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. Read More