I read Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day over the past couple of months, finishing it while in Florida a few weeks ago. I’ve been a huge Woolf fan since I read Mrs. Dalloway in college, and I’ve slowly been working my way through her oeuvre. Some of her books are mind-blowing—A Room of One’s Own, for instance, and The Waves—while some of them I read too young—I have no idea what happened in Jacob’s Room or To The Lighthouse—and others are good but not necessarily must-reads—I think of Three Guineas and Orlando.
Night and Day is Woolf’s sophomore book, before Jacob’s Room, her first so-called “experimental” novel. And it’s fair to say that Night and Day is conventional: Its five-hundred-page narrative follows upper-crust Londoner Katharine Hilbery and a number of other young people as they navigate their early careers, love and relationships, class, and the pressing social issues of the day (such as women’s suffrage). There’s no hint of World War I, and with its obvious pushback against the Victorian priorities of the older generation in favor of Romanticism, Night and Day shares more in common with E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View than stereotypical postwar literature like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
If the narrative style and social commentary are unsurprising and even sometimes on the nose—Katharine dislikes societal obligations such as marriage and prefers staying up late at night by herself studying mathematics—it is Woolf’s psychological insight that keeps bringing me back to her work. At the same age as Woolf’s characters, I can’t help but feel that she got the hesitancy, ambivalence, hope, and possibility of young adulthood just right, even though her characters are a hundred years before my time. The characters are young enough to think anything is possible and old enough to know that they can’t choose everything, that making the lives they want will require hard work. They are young enough to find fault with the older generation and old enough to understand why their parents made the choices they have.
As a writer who strives for “consistent” characters, I was also struck by how freely Woolf allows her characters to feel conflicting emotions, within minutes in the same scene or even in the same moment. The complexity of her characters rings true to real life but requires plenty of unpacking—or “telling” as it’s called nowadays. Certainly there are aspects of Woolf’s writing that feel dated, and as an editor of contemporary prose, I wanted to cut down a lot of her sentences. But she is fastidious about understanding her characters in a way that doesn’t feel longwinded but thorough, and at no point was I bored by her explorations of each character’s history and inner world.
The amount of space Woolf gives to the traffic and bustle of London stood out to me as well, partly because the energy of London is a through line with other novels like Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves. A couple of years ago I realized that war (loss, suffering, trauma) is a pervasive theme throughout my novels, and Woolf clearly loved London and was endlessly fascinated by the city. It will be interesting to see, as I continue to write, what other moments, insights, and sensations I will come back to again and again in my writing.