Night and Day

Oh Virginia Woolf, there is so much to say but will be left unsaid because that’s how things seem to work in your world. Things left unsaid.

For that seems to be how it is in Night and Day. In this London society where cupid’s arrows seem to have flown haphazardly. For Mary loves Ralph who loves Katherine who doesn’t love William who might love Cassandra and not Katherine (his fiancĂ©e).

And signals are crossed or missed entirely. And hands are wrung, sighs are sighed, walks are walked and lots of tea is made.

Things sort themselves out eventually and all seems fine and dandy except that there is an odd number in this equation. And that is poor Mary, who devotes her life to causes and who sort of becomes the reluctant counselor to all these lovelorn folks. Of course she herself is caught up in this love-line (so not a triangle or even a square or a circle because no one seems to love her back….awwww!) so she is the maker of tea and her flat the convenient drop-in place for the lovelorn and the confused. It is hard not to like her (especially her family and their amusing initial shyness with Ralph) and I just wish she were treated better.

As for Katherine, I was quite determined to boo and hiss at her, since I’m on Mary’s side and all that. But Woolf sneaks in these bits about how K has this secret love. An unspeakable atrocity as she is the granddaughter of some famous (now deceased) poet (who has a kind of cult status that has visitors calling at the house to see his writing desk and manuscripts).

When she was rid of the pretense of paper and pen, phrase-making and biography, she turned her attention in a more legitimate direction, though, strangely enough, she would rather have confessed her wildest dreams of hurricane and prairie than the fact that, upstairs, alone in her room, she rose early in the morning or sat up late at night to…work at mathematics.

Yes, a secret love for mathematics. That makes me want to forgive all her faults – and she has many. But it is hard because of Mary and her fondness for Ralph, who’s in love with Katherine. And Katherine is one who believes that love should be:

“Splendid as the waters that drop with resounding thunder from high ledges of rock, and plunge downwards into the blue depths of night, was the presence of love she dream, drawing into it every drop of the force of life, and dashing them all asunder in the superb catastrophe in which everything was surrendered, and nothing might be reclaimed. The man too, was some magnanimous hero, riding a great horse by the shore of the sea. They rode through forests together, they galloped the rim of the sea.

As for the male characters, I didn’t think much of them. William is written as too silly and pompous a character. And Ralph too angsty.

At one moment he exulted in the thought that Mary loved him; at the next, it seemed that he was without feeling for her; her love was repulsive to him. Now he felt urged to marry her at once; now to disappear and never see her again.

Night and Day might not be one of Woolf’s more lauded books but it was quite a treat to read.

 

This is my Classics read for the Mixing it Up challenge.

Mrs Woolf and the Servants

The only Virginia Woolf book I can say that I love is Mrs Dalloway. I gave To The Lighthouse a try but never really managed to get into it although I slogged it out till the end (oh dear, I hope that doesn’t put you off it). So I’m not really a Woolf fan and never really desired to know about her life, but somehow the premise of Mrs Woolf and the Servants intrigued me.

The author’s preface aided that attraction. She describes her own interest in Woolf’s relationship with her servants, in particular Nellie Boxall, her cook whom she both despised and needed. Author Alison Light’s own grandmother was a live-in servant, which added to her fascination with life of servants. Also, did you ever see the movie Gosford Park? It’s one of my favourite films and I loved the details of the goings on downstairs. And I guess that added to my own interest in this book.

Virginia Woolf grew up with servants. They picked up clothes, washed, cleaned, shopped and cooked, helped one dress. In a house of servants one was never truly alone. But the times they were a-changing (what with women doing their part during the World Wars and all), and service jobs were no longer as sought after, nor did one desire having live-in servants. Light details the everyday lives of these women in service, and their relationship to Woolf and her family (such as her sister Vanessa and her husband Leonard). And she also traces the backgrounds of some of Woolf’s servants, such as Nellie Boxall and Sophie, which was quite interesting to me but I suspect that if you’re reading this as a Woolf fan, then maybe not so much for you.

“Writing sustained Virginia Stephen; it was immensely gratifying, a physical as well as mental delight. ‘I love writing for the sake of writing,’ she noted, enjoying covering the page with ink, the rhythms of writing, which could soothe as well as excite. If writing was a temporary suspension of self-consciousness, it was also a very conscious self-pleasuring. Though she often despaired of what she produced, and even felt at times ‘like one rolled at the bottom of a green flood, smoothed, obliterated’, she was amazed to find, going under, that her pockets were still full of words.'”

And as Light discovers in Woolf’s earlier drafts of her famous works, Woolf was herself intrigued by her servants, often writing in these domestic servants, and later removing them: “servants, as ever, were Virginia’s window on the world, the chinks of light glimpsed through the thick hedges of class feeling which boxed her in”. We don’t only hear from Woolf of course, there are letters from her family’s longtime cook Sophie and we also hear quite a bit from Nellie, with whom she had this odd tumultuous relationship (Woolf gives her notice, Nellie gives her own notice, but refuses to go, and in the end they stay together for 18 years).

“Nonetheless, after centuries of domestic servants in Britain, what it meant to be a servant – and to have servants – is still a remarkably undiscovered country, perhaps, because the history of service is so peculiarly bound up with our relation to maternal or paternal care, to what happens at home as well as in the wider world of economic relations.”

Eh, I’m terrible at writing reviews of books, especially non-fiction ones. But I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this read. I thought it might be too academic a read for me (especially one who’s not all that familiar with Woolf, her life or her works), as Light’s other book sounds like it belongs in a university library: Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars. However, it was a pretty good non-fiction read, aided by Light’s extensive research and writing. Would this book have been a better read if I had actually been familiar with Woolf’s other works? Yeah, probably, but reading Mrs Woolf and the Servants left me with a better appreciation for Woolf’s writing and I made a mental note to read some of her other works, such as Night and Day, as well as other works that Light mentions like Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and Rosamond Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz.