Essay: Notes from the Overture (Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day and the Beginnings of High Modernist Literature)

By D. W. White

‘Civilization had been very profoundly and unpleasantly overthrown that evening; the extent of the ruin was still undetermined’[1]
                       —Virginia Woolf, Night and Day
‘Dreams and Realities’ is the title of the sole manuscript of Virginia Woolf’s second novel, Night and Day. This working title captures the period in which the book was written—a society scarred by World War One and a cultural landscape tumbling into the most significant literary epoch in history. In a moment when the past and the future were so openly combative, dreams and realities were equally at odds and, for many, unattainable. This turbulent genesis is fitting for a novel that, while routinely and egregiously overlooked, laid the groundwork for the most successful and important English language literary career of the twentieth century.
Such an assessment would not have found an amenable audience in the book’s author; literary scholar Julia Berg notes Woolf’s angst in writing that ‘interminable Night and Day,’ a novel she felt to be antediluvian even before it was finished.[2] But like so much else in her career, Woolf is far too hard on herself—even if, on this point, others seem to agree. In his study of Woolf’s oeuvre, the otherwise insightful David Daiches contends that Woolf ‘had not yet discovered a technique’ of her later career in Night and Day,[3] and others have seen it merely as the second of two early ‘conventional’ novels before a major shift in Jacob’s Room. This point, however, is as superficial as Night and Day itself is said to be—and as plainly incorrect as those charges, too.
When one studies closely the technical-mechanical devices Woolf employs, principally in her presentation of consciousness, in Night and Day and in her later (inarguably more mature) work, the tenuous nature of conventional scholarship is apparent. Night and Day is an embodiment of the movement, both for Woolf and literature, from the Victorian-Edwardian novel to the Modernist one, the forward position from which the first sounds of ‘the smashing and the crashing,’[4] signaling the colossal revolution in form and theory, can be heard. The manuscript title proved a prescient one—Night and Day is indeed a work of compelling transition and transformation, moving subtlety and at times even unintentionally between the realities of an old world and the dreams of one yet to come.
The immense amount of sophisticated thought on books such as Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, or that great white whale of literary theory, Ulysses, reveals just how loquacious one can become in the discussion of single novels, especially those foundation stones of High Modernism, rich as they all are with complex patterning, technical-mechanical fireworks, and allegorical architecture. This essay shall make a pass at moderation and argue for Night and Day as the first incarnations of those supposed yet-unfound techniques on three points. By first looking at modes of consciousness presentation somewhat broadly, then focusing specifically on Woolf’s use of cross-perspective interiority, and finally moving somewhat beyond the technical to investigate thematic and character departures from Victorian-Edwardian literary tradition, the illuminating legacy of this fascinating novel will be explored.
Published in 1919, Night and Day is, on the surface, something of a marriage plot in the Victorian tradition, complete with all the requisite confusion, missteps, miscommunication, and saccharine perorations of love and devotion. Katharine Hilbery, in her late twenties, is the granddaughter of a great Victorian poet and ensconced comfortably in London’s upper class. Her mother is ostensibly engaged in writing a biography of the poet, her own father, and as such constantly harkens back with a romantic air to the societal apogee that was the previous century. Katharine is rather tacitly expected to marry and settle down—although never with anything like the pressure put on her literary ancestors, most notably Elizabeth Bennet[5]—and is soon enough engaged to William Rodney, something of a self-styled poet with fixed, very much nineteenth century, ideas of marriage and gender relations. Contrasted to him is Ralph Denham, who also loves Katharine, but more for her ephemeral character and unorthodox interests than her potential as a suitable homemaker. With this as the main action, then, it is easy to see why Night and Day has often been interpreted as Woolf’s most traditional novel—and indeed, should literary analysis end at a mere rundown of a story, this would be the case. That, however, leaves much to be desired, especially in discussion of a novelist such as Woolf, with her subtlety and focus on technique and style. For it is when one slips beyond the plot, as always, that the magic begins.
