Virginia Woolf’s Pivotal Sophomore Novel


Arts & Culture

Illustration by Kristen Radtke.

Beware, sweet Night and Day reader, of being seduced by the name of Virginia Woolf on the spine of this novel into believing you are about to read a work of high Modernism, a sister to the author’s towering To the Lighthouse and Orlando and The Waves. Along that path lies only bewilderment. This is not to say that you won’t find the Virginia Woolf you know and love in this book, because you certainly will, if mostly after the first half, and in an endearingly tender, nascent form. What I mean is that the conversation Virginia Woolf is conducting in her second novel is not the conversation of her later books, the one with avant-garde authors of the early twentieth century like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, but rather a shrewd and ultimately subversive discussion with the male writers of the Edwardian age, like Henry James, John Galsworthy, and her friend E. M. Forster. This is a book that gazes backward in time with skepticism and a virago’s impulse to shred into tatters all that it sees.

No book is written in a vacuum, and an author’s sophomore novel is in many respects a product of the trauma caused by writing and publishing her debut. In Virginia Woolf’s case, that trauma was severe. Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, was published in 1915, when the writer was thirty-three years old, after more than seven years of composition, massive revisions to temper the sharper and angrier of her political commentary, a dropped engagement to her friend Lytton Strachey, a marriage to Leonard Woolf, and at least one nervous breakdown and suicide attempt. Woolf’s mental state had never been secure since the sudden death of her mother when she was thirteen, after which, in the severity of her grief, she tried to throw herself out a window. Two years after her mother died, her stepsister, Stella—the de facto mother figure to the four bereaved Stephen siblings, a soft and good-hearted young woman who was able to control the egomaniacal rages of their father—married, moved out, and within two months died of a sudden illness, and the life that Virginia and her siblings had been able to piece together after their mother’s death was totally obliterated.

This was the story that Virginia Woolf tried to master by fictionalizing it in The Voyage Out: an innocent, naive young girl slowly awakening into her sexuality, falling in love, and dying suddenly, leaving her lover bereft. I find hers a thoroughly strange and beautiful first novel, with its flights of brilliance and awkward misfit moments, a book that inhabited a South America that Virginia Woolf had visited only in her imagination, yet one that was already masterful in its delineation of the swift, ineffable, barely glimpsed currents of emotion that were Woolf’s great genius to explore. I sense real madness in The Voyage Out, and a corresponding real courage in the young writer who left those wild, mad parts intact in her novel.

Yet her first book took everything out of Virginia Woolf, and shortly after its publication she had another breakdown, with another attempt at suicide. At the time, the “rest cure” was the primary mode of treatment, and between 1913 and 1915, there were multiple times that Woolf was limited to a pallid diet of milk and meat, no gardening or exertion or nights out, very little reading, and only an hour of writing every day. She had already encountered the rest cure with her previous madnesses, and fear of it would haunt her times of wellness throughout her life. It wouldn’t be until 1917 that she would begin work on Night and Day.

Perhaps because of the severity of this post-publication breakdown, there is a sense, particularly at the beginning of Night and Day, of great caution, almost of overcorrection, of a careful forward progression that takes place only when the author feels utterly in control of her material. The great project of the book is to describe the shift taking place in the social order as the Victorian age bled into the Edwardian age. Woolf describes society’s first faltering steps into women’s suffrage and activism based on her own somewhat ambivalent work as an activist at a small and earnest suffrage organization. She contrasts Katharine Hilbery’s intellectual pursuit of a new kind of feminine role within a romantic relationship with Mary Datchet’s quiet, passionate self-possession and freedom from romantic relations. Through the two women, she traces the burgeoning greater equality of relations between men and women, and explores the way that a new generation can destroy the givens of a previous one. Her scope was wildly ambitious; and one can see why, to keep it all under rigid control, Woolf chose for this book a conventional structure and format that was so often and energetically deployed by the great male writers of the time.



How crushing it must have been, then, for Woolf to hear the faint praise of her friend E. M. Forster (whom she called Morgan), who, about a month after Night and Day’s publication, told her that he liked her second novel less than her first, because, as she confides with touching bravado in her diary:

N. and D. is a structurally formal and classical work; that being so requires, or he requires, a far greater degree of lovability in the characters than in a book like V.O., which is vague and universal. None of the characters in N. and D. is lovable. He did not care how they sorted themselves out. Neither did he care for the characters in V.O., but there he felt no need to care for them. Otherwise, he admired practically everything; his blame does not consist in saying that N. and D. is less remarkable than t’other. O and beauties it has in plenty—in fact, I see no reason to be depressed on his account … Morgan has the artist’s mind; he says the simple things that clever people don’t say; I find him the best of critics for that reason.

It is a fair enough criticism, one that I have some sympathy for: I, too, find that nobody is particularly lovable in Night and Day, and I also agree with Forster’s unstated belief that his own novels work so brilliantly, in part, through their characters’ lovability. And yet! It seems to me that this criticism by a male writer in some ways hilariously and unconsciously underlines the points Woolf is making in her book. In Night and Day, Woolf is documenting the shift from a woman’s self-conception in marriage from being at the center of domestic life to being more of a partner among equals. In her new idea of marriage, traditional modes of femininity—charm, subservience, self-sacrifice, and yes, lovability—begin to lose their necessity as tools for women’s survival, not only in marriage but also in the larger world.

