Night and Day

‘The loved street and bookish room’: Sally Minogue looks at the importance of room and rooms in Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day.

Room: it’s one of those words we use without thinking. But lately I’ve been thinking about Virginia Woolf’s use of the word; and Woolf never uses a word unthinkingly. These reflections began at a recent conference on Woolf’s second novel, Night and Day, held to celebrate the centenary of its publication (October 20th, 1919). This novel, as its title suggests, flirts with binary opposites, exploiting them but also questioning them. Night and day are, eponymously, the two key contrasting elements in which the characters live, move and have their being. But to me a more obvious oppositional pairing in this novel is that of interior and exterior – inside are containing, comforting, sometimes suffocating ‘rooms’, while outside is ‘room’, space to breathe and expand, but also to face the existential scariness of space, and the unseeing stars. 

The novel begins with the most conventional of rooms: ‘It was a Sunday evening in October, and in common with many other young ladies of her class, Katharine Hilbery was pouring out tea.’ It could be an opening sentence from Jane Austen, with the same touch of irony. We learn in the very next sentence that ‘perhaps a fifth part of [Katharine’s] mind was thus occupied’, and now Austen recedes because she wouldn’t have told us that so directly. By and by, Woolf’s own penetrative brand of irony asserts itself, and we see that this ‘sophisticated drawing-room’ won’t contain Katharine, even if for much of the novel it seems to constrain her. Her counterpart male protagonist is also introduced in this opening scene and chapter; but whereas she belongs inside, part of the security of the room, he comes in from outside, in various senses:

It seemed to Mr Denham as if a thousand softly padded doors had closed between him and the street outside. A fine mist, the etherealized essence of the fog, hung visibly in the wide and rather empty space of the drawing-room, all silver where the candles were grouped on the tea-table, and ruddy again in the fire-light. With the omnibuses and cabs still running in his head, and his body still tingling with his quick walk along the streets and in and out of traffic and foot-passengers, this drawing-room seemed very remote and still …

Suddenly we’re right in the twentieth century, with its traffic and speed, which Ralph Denham might be expected to carry vigorously into this stuffy world full of ‘elderly distinguished people’. Instead he is discomfited, ‘compressing his teacup, so that there was danger lest the thin china might cave inwards. She could see that he was nervous.’ For the rest of the chapter we bat back and forth between each character’s placing and misplacing of the other, while the reader reserves judgement.

This first scene shows Woolf flexing her writer’s muscles, but also establishing the importance of this room. By the end of the novel the world that room encapsulates will have become less important; but it reminds us of an established way of life, a dominant class, the comfort but also the restriction that those provide, and the particular complications of that for a woman. Add in a famous and revered poet for Katharine’s father, and a mother who is writing his never-to-be-finished biography in which Katharine is assisting, and this room represents the dead hand of the nineteenth century weighing on the modern twentieth century.

As ever with Woolf, though, it’s not that simple. As the novel develops, we meet other characters and other interiors. Mary Datchet has ‘rooms’, rented, indicating her independence; but people are forever landing on Mary, using her rooms for meetings, deciding to visit her on a whim. Having her own rooms, which ought to guarantee her privacy, in her case seems to mean that she is vulnerable to all. Yet, resolving, in Chapter IV, that ‘she would never again lend her rooms for any purpose whatsoever’, she nonetheless readies them for visitors, and they and we are presented with a much more appealing picture than Katharine’s drawing-room: 

She knelt before the fire and looked out into the room. The light fell softly, but with clear radiance, through shades of yellow and blue paper, and the room, which was set with one or two sofas resembling grassy mounds in their lack of shape, looked unusually large and quiet. Mary was led to think of the heights of a Sussex down, and the swelling green circle of some camp of ancient warriors. The moonlight would be falling there so peacefully now, and she could fancy the rough pathway of silver upon the wrinkled skin of the sea.  

In a smooth, swift passage from reality to imagination we are led from inside to outside, from present to a vast past. Mary’s is a rich interior world, but as we shall learn, she has to make that compensate for much. 