Mind the Gap: Consciousness Presentation and Narrative Distance
The presentation of consciousness, as the alpha and omega of Modernist literature, appears in myriad forms, perhaps most famously free-indirect discourse. Virginia Woolf’s defining technique as a novelist is her use of free-indirect, the bleeding together of third-person narration and a given character’s impressionistic worldview. This skill is best on display in her twin masterworks, Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse, and is a principal reason why those novels are among the three or four most important of the Modernist era.[6] The flexibility free-indirect offers as an insight to a character’s mind while maintaining the tense and person of the book’s narration allows for economy and precision in the movement between external events and internal ones. It is, indeed, the change in the mechanics (not to mention intent) of the rendering of consciousness that defines the boundary between the Victorian-Edwardian and Modernist novel; the verisimilitude and flexibility gained by excising authorial flags and foregrounding interiority as the revolution’s raison d’être.
What makes Night and Day so interesting as a study of Woolf’s development into a High Modernist is that it not only is a harbinger of what comes in her later work, but exhibits an evolution within its own four hundred pages,[7] and in her use of free-indirect specifically and consciousness presentation generally, we see most clearly this development.
The book opens with Ralph paying a visit to the Hilberys, and thus meeting Katharine. On his walk home, he has a moment to reflect on his new acquaintance and is, like all good love interests, immediately (if reluctantly) smitten:
He thought that if he had had Mr or Mrs or Miss Hilbery out here [in the street] he would have made them, somehow, feel his superiority, for he was chafed by the memory of halting awkward sentences which had failed to give even the young woman with the sad, but inwardly ironical, eyes a hint of his force…A turn of the street, a firelit room, something monumental in the process of the lamp-posts, who shall say what accident of light or shape had suddenly changed the prospect within his mind, and led him to murmur aloud:‘She’ll do…Yes, Katharine Hilbery’ll do…I’ll take Katharine Hilbery.'[8]
Note the authorial flags here (‘he thought’); the key moment in this passage is not free-indirect at all, but is in fact direct speech.[9] This isolating and clean, accessible presentation of inner thought is a trademark feature of eighteenth and nineteenth century novels, and the heart of the battleground during the Modernist revolution. Ralph’s ‘choosing’ of Katharine is both stylistically fairly conventional, and thematically quite Victorian, in the backgrounding of her agency and sublimating her independence to his wishes. However, the use of free-indirect is on display in Ralph’s colorization of Katharine bleeding into the narrative entity’s recounting of her ‘sad, but inwardly ironical’ eyes,[10] and even at this early point in the novel, Woolf has challenged somewhat Ralph’s character, giving him an air of uncertainty and even insecurity that works against the classic Victorian-Edwardian male lead (a thematic change of the type that will be discussed in section three, below). From this starting point there is much to see.
In following the evolution of Woolf’s modes of consciousness presentation throughout Night and Day, a few chapters often see a major shift. Some forty-odd pages after Ralph’s eminently conventional declaration of Katharine’s ‘fitness,’ they are both found leaving a party, he (accompanied by his friend Sandys) surreptitiously trailing her and William Rodney through the London night:
Without intending to watch them he never quite lost sight of the yellow scarf twisted round Katharine’s head…The effect of the light and shadow, which seemed to increase their height, was to make them mysterious and significant, so that Denham had no feeling of irritation with Katharine, but rather a half-dreamy acquiescence in the course of the world. Yes, she did very well to dream about—but Sandys had suddenly begun to talk.[11]
The last quoted line is perhaps the first true High Modernist use of free-indirect, from a mechanical standpoint, in the book, as it is Ralph’s idiomatic worldview presented in the third-person past-tense speech of the narration. It is no accident that this important textual function immediately follows an emotionally charged narrative moment[12]—Ralph’s observation and nascent jealousy of Rodney's moonlit walk with Katharine. This usage anticipates the core High Modernist technique of allowing a fuller and deeper look at a given character’s consciousness during moments of emotional or spiritual intensity. The narration then returns to a brief, quite conventional, rundown of Sandys’ appearance and background— the proto-Modernist moment, at this still-early stage of the book, but a brief flash of what’s to come.
