation or divorce with dire consequences.

In another modern aspect, Helen is subjected to gossip and bullying behavior by the townspeople that remind me how exacerbated this would have become on Twitter, for instance, which would have a field day in blaming the victim, when their ‘evidence’ for Helen’s illicit relationship is only a ‘feeling.’

“Why mother, you said you didn’t believe these tales,” said Fergus.

“No more I do, my dear; but then, you know, there must be some foundation.”

“The foundation is in the wickedness and falsehood of the world and in the fact that Mr. Lawrence has been seen to go that way once or twice of an evening — and the village gossips say he goes to pay his addresses to the strange lady, and the scandalmongers have greedily seized the rumour, to make it the basis of their own infernal structure,” said I.

“Well, but Gilbert, there must be something in her manner to countenance such reports.”

“Did you see anything in her manner?”

“No, certainly; but then, you know, I always said there was something strange about her.”

In the Preface to the second edition of the book, published in 1848, Anne Bronte (writing as Acton Bell) addresses the critics who find the story coarse and brutal for depicting such negative scenes of married life. She answers that truth is better than falsehood and “to represent a bad thing in its least offensive light” is the least honest or safe for a writer. Characters like Arthur Huntingdon do exist and her purpose in telling this story is to warn both young men and women of the pitfalls of a marriage when you see it only through rose colored glasses–you must get to know the person.

So I answer my own question about the relevancy of classics with a resounding YES!  Reading books written more than a hundred years ago with characters who are experiencing the same issues we are connects us to the past by opening our eyes to, in this case, perennial injustices in which we have evolved somewhat, but still have a long way to go. We may see ourselves in these characters and learn from their mistakes and triumphs. And what a way to respect the past than by heeding Bronte’s advice  and her characters who lived exactly 170 years ago.

 

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My Edition
Title: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Author: Anne Bronte
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1848
Pages: 511
Full plot summary

Classic Club List, Classic Club Spin, Victorian Reading Challenge

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (1920)

It was not the custom in New York drawing rooms for a lady to get up and walk away from one gentleman in order to seek the company of another. Etiquette required that she should wait, immovable as an idol, while the men who wished to converse with her succeeded each other at her side. But the Countess was apparently unaware of having broken any rule, she sat at perfect ease in a corner of the sofa beside Archer, and looked at him with the kindest eyes.

 

AgeinnocenceThis the fourth book I’ve read by Edith Wharton after Ethan Frome, Summer and The House of Mirth. I see similar patterns in all of them, but each one is from a fresh perspective, from the particular protagonist.

Wharton seems to be interested in the struggle between a person’s freedom versus society’s demands; between the ability to dream a new reality for yourself and what your class says you can and cannot do. In each of the aforementioned books the main character is caught in what they want for their life and their inability to get it. There is always interference and it is then that their conscience kicks in or their chance to choose is lost. And then they resign themselves to their fate. This is my perspective, anyway.

The Age of Innocence tackles marriage and after only a few pages in it is obvious that this particular courtship is not going to go well.

It is an opera night in 1870s New York City and the well-known Swedish opera singer Christine Nilsson is performing. Newland Archer is scanning the audience and rests his eyes on the box across from him where May Welland, his soon to be announced fianceé is sitting with her mother and aunt. He has the vantage to observe her unnoticed.

His thoughts at first are to his love and what he will make of her and how she has been raised to be molded by her husband. “…he contemplated her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity.” He is interrupted when a friend points out a young woman who has just entered the Welland box and whose foreign dress is causing a stir. She is Madame Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin, who has come from Europe having run away from her husband and has come home to get a divorce.

At first, Ellen is shunned by many of her American relations who fear the disgrace divorce would cast on their reputation. When Newland’s law firm takes on the handling of the divorce, he is asked by the family to intercede with Ellen and encourage her not to file. Later he is asked to dam this breach between Ellen and the family due to his marriage to May, which leads to a disaster as the two fall in love.

As Newland navigates the thorny rules and rituals of courtship and marriage, he exposes the faults and farce of the new state he is entering into. He catches himself musing on what he expects his wife to be; while not quite equals, he wants something that is more free than what he sees in his circle. But the way women are raised, how can this be?

He reviewed his friends’ marriages—the supposed happy ones—and saw none that answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation with May Welland. He perceived that such a picture presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.

Would his marriage become like so many others where the husband “had formed a wife so completely to his own convenience that, in the most conspicuous moments of his frequent love-affairs with other men’s wives, she went about in smiling unconsciousness…”

Newland reasoned that the things he loved about May–her frankness, her grace and loyalty were an artificial construct.

He felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.

Wharton pulls no punches here.

Ellen, through her life experiences, possesses the sexual and intellectual freedom that Newland desires in a woman, a wife. And yet she is not free. Even if Newland wanted to leave May, the lack of a divorce would stand in the way of their marriage. Ellen sees the futility of living in limbo and announces she is going back to Paris, presumably to her husband. And what Newland and men like him don’t understand, is that women like May see through the bars of their gilded cage; they understand what marriage really is and only pretend to ‘smile in unconsciousness.’ Sick at Ellen’s departure, Newland tells May he wants to take a trip. Without missing a beat she tells him she is pregnant and that she told Ellen so a few weeks ago.

“You know I told you we had a long talk one afternoon—and how dear she was to me.”

“But that was a fortnight ago, wasn’t it? I thought you said you weren’t sure till today.”

“No; I wasn’t sure then—but I told her I was. And you see I was right! she exclaimed, her blue eyes wet with victory.

In the final chapter decades have passed. May has born three children and after 26 years of marriage has died. Newland thinks of his life with her as deep and real. Ellen, though, lives only in the past. And at the very end of the novel when circumstances take the turn that both had wished for long ago, Newland makes a remarkable decision.

It would be easy to dislike a character like Newland Archer, but Wharton makes it impossible. He is honestly trying to assess the promise of his life against the social conventions of his time; exposing the hypocrisy of  the status quo and the values they hold dear.

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My Edition
Title: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1920
Pages: 307
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club