The characters of Katharine Hilbery and Mary Datchet, the two women around whom this book is built, have such a strong desire to feel their own way through the dark of the new social order being born around them that neither finds it necessary to fall backward into comfortable traditional female roles. Likewise, Virginia Woolf, in pushing outward in this book toward an articulation of a new and better kind of marriage, doesn’t stop for a moment to try to seduce the reader into loving her characters—she is too fixated on breaking new ground and exploring her ideas. Even the great Henry James sees marriage for his heroines as a kind of inescapable—if often gilded—trap, necessary and hungered-for and resented; Woolf was more interested in undermining the idea of marriage being a trap for women.

In literary fiction, lovability (or its more insipid twin, likability) serves only to fondle the reader’s ego, presenting a way of looking into the mirror of a book and finding oneself reflected in a beautifying or heroic light. There is irony in Forster’s finding a lack of lovability in this book, as, by the end of Night and Day, it becomes clear that Virginia Woolf’s project was in deliberate opposition to the kinds of fiction that Forster himself wrote, where women are the ones asked to sacrifice parts of themselves to bring unity or comfort to the people around them. I’m thinking of my favorite of his books, Howards End—whose Schlegel sisters are modeled clearly on Virginia and Vanessa Stephen, down to the peevishly intellectual brother Tibby, modeled on Thoby Stephen—and the way that Margaret Schlegel (the Vanessa character) both supports her sister Helen (the Virginia character) through her scandalous out-of-wedlock pregnancy, while simultaneously giving up her desire to divorce her husband when he falls ill. Margaret’s husband is a rigid Victorian—unlikable, but of course that’s all right in a man—who bilks Margaret out of inheriting Howards End before he ever truly knows her, and who later acts so cruelly to Margaret’s family in the name of propriety. It is only through Margaret’s great-souled self-sacrifice, as well as her submissiveness to dramatic events that arise from the foolishness of others, that the family can achieve a measure of peace at the end, Forster’s book says placidly.

But why, Woolf’s book responds with some heat, must anyone, male or female, sacrifice anything of themselves for familial peace and unity? Like Forster’s Margaret, Virginia Woolf’s protagonist Katharine Hilbery was modeled on her sister Vanessa, a great beauty and painter and lover of abstraction, whose force of will undermined her glittering, conventionally beautiful surface all her life.



The title Night and Day carries tremendous symbolism, referring most obviously to this shift of a woman’s role in domestic life and in society at large. But it also refers to the tension between Katharine Hilbery’s bourgeoise training and Mary Datchet’s intellectual and emotional independence and leadership in suffrage; the shift from the Victorian into the Edwardian; the vastness in the gulf between the sensibilities of men and those of women; as well as to larger socioeconomic points such as the bleeding of the middle class into the more calcified upper classes through the solvent of love, the way that Ralph Denham’s energetic, aesthetically outrageous family mixes in the end with Katharine Hilbery’s dusty literary aristocracy, a marriage that would have been far less thinkable in earlier eras. Woolf’s title also traces the fault line between public compliance and private dreams and ambitions.

Night and Day becomes increasingly interesting the more one considers it. The literary critic Jane Marcus wrote that the architecture of the book depends “structurally on Mozart, stylistically on Jane Austen, and thematically on Ibsen,” and there’s great joy in discovering these conversations that are happening below the level of the line. Woolf also draws a great deal on Shakespeare, particularly on the figure of the wise fool, embodied here in Mrs. Hilbery, with her attention deficit, her inability to finish her biography of her famous writer grandfather, and her sideways truth-telling. Woolf, too, was playing on the partner-switching of Shakespeare’s plays, like As You Like It, and she borrowed her protagonist’s name, Katharine, from the eponymous shrew of The Taming of the Shrew, though the shrewishness of Katharine is transformed by Woolf into a private resistance to expectations and a hunger for abstractions in her literary family:

[Katharine] … would not have cared to confess how infinitely she preferred the exactitude, the star-like impersonality, of figures to the confusion, agitation, and vagueness of the finest prose. There was something a little unseemly in thus opposing the tradition of her family; something that made her feel wrong-headed, and thus more than ever disposed to shut her desires away from view and cherish them with extraordinary fondness.

It is abstraction—through Ralph’s dashed-off sketch of a “blot fringed with flame,” which Katharine picks up and recognizes as the wordless declaration of love that Ralph doesn’t even know, himself, that it is—that suddenly delineates and clarifies the depths of the feeling between the lovers; likewise, Ralph’s parallel glimpse of Katharine’s secret passion in mathematics—her own abstract thinking—speaks to the profound and shifting wordlessness of emotion that runs under the surface of these characters.


Illustration by Kristen Radtke.