As the book progresses, there begin to appear, with increasing frequency, brief flashes of archetypal High Modernist free-indirect discourse. These usages often come during highly charged moments for the characters in question, another mainstay of the Modernist approach. There are myriad examples from which to choose, and we shall focus on a few appearing across the book.
Katharine’s cousin, Cyril, has gotten a woman pregnant out of wedlock, and the scandal  naturally involves her own family. Mr. Hilbery, warns his daughter not to go near her cousin as he asks her what she knows of the matter: 
“But did he ever tell you anything about this?” Mr. Hilbery asked rather sharply.
       Katharine shook her head. She was, indeed, a good deal hurt that Cyril had not confided in her—did he think, as Ralph Denham or Mary Datchet might think, that she was, for some reason, unsympathetic—hostile even?[13]
This is an early example of Woolf’s movement from what the theorist Dorrit Cohn calls psycho-narration—the narration’s discourse about a character’s thoughts, marked by the use of authorial flags—into Cohnian narrated monologue, which corresponds roughly with free-indirect.[14] Thus, we see the narration moving closer to Katharine’s mind—closer in the sense that there is a reduced filtration between her mental processing and what appears on the page—within a sentence.While not uncommon in her later work, or in a book like Ulysses, within the first hundreds pages of Night and Day the moment is a notable one. 
Half a page down and we come to the first clear view of where Woolf’s career would take her: 
Katharine could not help feeling rather puzzled by her father’s attitude, as she went back to her room. What a distance he was from it all! How superficially he smoothed these events into a semblance of decency which harmonized with his own view of life![15]
This passage is remarkably resonant of the opening to Mrs. Dalloway,[16] free-indirect being employed to immediately bring the reader into Katharine’s mind in a manner not done even fifty pages earlier. There is no authorial flagging here, instead the precise transcription of the character’s inner discourse, showcasing a mechanical agility and ingenuity that moves away from the convention of both the previous century and Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out.
A particular tactic of consciousness presentation found across High Modernist literature is repetition,[17] mimicking as it does real life thought patterns, especially during emotional moments, and Night and Day proves to be something of a laboratory for Woolf here, too. Ralph visits Katharine at home, and just before he works up the courage to tell her how he feels, they are interrupted by the arrival of her aunts. As he walks home, unsuccessful in his attempt and despondent over losing her, Woolf paints a vivid portrait of his inner turmoil:
For the substantial world, with its prospect of avenues leading on and on to the invisible distance, had slipped from him, since Katharine was engaged. Now all his life was visible, and the straight, meager path had its ending soon enough. Katharine was engaged, and she had deceived him, too. He felt for corners of his being untouched by his disaster; but there was no limit to the flood of damage; not one of his possessions was safe now. Katharine had deceived him; she had mixed herself with every thought of his, and reft of her they seemed false thoughts which he would blush to think again. His life seemed immeasurably impoverished.[18]
This use of repetition, modest though it may be when compared to Mrs. Dalloway’s leaden circles or ringing Big Ben, nonetheless depicts the tortured thoughts of love in vain, the cycling over the same ground again and again, a principle method of all Modernist novelists.
