The Novels of Virginia Woolf #2: Night and Day

Night and Day is not generally counted as one of Woolf’s “experimental” novels, but it experiments in its own subtle way with the style and conventions of the late Victorian social novel.  One way of understanding its experimentation can be seen by exploring the use to which references to Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose novels (especially The Idiot) Woolf had read during the composition of Night and Day.  Just as with The Voyage Out, we can see the main events narrated as both a story about love and marriage compelling in its own right.  The principal characters – Katherine Hilbert, Mary Datchet, William Rodney and Ralph Denham – are taken through a sequence of changes whereby Katherine marries not the expected William, but the seemingly inappropriate choice of Ralph.  We can also read Katherine’s choice as a symbolic decision which moves away from the traditional British social novel (seen in William’s well-regarded study of Elizabethan prose, but also in Katherine’s family’s preoccupation with the construction of a biography of their poetic celebrity ancestor.

This book begins with the most conventional of plots, and is framed with references to classical music and literature.  Two couples are destined for marriage because of convenience and convention; by the end, both couples have reconfigured themselves towards a more rewarding long-term relationship founded in mutual compatibility and love. In this midst of this conventionality, Dosteovsky is on Katherine’s mind at the outset of the book: “she did not see him, and went on repeating to herself some lines which had stuck to her memory: ‘It’s life that matters, nothing but life–the process of discovering–the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself at all” (106).  In addition to this being a direct quotation from a translation of The Idiot, its substance also speaks to a direct concern with a fundamental question of authorship: that what is more important is giving voice to the “process of discovering” rather than “The discovery itself.”  (This is also a line of thought Bakhtin presses very far in drawing his own analysis of Dostoevsky uniqueness).  Katherine has come to see creative, experimental fiction as more important than a novel which propounds its “argument,” with predetermined content then set forth as a discovery.

This tension between process and product is echoed in two further references to Dostoevsky.  Rodney, Katherine’s conventional husband-to-be is writing a letter to Cassandra, Katherine’s cousin he ends up with, advising her “to read Pope in preference to Dostoevsky” (237), i.e., he is advocating for classical form over experimental content (he had also just been pushing similarly for Mozart).  Later, and in person, Cassandra gets mad at William: “you’ve not read ‘the Idiot!’ She exclaimed.  ‘I’ve read ‘War and Peace’,’ William replied, a little testily.  ‘’War and Peace’!” She echoed, in a tone of derision.  ‘I confess I don’t understand the Russians” (295).  Here the preference for Tolstoy – the more obviously Victorian of the notoriously contrasted pair of Great Russian Authors – serves again the privilege formal unity over experimental disorientation.

And as the novel reaches its conclusion, there are other moments of more Dostoevskian chaos – the “whirlpool” Woolf writes about in a letter in which she declares Dostoevsky “the greatest writer ever born” (Letter to Lytton Strachey, September 1, 1912).  The visit to Ralph’s incessantly arguing, and poor family, for example or the extremely tense, awkward group dynamic that is developed in the park sequence, where all four lovers are made to work out their differences.  The end result is, though, a more Mozart-twinged finale, as characters marry off, and Mrs. Hilbert is made to feel like this is always how it should have been.  The novel still presents itself classically, with the moments of Dostoevskian “whirlpool” confining themselves to what can fairly be called the “development” section, about two-thirds of the way through, and the marital unity found at the end reasserting the kind of updated Jane Austen register in which this novel began.  But its return represents an unhappy compromise at the level of aesthetics, a preparatory step toward Woolf’s more distinctively “experimental” phase.  Presumably Katherine helps her mother finish the biography of her grandfather, and their father is only temporarily scandalized by the broken engagement, and Rodney continues in his Elizabethan study.  This book itself them represents a step in the “process of discovery,” but is not itself aware of “the discovery itself.”

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One Response to The Novels of Virginia Woolf #2: Night and Day

  1. Pingback: The Novels of Virginia Woolf #3: Jacob’s Room | Original Positions

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