Woolf came closest in Night and Day to doing what she longed to do in all of her books: to show how most of the time we walk around as though embedded in “a kind of nondescript cotton wool,” but once in a while, the wool slips and we can see the glorious pattern beneath the daily gray. She called the wool “non-being” and these slippages “moments of being,” and described them by saying:

A great part of every day is not lived consciously. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; writing orders to Mabel; washing; cooking dinner; bookbinding. When it is a bad day, the proportion of non-being is much larger. I had a slight temperature last week; almost the whole day was non-being. The real novelist can somehow convey both sorts of being. I think Jane Austen can; and Trollope; perhaps Thackeray and Dickens and Tolstoy. I have never been able to do both. I tried—in Night and Day and in The Years.

Woolf is being modest here. I think that she was able to do both by creating a strict conventionality in the first part of the book in order to smash said conventionality in the second part. What some readers might believe is a failure of the novel is, in fact, necessary to the deeper architecture of the story, the way the mode of the book corresponds to the subject matter and themes. It is in this strange and swirling and emotional second part of the novel that we at last see the literary lion Virginia Woolf, in her “moments, fragments, a second of vision, and then the flying waters, the winds dissipating and dissolving; then, too, the recollection from chaos, the return of security, the earth firm, superb and brilliant in the sun.” This book becomes most wonderful in its later pages, when the prose begins to sing and the invisible fetters on the characters seem to burst off and Woolf’s true, deep wildness comes out.

Woolf was liberated psychologically and materially to write the way she wished after Night and Day because she made a devastatingly effective break with her first publisher. Her first two books were published by Duckworth, the publishers of E. M. Forster, John Galsworthy, and later D. H. Lawrence; Duckworth happened to be the company founded by her half-brother George Duckworth, a man who was a curious sort of publisher, as he notoriously hated writers, and a man who, along with his brother Gerald, had repeatedly molested the Stephen sisters from the time Virginia was six years old. In an essay posthumously collected in the luminous and savage Moments of Being, Woolf wrote of George Duckworth, saying:

It was usually said that he [after their mother and Stella’s death] was father and mother, sister and brother in one—and all the old ladies of Kensington and Belgravia added with one accord that Heaven had blessed those poor Stephen girls beyond belief and it remained for them to prove that they were worthy of such devotion … Yes, the old ladies of Kensington and Belgravia never knew that George Duckworth was not only father and mother, brother and sister to those poor Stephen girls; he was their lover also.


Illustration by Kristen Radtke.


If Woolf, in writing her sophomore novel, was constrained under the weight of The Voyage Out, she was equally constrained by the gatekeeper at the end of the process of writing, the terrible, judgmental, feared, rigidly conventional half-brother who had so deeply wounded her. After Night and Day, Virginia and Leonard Woolf would smash this professional relationship by creating Hogarth Press, which would go on to publish all of the rest of Woolf’s work, as well as the work of Katherine Mansfield, T. S. Eliot, and Henry Green. The proprietor of her own press could write whatever the hell she liked. She had set herself free.

I see Night and Day as a pivotal moment in Virginia Woolf’s career, one that is profoundly important for any reader who wants to watch in fascination as the writer feels her way into becoming the giantess she would be. The book instills in the reader an eerie echo of the feeling one has when one visits the Museu Picasso in Barcelona and sees what a tremendous draftsman the early Pablo Picasso was, on par with earlier masters like Ingres: you walk out of the museum stunned, knowing viscerally what you may have known intellectually, that the artist’s later, restlessly experimental work was founded upon a comprehensive knowledge of, and ability to execute, fundamental traditional artistic techniques. Like Picasso, Virginia Woolf was a courageous and constant experimenter, who had to fully show her chops in Night and Day in a more traditional, straightforward, realistic format before she could discover how to bend the form. Eudora Welty said of Woolf’s larger, overall project as an artist that it was akin to “ ‘Breaking the mold’ [or so Woolf] called the task she set herself. As novel succeeded novel she proceeded to break, in turn, each mold of her own.”

Night and Day was intended to smash the timorousness and vagueness Woolf recognized as her flaws in The Voyage Out; and after Night and Day, her third novel, Jacob’s Room, would radically shatter the conventional mold she’d created in her second, creating her fragmented and vivid first foray into her later achievements of stream-of-consciousness. Jacob’s Room would be Woolf’s first full work of the charged Modernism that would come to define her. Even Forster would approve of Jacob’s Room—his hunger for lovability no longer a necessity under the tremendous force of Woolf’s innovation. With her third book, he wrote, “a new type of fiction has swum into view.” If so, Night and Day is the quick silhouette of a shark in a backlit wave, alerting us that this new type of fiction would soon be rushing near.


Lauren Groff is the author of five books, including the National Book Award finalists Fates and Furies and Florida. She is a Guggenheim and Radcliffe Fellow, and in 2018 she was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. She lives in Gainesville, Florida.

Excerpted from Groff’s introduction to Night and Day, by Virginia Woolf, published this week by Restless Books. Illustrations by Kristen Radtke. © Restless Books 2019.