We first meet William Rodney at that same party which we earlier saw Ralph leave, giving a lecture to his group of friends on the Elizabethian use of metaphor (how the times have changed indeed). His paper is something of a disaster, and Woolf’s narrative entity brooks no quarter in its account:
The first sight of Mr. Rodney was irresistibly ludicrous. He was very red in the face, whether from the cool November night or nervousness, and every movement, from the way he wrung his hands to the way he jerked his head to right and left, as though a vision drew him now to the door, now to the window, bespoke his horrible discomfort under the stare of so many eyes…There was much to be said both for and against Mr. Rodney’s paper. It had been crammed with assertions that such-and-such passages, taken liberally from English, French, and Italian, are the supreme pearls of literature…He had read very badly some very beautiful quotations.[19]
The cutting introduction of poor bumbling Rodney offers a glimpse into the early formations of another late Woolfian technique, the ‘empty centre’—here perhaps the illusive centre, only appearing as it does from time to time. A term coined by Ann Banfield and refined by Violeta Sotirova, it refers to third-person language which ‘invite(s) an interpretation of someone present in the narrative world who observes the phenomena of this world…(but with) no observing consciousness on stage to which we can attribute the perceptions in such sentences.’[20] Put another way, it is the use of a colorized, or personalized, third-person narration without an obvious character to whom the reader can attribute (as is typical in free-indirect style) the impressions and opinions.
And so who, then, is offering these opinions? Who is judging Rodney’s appearance, or his lines as ‘beautiful’ but read ‘badly’? Most of all, who exactly is coming to the conclusion that ‘there was much to be said both for and against’? The balance of the passage makes clear that no one character can plausibly be linked to these sentiments, leaving only Woolf’s rapidly evolving third-person narrative entity. This represents a movement toward the type of idiomatic blended descriptions which form the backbone of High Modernist free-indirect—as found in Woolf’s contemporaries, her own later work, and the latter portions of Night and Day. Although this is in some ways the inverse of bleeding between external narration and character worldview, it can also be seen as evidence of Woolf pushing against the constraints of the conventional Victorian-Edwardian novel in real time, by colorizing her third person narrative entity’s manner of relating ordinary events—even if here the subjectivity comes from the narration itself rather than a character upon which the moment is fixed.[21]
As Sotirova puts it in her paper discussing both the empty centre technique and the scholarship surrounding it, “this observing consciousness does not simply reflect the physical world…it also evaluates this world. It is also a consciousness that engages the reader interpersonally and expressively.”[22] This is precisely what we find throughout Night and Day in an embryonic state. It is the narrative entity making judgments about Rodney and the success (or lack thereof) of his paper, and the idiomatic, subjective manner of this account, unmoored to any one character, further serving to set him as an avatar of stuffy conventionalism whom Katharine, in her transitional role as Edwardian-to-Modernist heroine, can ultimately reject.
For our last examination of Woolf’s overall approach to consciousness presentation, we move to a crucial moment in Katharine and Ralphs’ relationship. Woolf’s primacy of her characters’ thoughts, unmoored from authorial flags and smoothly embedded with the narration, increases in skill and range as the book progresses. At the end of Chapter Twenty-Three, slightly more than halfway through, Ralph leaves a rendezvous with Katharine during which they have agreed to be friends, a truce offering little solace to his inner desires as he contemplates her:
But she was engaged to be married, he remembered with a start. The strength of his feeling was revealed to him instantly, and he gave himself up to an irresistible rage and sense of frustration. The image of Rodney came before him with every circumstance of folly and indignity. That little pink-cheeked dancing-master to marry Katharine? that gibbering ass with the face of a money on an organ? that posing, vain, fanatical fop? with his tragedies and his comedies, his innumerable spites and prides and pettinesses? Lord! marry Rodney! She must be as great a fool as he was.[23]
The entirety of this incredible, fiery passage, more than a page long, is rendered in this style—alternating between authorial-flagged Cohnian psycho-narration (‘he remembered’…’the strength of his feeling’) and pure narrated monologue, an approach found both in Woolf’s later work[24] and in, among others, Ulysses. Ralph’s consciousness determines the temporal orientation, in Cohn’s terms, in this sequence: the sudden reminder of Katharine’s engagement to Rodney strikes him afresh directly he had shared an all-too-brief afternoon with her. There is also, at the end, an instance of quoted monologue, marked by the diction’s move to present tense, a method more commonly found in Joyce but also used in Woolf’s later novels.[25] The idiomatic speech allows for full readerly alignment with Ralph—upset as he is by his recollection of Katharine’s engagement to Rodney, there is nothing standing between us and his true feelings on the man or matter. Rendered via an approach far removed from Victorian-Edwardian convention or even the early chapters of Night and Day itself, the energy and angst one feels in the quotation is a highly verisimilar rendering of Ralph’s inner life in that moment, and as such is technically, mechanically, and thematically an early example of foundational High Modernist writing.
