[Photo entitled 'Wet Winter Evening and a Book Lover in Bloomsbury', also used on the cover of the PQ Winter 2003. It has stayed in my mind all this time as one of the most atmospheric depictions of London ever.]
I began my Woolf reading with Night and Day, her second novel, rather than The Voyage Out, for the simple reason that I found a good secondhand copy in Skoob, a suitably Bloomsberryish bookshop a stone's throw from Brunswick Square (one of the various Bloomsbury squares colonised by the Bells and Woolfs et al), while sheltering from the rain on a cold, grey summer's day and waiting to meet a friend for tea. My reading couldn't have had more apposite start, as the tea-table looms large in this novel as the battleground for dicussion and negotiation of women's roles and worlds.
[Martha Morton at Home, Byron Company, 1902]
The other reason for wanting to read Night and Day first was that the copy I bought doesn't have an introduction; it just pitches the reader straight into the text which is exactly what I wanted. And now, having read some introductions to Woolf novels, I still think it's best to ignore them. For VW does funny things to introduction writers, most of whom lose themselves in abstract and overwritten cleverness - one notable exception being Elaine Showalter who writes clearly and intelligently on VW.
[Old Southwark Bridge c1919, CR Nevinson]
So what did I think of Night and Day? That it had far more echoes of and plot devices used by Jane Austen than I'd expected. That the parts set in London are much better than the parts set in Lincoln and around. That there are overtones of Thomas Hardy in the rural scenes, but only VW could have written the London scenes (brilliant and original). That surely nobody, no matter how attuned and perceptive they are, can read as much into faces and eyes and expressions as the characters in this book? That it was far more readable and traditionally novelistic than I'd imagined. That although VW does passion on a large psychological scale, I found it unbelievable that all four main characters could have such rigid (frigid?) physical self-control even at the height of their truly, madly, deeply moments. That VW is truly the poet of dusk, the time of day between day and night, 'the evening veil of unreality' and captures it beautifully; her descriptions of the fading light, the growing shadows, the blurring of the day, the electric lights coming on in London, the hour for tea, are all exceptional. (Example: 'Never are voices so beautiful as on a winter's evening, when dusk almost hides the body, and they seem to issue from nothingness with a note of intimacy seldom heard by day.')
[Going Home at Dusk, 1882, by John Atkinson Grimshaw who is particularly well-known for his highly atmospheric, urban dusk and twilight paintings]
When VW is good, she is very, very good, and despite the old-fashioned feel in places (sometimes it's as though you are reading a mid c19 novel, and other times it's clearly early C20) there's a feeling of moving towards a newer, more experimental approach to novel-writing which of course is what comes with Jacob's Room. The imagery is delicate and sustained, the motifs and themes all there: moths, water, waves and rivers, flowers, London parks and streets and Tube stations, and the fundamental questioning of how women should live their lives. Night & Day is absorbing and, at times, exquisite.
Next: Jacob's Room