Against these women’s rooms, the men’s are set. They are not open to social depredations in the way Mary’s are. Men – and sometimes women – are invited in, but they do not arrive unannounced. William Rodney’s room, into which he invites Ralph Denham, is not dissimilar to Mary’s, but it is curated: ‘Rodney’s room was the room of a person who cherishes a great many personal tastes, guarding them from the rough blasts of the public with scrupulous attention.’ (Chapter V) Nonetheless, Denham pronounces it ‘very nice and comfortable’, and Rodney shows himself able to produce comfort, ‘very dexterously in lighting a fire, producing glasses, whisky, a cake, and cups and saucers’. Katharine’s father, Mr. Hilbery, more comfortable still, has a study, buried within the vast demesne of the large house on Cheyne Walk:

[It] was a very silent, subterranean place, the sun in daytime casting a mere abstract of light through a skylight upon his books and the large table, with its spread of white papers, illumined by a green reading-lamp. … He was lying back comfortably in a deep arm-chair, smoking a cigar, and ruminating the fruitful question as to whether Coleridge had wished to marry Dorothy Wordsworth, and what, if he had done so, would have been the consequences to him in particular, and to literature in general. (Chapter VIII) 

We perhaps do not give sufficient attention to Woolf’s irony; evident from it here is that she thinks Hilbery’s ruminations as empty as air. But that is never going to strike Hilbery. His is a world of masculine certainty; and even as Woolf shows its shortcomings, she shows its enormous appeal. All Edwardian writers’ studies are encapsulated in that description. Male writers, that is. 

Ralph’s family home, by contrast, fills him with gloom, inhabited as it is by ‘six or seven brothers and sisters, a widowed mother, and, probably, some aunt or uncle sitting down to an unpleasant meal under a very bright light’. (Chapter II) His own room, to which he withdraws up several flights of stairs, is almost deliberately comfortless. ‘There was a look of meanness and shabbiness in furniture and curtains, and nowhere any sign of luxury or even cultivated taste’. The contrast with Mary’s warm and artistic room is marked, yet both are probably in a similar financial state. The poverty of Ralph’s room seems almost willful. When he later brings Katharine to visit his family, we shrink a little as readers from Woolf’s cold gaze, here transmuted to Katharine’s. (Chapter XXVII) Having ‘sketched lightly’ her own imagined idea of Ralph’s situation, ‘the only son of an aged, and possibly invalid, mother’, she finds herself led ‘up a tiled path to a porch in the Alpine style of architecture’. Could anything be more damning? Well – yes:

The unsparing light revealed more ugliness than Katharine had seen in one room for a very long time. It was the ugliness of enormous folds of brown material, looped and festooned, of plush curtains, from which depended balls and fringes, partially concealing bookshelves swollen with black school-texts. Her eye was arrested by crossed scabbards of fretted wood upon the dull green wall, and wherever there was a high flat eminence, some fern waved from a pot of crinkled china, or a bronze horse reared so high that a stump of a tree had to sustain his forequarters. The waters of family life seemed to rise and close over her head, and she munched in silence. 

The ‘unsparing light’ is Woolf’s, and her brilliant powers of observation serve only to express her own snobbery. Worse is to come: 

Katharine decided that Ralph Denham’s family was commonplace, unshapely, lacking in charm, and fitly expressed by the hideous nature of their furniture and decorations. She glanced along a mantelpiece ranged with bronze chariots, silver vases, and china ornaments …  when she looked at [Ralph] a moment later, she rated him lower than at any other time of their acquaintanceship. (398)

This could be excused as expressing Katharine’s point of view, as indeed it does, but there is no ironic distance as with the Mr. Hilbery passage. This is Woolf at her worst, and we can only feel more wretched about it when we read in Quentin Bell’s biography that this description may have been based on her first visit to Leonard’s family after their engagement. 

But let’s leave these rooms and go outside. Here the narrative voice comes alive. This is primarily a London novel, and it gives us a superb account of life on the street in the early twentieth century – the ‘wonderful maze of London … like a vast electric light, casting radiance upon the myriads of men and women who crowded round it’. (Chapter IV) For Mary, working in the suffrage office, pursuing a communal ideology, the crowded street offers a life of commonality:

Out in the street she liked to think herself one of the workers who, at this hour, take their way in rapid single file along all the broad pavements of the city, with their heads slightly lowered, as if all their effort were to follow each other as closely as might be. (Chapter VI))

Far removed from T. S. Eliot’s gloomy Waste Land vision (‘I had not thought death had undone so many’), London’s streets provide a place where women and men alike are free to walk, night and day, accompanied or unaccompanied. They take the omnibus, they stride along the Embankment, the street geography of London is theirs, along with the excitement of a cultural life quick and exciting compared with the embalmed tradition of the dead poet. And Austen’s fettered world is a million miles away.

In its middle stages, the novel moves away from London, with the narrative excuse of Christmas to provide excursions into the country for all the characters. Here we are treated to that other exterior, the grand canvas of nature. Not that Woolf treats that any differently from London streets – as ever, these imaginative spaces allow us to enter further into the characters’ inner lives.  And as in London, people walking together frees something in them and in their relationship. Here are Ralph and Mary in her home country: 

About [Mary] seemed to hang the mist of the winter hedges, and the clear red of the bramble leaves. He felt himself at once stepping on to the firm ground of an entirely different world. … In front of them the sky now showed itself of a reddish-yellow, like a slice of some semilucent stone behind which a lamp burnt, while a fringe of black trees with distinct branches stood against the light… (Chapter XV)

Proper country, Lawrentian even, but as ever balanced by realism. Poor Mary – she decides that, ‘having lost what is best, I do not mean to pretend that any other view does instead. Whatever else happens, I mean to have no pretences in my life.’ (Chapter XX) This foreshadows Virginia’s brave understanding a few years later, in her diary entry for the start of 1923: ‘Never pretend the things that you haven’t got are not worth having … Never pretend that children, for example, can be replaced by other things.’ [See my blog on Mrs Dalloway for a fuller discussion of this.] Mary is brave, because she has to be. She loves Ralph, but is clear-sighted enough when he proposes to her to see that she is not the one he wants. Much as she would love to accept him for her own sake, Mary is made of better stuff; and therefore, she is the one who suffers.  ‘“There’s always work”, she said, a little aggressively. … “It’s the thing that saves one – I’m sure of that”’. (Chapter XXVIII) Well, yes – there’s always work.

Night and Day has been criticized for being little other than a standard Edwardian novel. Katharine Mansfield, Woolf’s contemporary and friend, declared it ‘a lie in the soul’, because it depicted a world in which the First World War seemed not to have happened. In that, Mansfield may be right; but I hope I have shown enough to suggest that this is no standard ‘Edwardian’ novel, with its ruthless investigation of the relations between men and women, and the choices available to women in particular of the way in which a life can be well spent. If marriage looms large, it is not given as the answer; and if work seems a hard and lonely row to hoe, it is also rewarding and fulfilling. Perhaps this novel shows its most interesting self when it give us significant glimpses of the larger universe, before which the individual is stripped of social comfort – a marker of Woolf’s concerns to come. Here, Katharine is gazing at the stars, which initially, in a sentimental moment, she invests anthropomorphically with happiness:

And yet, after gazing for another second, the stars did their usual work upon the mind, froze to cinders the whole of our short human history, and reduced the human body to an ape-like, furry form, crouching amid the brushwood of a barbarous clod of mud. This stage was soon succeeded by another, in which there was nothing in the universe save stars and the light of stars; as she looked up the pupils of her eyes so dilated with starlight that the whole of her seemed dissolved in silver and spilt over the ledges of the stars for ever and ever indefinitely through space. (Chapter XVI) 

Not just the individual, the body, the very self dissolves in such moments. Woolf’s next novel would be Jacob’s Room, in which the First World War is addressed, if at an angle, and the emptiness below the social surface of life looms ever larger. 

Jacob’s empty room, with which that novel ends, reminds me of various of the First World War poets who, returning from the trenches to the apparent safety and shelter of a comfortable book-lined room, are unable to escape a sense of lurking threat. Edmund Blunden’s ‘1916 seen from 1921’ and Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Repression of War Experience’ both call up the terror of what Ivor Gurney called ‘slow death in the loved street and bookish room.’ (‘Swift and Slow’). If the war is missing from Woolf’s Night and Day, that existential dis-ease is not. In the major novels of the 1920s and 30s, it was to become the centre of her life’s work.


Night and Day and Jacob’s Room are published as a joint volume by Wordsworth Editions.

Eliot quotation from The Waste Land, 1922, Book I, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, which can be found in numerous editions, Faber and Faber.

Edmund Blunden, Poems 1914-30 (London, Cobden-Sanderson, 1930)

Ivor Gurney, Collected Poems, ed. P. J. Kavanagh (Manchester, Fyfield Books/Carcanet, 2004

Siegfried Sassoon, Collected Poems 1908-1956 (London, Faber and Faber, 1961)

Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf: A Biography, Vol. Two (London, The Hogarth Press, 1972)

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