Ellie Mitchell on Night and Day

Guest Blog:
Reading Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day on the Centenary of its Publication

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Of Virginia Woolf’s nine novels, it is Night and Day (1919) that is perhaps the least commonly read and the most difficult to summarise. With its two central couples, its confusions of identity and its ensemble of amusing side-characters, it has all the key components of a romantic comedy. It is certainly a cause of great personal sadness that a film adaptation was never made with a young, Notting Hill era Hugh Grant in the role of Ralph Denham. Yet the novel is filled, too, with philosophical musings that can be traced to the presence of G. E. Moore and other Cambridge philosophers within Old Bloomsbury – and, fidgeting within the confines of its seemingly traditional structure, a reader may also spot the first signs of the formal innovations for which Woolf later became famous.

Its title follows the same format as that followed by Jane Austen for Love and Freindship (sic., 1790), Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813), suggesting a continuity with the courtship plots and preoccupations of those novels. Yet the even division of its 442 pages into 34 chapters recalls the lengthy Victorian novels of George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and Elizabeth Gaskell – and then again its settings and customs are unmistakably those of middle- and upper-middle-class Edwardian society. How, then, on the centenary of its publication, should we read Night and Day? It seems, after all, as if nobody really knew how to read it in 1919.

Only a month after the novel’s publication, Woolf wrote in a letter to Clive Bell that ‘some say the first chapters are the best, and others say the last, and some say it’s in the tradition, and others say it’s not, but the great battle […] is between those who think it unreal and those who think it real’.[1] The novel divided opinion, but whatever these various divisions, one thing could be said with confidence, and that was that to write a seemingly traditional romance in the midst of the Great War, and to publish it in the aftermath, was a decidedly odd thing to do. As Katherine Mansfield commented in her review for the Athenaeum:

We had thought that this world had vanished for ever, that it was impossible to find on the great ocean of literature a ship that was unaware of what had been happening. Yet here is Night and Day […] a novel in the tradition of the English novel. In the midst of our admiration it makes us feel old and chill. We had never thought to look upon its like again![2]

The review was a rebuke that Woolf felt keenly – and rightly so, I think. Night and Day is odd. It is a strange confusion of genres, influences, themes and characters, but that is precisely why it should be read, and why it should be read now, in the midst of the social and political confusions of 2019.

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Night and Day courts intermediacy; it defines and is defined by indeterminacy. Its story shows us what it is to meet, mistake and marry not only other people, but also ideas, circumstances and beliefs. It places importance on closeness, on clarity, and on saying what one means. It highlights the urgency with which we must, at all costs, learn to understand one another as best we can. In the course of the novel, friends and families and lovers are variously pushed together and pulled apart, perspectives and opinions altering at they encounter each other in the Hilberys’ house in Chelsea, which is more family museum than family home, in the suffrage office where the long-suffering Mary Datchet spends her days, on the banks of the Thames, in the Denhams’ dated house in Highgate, and among the flowers of Kew Gardens. In other words, Night and Day is a novel about perceiving the other and oneself in relation to them, published at a time when Britain found itself forced to reposition itself within and in relation to the rest of Europe, to reconcile the ways in which the war had irrevocably altered class and gender divisions, and to revise the role of the government in the private lives of its people.

This is all eerily familiar, and it should be remembered that 2019 is not only the centenary of Night and Day’s first publication. It is also the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles, of the outbreak of the Anglo-Irish War (or Irish War of Independence), of the Addison Act, which invoked state provision of housing for the working classes, of the publication of Maynard Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace, and of Adolf Hitler’s first speech to the German Workers’ Party in Munich. It is with a sad sense of foreboding, then, that we find ourselves a century later divided once more over Anglo-European relations, over Ireland, over the government’s duty to provide safe housing, and over the seedlings of a far-right rise to power growing roots in Europe. Certainly, Keynes’s comments on the ‘dismal & degrading spectacle of the Peace Congress, where men played shamelessly, not for Europe, or even England, but for their own return to Parliament at the next election’ could well have been made today.[3]

It is thus that we find ourselves, on the centenary of the publication of Night and Day, teetering like Katharine Hilbery and Ralph Denham upon ‘an astonishing precipice’.[4] We find ourselves upon a threshold between the known and unknown – or real and unreal – and we would do well as we teeter there to read and to remember all that the novel places value upon so that we can come, as Katharine and Ralph do, to say to one another: “Yes, the world looks something like that to me too.”[5]

Ellie Mitchell, Cambridge

[1] The Letters of Virginia Woolf, ed. by Nigel Nicolson, asst. by Joanne Trautmann, 6 vols (London: Hogarth, 1975-80), II, Letter 1009, p. 403.

[2] Katherine Mansfield, quoted in Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Vintage, 1997), p. 386.

[3] The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. by Anne Olivier Bell, asst. by Andrew McNeillie, 5 vols (London: Hogarth Press, 1977-84), I, p. 288.

[4] Virginia Woolf, Night and Day, ed. by Michael Whitworth (1919; Cambridge: CUP, 2018), p. 358, l. 33.

[5] Ibid. p. 522, l. 33.

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