Whose Mind is it Anyway?: The Origins of Dialogic Consciousness
In her book Consciousness in Modern Fiction, Sotirova offers an insightful look at dialogic consciousness, or the unification of multiple characters’ interiority across perspective lines, linking them via the narration to enrich the fabric of the novel. Her study focuses on the work of Woolf, Joyce, and D.H. Lawrence, arguing that in their own way all three employ the technique, and thus for its central importance. The beginnings of Woolf’s approach to dialogic consciousness appear throughout Night and Day.
In her use of cross-perspective consciousness presentation, even more so than in her foregrounding of interiority as a whole, Woolf’s evolution within the novel is abundant. It is narrated not by a Victorian omniscient being, but a revolving series of perspectives, all of which are rendered via a close third-person point of view;[26] the movement between them is of interest here. An early example, from a meeting of Ralph, Katharine, and their friend Mary, is an illuminating blend of Edwardian mechanics and Modernist technique:
[Katharine is] looking about the room to see where she had put down her umbrella and her parcel, for there was an intimacy in the way in which Mary and Ralph addressed each other which made her wish to leave them. Mary, on the other hand, was anxious, superficially at least, that Katharine should stay and so fortify her in her determination not to be in love with Ralph.
Ralph, while lifting his cup from his lips to the table, had made up his mind that if Miss Hilbery left, he would go with her.[27]
This is a prime example of early Woolf possessing all of the intent with only a portion of the skills enjoyed by later Woolf. The panoramic, cross-perspective movement of the narration, aptly compared by Sotirova to a movie camera, is rapid, free flowing, and smooth,[28] even as it is accomplished by conventional authorial flagging and largely neutral idiom. On the first read one hardly notices the shifts in perspective, rendered as they all are by the same point of view, yet it is accomplished completely and with clear intentionality. Even if she had not yet developed the refinements of dialogic consciousness, Woolf here is clearly interested in building links between the inner lives and impressions of her characters, and doing so with a forerunner of the type of challenging, highly skilled mechanics that provides Modernist writing its fidelity and power.
Later on in the narrative, with Katharine firmly engaged to Rodney and Ralph in his agonies of unrequited love, an afternoon errand is marked by one of the most unusual and fascinating moments, from a craft perspective, in all of Woolf’s career. Ralph is walking down the Strand in London on a business assignment, in the type of straightforward narrative description found in all fiction:
None of these different objects [on the street] was seen separately by Denham, but from all of them he drew an impression of stir and cheerfulness. Thus it came about that he saw Katharine Hilbery coming towards him, and looked straight at her, as if she were only an illustration of the argument that was going forward in his mind. In this spirit he noticed the rather set expression in her eyes, and the slight, half-conscious movement of her lips, which, together with her height and the distinction of her dress, made her look as if the scurrying crowd impeded her, and her direction were different from theirs. He noticed this calmly; but suddenly, as he passed her, his hands and knees began to tremble, and his heart beat painfully. She did not see him, and went on repeating to herself some lines which had stuck to her memory: “It’s life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering—the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself at all.” Thus occupied, she did not see Denham, and he had not the courage to stop her. But immediately the whole scene in the Strand wore that curious look of order and purpose which is imparted to the most heterogeneous things when music sounds; and so pleasant was this impression that he was very glad that he had not stopped her, after all.[29]
As Ralph walks down the street, