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

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WorldsEndDistillery

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Bostonians, Henry James (1886)

 

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Of course, I only speak to women—to my own dear sisters; I don’t speak to men, for I don’t expect them to like what I say. They pretend to admire us very much, but I should like them to admire us a little less and to trust us a little more…When I see the dreadful misery of mankind and think of the suffering of which at any hour, at any moment, the world is full, I say that if this is the best they can do by themselves, they had better let us come in a little and see what we can do. Verena Tarrant

…you ought to know that your connexion with all these rantings and ravings is the most unreal, accidental, illusory thing in the world. You think you care about them, but you don’t at all. They were imposed upon you by circumstances, by unfortunate associations, and you accepted them as you would have accepted any other burden, on account of the sweetness of your nature. Basil Ransom

Boston in the 1880s was one of the national hotbeds for the first wave of feminism. The early supporters of suffrage and equal rights for women were former abolitionists, reformers and liberal Christians who advocated for the poor, had harbored runaway slaves before the War and exposed the inequality of the classes. Lectures in homes and in public halls abounded as women took to the stage to voice the long history of the injustices perpetrated against them and to defend the right to full participation in every facet of public and private life.

This is the city in which Olive Chancellor lives and imagines a better world for women. A young, wealthy feminist she has given her life to the cause of suffrage and women’s emancipation. But an error in judgment occurs when her sentiments get the best of her and she invites a distant cousin from Mississippi to visit. Believing her mother would have wanted to make contact with their Southern relatives, she has taken up that mantle after her death. Basil Ransom, who shows up at her door one evening could not be more traditionally Southern in his demeanor or his views on women. Somewhat older than Olive he fought for the South, an act that places him squarely at odds with his Northern cousin and the milieu in which he finds himself.

At her suggestion, which she later regrets, she tells him she is going to hear a well-known speaker on women’s rights and he is free to join her if he wishes. This tragic invitation, for Olive at least, is worse than the one that invited him to meet her in the first place. It is at this gathering both become entranced by young Verena Tarrant, a dynamic speaker who is on the verge of becoming this generation’s speaking authority for women. At least this is what Olive believes when she invites Verena to live with her so that they can learn and study together and prepare Verena for her mission in life.

But from the beginning of his first vision of “that charming creature,” Ransom never believes Verena’s sincerity to the Cause. He is convinced she doesn’t believe what she says and as the months progress he mocks and ridicules her to her face and to those around her. Olive cautions her:

There are gentlemen in plenty who would be glad to stop your mouth by kissing you! If you become dangerous some day to their selfishness, to their vested interests, to their immorality—as I pray to heaven every day, my dear friend, that you may!—it will be a grand thing for one of them if he can persuade you that he loves you.

Which is exactly what Basil Ransom sets out do as he and Olive battle for heart and mind of Verena. Though Olive tries in many different ways and at several times to physically remove Verena from Ransom’s insinuating presence in their life, he is unrelenting in his desire to take her from this false view of womanhood and bring her to her senses, which is home, husband and children. And yet, for all her protestations against his mockery and her heartfelt pledges of devotion to Olive and their work, Verena is susceptible to his charms and is pulled to him then to Olive, back and forth as she struggles under their force.

What Henry James weaves here is a finely crafted war of wills between these three and the very well-defined supporting characters. Ransom, the die-hard son of the Confederacy, who is often introduced or described as ‘The Mississippian,’ whose traditional Southern values are anathema to his Northern hosts is truly a fish out of water in Boston. While I wrote in my notes that “he is such a pig,” and his views and actions toward Verena are contemptible, I also have sympathy for him. He is a product of his region and culture fighting to preserve it and it is not in his DNA to think women really want to be free of the restrictions men have placed on them, to have their own opinions, to vote, to be treated equally. This is not an excuse for his behavior and he is free to change, yet these sensibilities are very useful for James in giving a clue to his underlying motivations for Verena: “The South may have lost the War, but I captured a Yank.” If it is this deep resentment of the North that motivates him it is personified in Olive who he will rise up against.

I have never thought very hard about interactions between Northerners and Southerners—‘brother against brother’—at the War’s end. How DID people of such opposing political, national and personal beliefs deal and work with each other? How did they become friends or fall in love or enter into all manner of relationships? If, as Olive worried at the lecture over how to introduce Ransom to her abolitionist friends, because not everyone would “care to know a person who had borne such a part in the Southern disloyalty,” how did people heal from this?

Before Verena is set to make her big public lecture debut, she and Olive have secreted themselves away for months to practice and rehearse her speech. Ransom is unable to discover her whereabouts until the event. On the night of the debut, Verena takes one look at him and her resolutions weaken. The lecture is delayed and the audience, who paid good money to see this new speaker, is becoming anxious. Olive sees him as well and sees what it is doing to Verena. As Ransom gets a physical hold of her he whisks her out the door.

Whatever motivates Verena to leave her great work for someone who mocks her, who openly ridicules the women she surrounds herself with and the work she wants to do in the world, is unclear to me. Though she tells Olive at one point that Ransom loves her, he never actually says it; not once does he say to himself that he loves her nor does he tell anyone else. He is only motivated by revenge for the South’s lost cause and vengeance against Olive for her treatment of him.

And whatever Olive’s feelings are toward Verena, in the end she lets her go. Olive knows that if she presses her to state her loyalty to the cause they have worked so hard for, to pledge faithfulness to Olive and the friends they work with she would do it, but “the magic would have passed out of her spirit for ever, the sweetness out of their friendship, the efficacy out of their work.” If Olive and Verena have what is called a Boston marriage in the end, Olive is the bigger person and Basil Ransom is the plunderer.

Poor Verena, caught in the middle, is never really allowed to know herself and to understand what she wants. And for me that is the biggest mystery of all. As she is forced out of the hall by Ransom, she says, “Ah now I am glad!” when she hears Olive stepping up to the stage to give the lecture herself, something she has always refused to do. Does Ransom interpret these words as a victory for him? Or are they in support of her dear friend? And why is she in tears?

“It is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which she was about to enter, these were not the last she was destined to shed.

A Personal Note

This is my first Henry James, so I can only speak of his writing style from this book, which is dense and explanatory. In the notes to my edition I was reminded his brother is William James, the celebrated American psychologist and philosopher and I do not know what effect, if any, that had on James or this particular book. Because part of the denseness of the writing comes from the mental conflicts James describes in depth, we know more about the characters’ psychological state than what they look like.

This compelled me to read the book in two days. I really needed to know what was going to happen to everyone! And then I wanted to get these preliminary thoughts down. I am a little disappointed in my rapid reading of the novel and don’t advise it for others. I hope to read this again in a few years, because I know there is a richness and profundity that was missed.

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My Edition
Title: The Bostonians
Author: Henry James
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1984
Pages: 433
Full plot summary

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