Thursday, January 29, 2009

Night and Day

Inspired by reading Alison Light's book (see previous post), I decided to try one of Virginia Woolf's more obscure novels, Night and Day. Light pointed out how rarely Woolf acknowledged that servants were creating the environment in which Woolf's highly refined and perhaps excessively complex and sensitive characters lived.

In reading Night and Day, I found that I agreed with this observation. Exactly one servant in the entire book has a name: Dorothy, the maid of the poor but loveable family of Ralph, one of the suitors of the main character Katherine. (p. 325) Only occasionally is a servant even mentioned: Ralph has a fantasy of renting a cottage; when asked if he will live alone, he says "Some old woman would do for me, I suppose." (p. 192) Later he says "I shhall write a book and curse my charwoman -- if happiness consists in that." (p. 206)

Food, too is rarely of importance. At tea time, Katherine or another hostess often pours tea and slices a cake. Once, a mention is made of lunch hour. Ralph doesn't spend all his time "in consumption of food," but feeds bread crumbs to sparrows and gives a coin to beggar children. (p. 140) In another scene, an inn was actually characterized by the food that it served -- this was I think a unique mention of a menu: "For over a hundred and fifty years hot joints, potatoes, greens, and apple puddings had been served to generations of country gentlemen...." (p. 197)

Light quite effectively discusses how Woolf avoided talking about servants; studying the manuscripts, she found often that more detail about servants had appeared in early drafts of several books, but that Woolf often gave up trying to portray people that she didn't feel confident about understanding. There's a coldness towards all but a very narrow class of people that characterizes the portraits in Night and Day. I think it makes me feel less sympathetic to what Woolf may have been trying to do in the book. In the end, I find the sensibilities of these people somewhat tedious.

Night and Day is an early book that is not considered to represent Woolf's contribution to modern literature, so now I think I may read one of the better regarded ones.

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