It makes one feel so dignified, bringing out these little allusions, and passing on gracefully to the next topic.
— Virginia Woolf, Night and Day

April 28, 2016

Only connect: Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf

She has you by the hand and forces you along her road, seeing the things she sees and as she sees them. She is never absent for a moment; nor does she attempt to conceal herself or to disguise her voice ... There are two reasons for this astonishing closeness and sense of personality — that she is herself the heroine of her own novels, and (if we may divide people into those who think and those who feel) that she is primarily the recorder of feelngs and not of thoughts.

Virginia Woolf, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, April 1916

So this happened... I've been reading both, and today, dusting some books, no, really, opened an unread one to a page quoting this, written 100 years ago this month.  Feeling very connected,  :)

April 26, 2016

Night and Day

Night and Day was Virginia Woolf's second novel, published in 1919.  I've read that it's one of her most 'conventional' novels, that some of the characters were based on people that she knew {her sister Vanessa, her husband Leonard, her father, and Lytton Strachey, among others} and also that it was the last one in which she wrote about {or at least focused on} courtship and marriage.  Reading this book  was so different from reading To The Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway. As a late-bloomer in reading Virginia Woolf's fiction, reading those two books first has given me a certain idea of how she writes. and what you're facing when you open one of her books. But if I'd been given this book in a plain brown wrapper I'm not sure I would have guessed that it was hers.  I adored it, and at the same time found myself feeling very self-conscious of how fascinating, and odd, the difference felt.

It's definitely easier to give a summary. :)  This novel revolves around three women and two men in their 20s and 30s. living in London in the years just before World War I, and {this novel is definitely more plot-driven} the relationships that spring up, and shift, among them.  In the opening scene, Katharine Hilbery is helping her mother preside over a tea party {there are lots of them in this book), and meets Ralph  Denham, a solicitor's clerk who writes for a review edited by Katharine's father.  Katharine is beautiful, elegant, proper, a dutiful, loving daughter who is helping her scattered, romantic mother write a biography of her father, a famous poet; we learn a little later that she studies mathematics at night and dreams about becoming an astronomer.  {Katharine's passion for these studies didn't really come through ... it felt more like something she thought about being passionate about, if that makes sense ...  and I'm not quite sure whether that's in keeping with the limits placed on women at the time, or a limitation of a young novelist.} Ralph is spiky, opinionated, critical, dissatisfied with his dull job and weighed down by his responsibilities as the oldest son in a large family.

A day or so later, we meet the next two.  Mary Datchet is a little older, a vicar's daughter who lives in a flat in London, and works (with great commitment, but without pay) as the secretary to an association promoting women's suffrage. She lends her flat, a little grudgingly, to friends who want to hold gatherings,  and one night it's to hear William Rodney read a paper he's written on metaphors in Elizabethan poetry.  William is odd and socially inept, but he represents a way forward for Katharine, and they're soon properly and suitably engaged. But Ralph becomes obsessed with Katharine, and Mary falls in love with Ralph, and Katharine, not sure about Ralph but knowing that she is not in love with William, decides to foster his growing attraction to her young, much more malleable cousin Cassandra.

All of this is told with lightness and often snarky humor,  at tea parties and family dinners and committee meetings at the suffrage association and anxious visits from interfering aunts and walks in London and excursions to historical sites. At the same time, Katharine, William, Rodney and Mary {a little less, but still} are wonderfully self-absorbed, endlessly studying their own emotions and reactions and making soulful decisions about what they will renounce and how they will move forward. There's also a lot of gorgeous colors and images, something else that ties this book a little more to those other two very different novels.

As I was reading, I found myself thinking that Night and Day felt a little like Jane Austen, if she were writing a hundred years later, although V.W. didn't feel the need to give the 'marriage plot' its usual ending.  I loved Mr. and Mrs. Hilbery, Katharine's parents; Mr. Hilbery, especially, seemed very Mr. Bennet-like, until he lapses into anger and convention as Katharine's engagement to William unravels.  I was remembering the scene where Mr. Bennet responds to Elizabeth's rejection of Mr. Collins, but it's Mrs. Hilbery who takes that part here. :)

      Steps approached her unheard. It is true that they were steps that lingered, divagated, and mounted with the deliberation natural to one past sixty whose warms, moreover, are full of leaves and blossoms, but the came on steadily, and soon a tap of laurel boughs against the door arrested Katharine's pencil as it touched the page. ... At first she attached no meaning to the moving mass of green which seemed to enter the room independently of any human agency, Then she recognized parts of her mother's face and person behind the yellow flowers and soft velvet of the palm-buds.
      'From Shakespeare's tomb!' exclaimed Mrs. Hilbery, dropping the entire mass upon the floor, with a gesture that seemed to indicate an act of dedication. Then she flung her arms wide and embraced her daughter.
      'Thank God, Katharine!' she exclaimed. 'Thank God!' she repeated.
      'You've come back?' said Katharine, very vaguely, standing up to receive the embrace.
      Although she recognized her mother's presence, she was very far from taking part in the scene, and yet felt it to be amazingly appropriate that he mother should be there, thanking God for unknown blessings, and strewing the floor with flowers and leaves from Shakespeare's tomb.
      'Nothing else matters in the world!' Mrs. Hilbery continued. 'Names aren't everything. It's what we feel that's everything. I didn't want silly, kind, interfering letters. I didn't want your father to tell me. I knew it from the first. I prayed that it might be so.;
      'You knew it?' Katharine repeated her mother's words softly and vaguely, looking past her. 'How did you know it?' She began, like a child, to finger a tassel hanging from her mother's cloak.
      'The first evening you told me, Katharine. Oh, and thousands of ties -- dinner-parties -- talking about books -- the way he came into the room -- your voice when you spoke of him.'
      Katharine seemed to consider each of these proofs separately. Then she said gravely:
      'I'm not going to marry William. And then there's Cassandra --'
      'Yes, there's Cassandra,' said Mrs. Hilbery. 'I own I was a little grudging at first, but, after all, she plays the piano so beautifully...'
{Mrs. H. has gone off on a spontaneous visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, until Mr. H. writes urging her to come home. Fun, of course, to be reading this on the 400th anniversary. :}

I'm leaning a little now toward it being better to have read this after the two more Virginia Woolfish novels. It might have been a good thing to see firsthand how she developed and changed, almost suddenly, as a writer, but it's not so bad to see that in hindsight.  And this is such a readable, entertaining, not-intimidating, wonderfully enjoyable book, even on its own.

I read Night and Day for 'beginnings and endings,' section two of Ali's #woolfalong, where we read either an early novel or a late one.  Shorter fiction is next, for May and June.  I also listened to part of this book, with {perfect!} narration by Juliet Stevenson, something I think I'll do over and over again. )

April 25, 2016

books as cures

      'These emotions have been very upsetting, naturally,' he said. His manner had regained all its suavity, and he spoke with a soothing assumption of paternal authority. 'You've been placed in a very difficult position, as I understand from Cassandra. Now let us come to terms; we will leave these agitating questions in peace for the present. Meanwhile, let us try to behave like civilized beings. Let us read Sir Walter Scott. What d'you say to 'The Antiquary,' eh? Or 'The Bride of Lammermoor?'
     He had made his own choice and before his daughter could protest or make her escape, she found herself being turned by the agency of Sir Walter Scott into a civilized human being.
      Yet Mr. Hilbery had grave doubts, as he read, whether the process was more than skin-deep. Civilization had been very profoundly and unpleasantly overthrown that evening; the extent of the ruin was still undetermined; he had lost his temper, a physical disaster not to be matched for the space of ten years or so; and his own condition urgently required soothing and renovating at the hands of the classics. His house was in a state of revolution; he had a vision of unpleasant encounters on the staircase; his meals would be poisoned for days to come; was literature itself a specific against such disagreeables? A note of hollowness was in his voice as he read.

from Night and Day, by Virginia Woolf

 {image found on Pinterest}

April 24, 2016

Biographies in books

... Perhaps it is a little depressing to inherit not lands but an example of intellectual and spiritual virtue; perhaps the conclusiveness of a great ancestor is a little discouraging for those who run the risk of comparison with him. It seems as if, having flowered so splendidly, nothing now remained possible but a steady growth of good, green stalk and leaf. For these reasons, and for others, Katharine had her moments of despondency. The glorious past, in which men and women grew to unexampled size, intruded too much upon the  present ,,, to be altogether encouraging to one forced to make her experiment in living when the great age was dead,
      She was drawn to dwell upon  these matters more than was natural, in the first place owing to her mother's absorption in them, and in the second because a great part of her time was spent in imagination with the dead, since she was helping her mother to produce a life of the great poet. When Katharine was seventeen or eighteen -- that is to say, some ten years ago --her mother had enthusiastically announced that now, with a daughter to help her, the biography would soon be published. Notices to this effect found their way into the literary papers, and for some time Katharine worked with a sense of great pride and achievement.

from Night and Day, by Virginia Woolf

As someone who loves to read biographies, and especially literary ones, it's probably natural that I'd been drawn to dwell on a novel with {a little, at least} a biography in it. So I shall. :)

      Lately, however, it had seemed to her that they were making no way at all, and this was the more tantalizing because no one with the ghost of a literary temperament could doubt but that they had materials for one of the greatest biographies that has ever been written. Shelves and boxes bulged with the precious stuff. The most private lives of the most interesting people lay furled in yellow bundles of close-written manuscript. In addition to this Mrs. Hilbery had in her own head as bright a vision of that time as now remained to the living, and could give those flashes and thrills to the old words which gave then almost the substance of flesh. She had no difficulty in writing, and covered a page every morning as instinctively as a thrush sings, but nevertheless, with all this to urge and inspire, and the most devout intention to accomplish the work, the book still remained unwritten. Papers accumulated without much furthering their task, and in dull moments Katharine had her doubts whether they would ever produce anything at all fit to lay before the public.  Where did the difficulty lie? Not in their materials, alas!  nor in their ambitions, but in something more profound, in her own inaptitude, and above all, in her mother's temperament. Katharine would calculate that she had never known her write for more than ten minutes at a time. Ideas came to her chiefly when she was in motion. She liked to perambulate the room with a duster in her hand, with which she stopped to polish the backs of already lustrous books, musing and romancing as she did so. Suddenly the right phrase or the penetrating point of view would suggest itself, and she would drop her duster and write ecstatically for a few breathless moments; and then the mood would pass away, and the duster would be sought for and the old books polished again. ...  It was as much as Katharine could do to keep the pages of her mother's manuscript in order, but to sort them so that the sixteenth year of Richard Alardyce's life succeeded the fifteenth was beyond her skill. And yet they were so brilliant, these paragraphs, so nobly phrased, so lightning-like in their illuminations, that the dead seemed to crowd the very room. ...
      But the book must be written. It was a duty that they owed the world, and to Katharine, at least, it meant more than that for if they could not between them get this one book accomplished they had no right to their privileged position. Their increment became yearly more and more unearned. Besides, it must be established indisputably that her grandfather was a very great man.

Thanks for indulging me; as you can see, I loved these scenes. (There's more in this vein.) And now I'm trying to think of other novels about biography.  I can only think of one {can you?} that I read a long time ago {According to Mark, by Penelope Lively} but I'm going to look.

      By the time she was twenty-seven, these thoughts had become very familiar to her.  They trod their way through her mind as she sat opposite her mother of a morning at a table heaped with bundles of old letters and well supplied with pencils, scissors, bottles of gum, india-rubber bands, large envelopes, and other appliances for the manufacture of books. Shortly before Ralph Denham's visit, Katharine had resolved to try the effect of strict rules upon her mother's habits of literary composition, They were to be seated at their tables every morning at ten o'clock, with a clean sweep of empty, secluded hours before them. They were to keep their eyes fast upon the paper, and nothing was to tempt them to speech, save at the stroke of the hour when ten minutes of relaxation were to be allowed them. If these rules were observed for a year, she made out on a sheet of paper that the completion of the book was certain, and she laid her scheme before her mother with a feeling that much of the task was already accomplished. Mrs. Hilbery examined the sheet of paper very carefully. Then she clapped her hands and exclaimed enthusiastically:
      'Well done, Katharine!  What a wonderful head for business you've got!  Now I shall keep this before me, and every day I shall make a little mark in my pocketbook, and on the last day of all -- let me think, what shall we do to celebrate the last day of all? If it weren't the winter we could take a jaunt to Italy. They say Switzerland's very lovely in the snow, except for the cold. But, as you say, the great thing is to finish the book. Now let me see --'.

April 21, 2016


Today, as everyone probably knows, is the Queen's 90th birthday ... and the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte's birth.  I've been saving this new biography (or so I tell myself) just for the occasion. I know very little about her, and have just never been drawn, for no real reason, to the Brontes or their books {are you?}.  But I loved Claire Harman's book about Jane Austen, which is reason enough, and I even went so far as to order this UK edition after Nicola told us about its embroidered cover {it really is gorgeous}.  With this, and Juliet Stevenson reading Jane Eyre, I'm looking forward to finding out what I've been missing.  :)

April 18, 2016


Of all the hours of an ordinary working week-day, which are the pleasantest to look forward to and to look back upon? If a single instance is of use in framing a theory, it may be said that the minutes between nine-twenty-five and nine-thirty in the morning had a singular charm for Mart Datchet. She spent them in a very enviable frame of mind; her contentment was almost unalloyed. High in the air as her flat was, some beams from the morning sun reached her even in November, striking straight at curtain, chair and carpet, and painting there three bright, true spaces of green, blue and purple, upon which the eye rested with a pleasure which gave physical warmth to the body.
      There were few mornings when Mary did not look up, as she bent to lace her boots, and as she followed the yellow rod from curtain to breakfast-table she usually breathed some sigh of thankfulness that her life provided her with such moments of pure enjoyment. She was robbing no one of anything, and yet, to get to much pleasure from simple things, such as eating one's breakfast alone in a room which had nice colors in it, clean from the skirting of the boards to the corners of the ceiling, seemed to suit her so thoroughly that she used at first to hunt about for some one to apologize to, or for some flaw in the situation.  She had now been six months in London, and she could find no flaw, but that, as she invariably concluded, by the time her boots were laced, was solely and entirely due to the fact that she had her work. every day, as she stood with her dispatch-box in her hand at the door of her flat, and gave one look back into the room to see that everything was straight before she left, she said to herself that she was very glad that she was going to leave it all, that to have sat there all day long, in the enjoyment of leisure, would have been intolerable.
from Night and Day, by Virginia Woolf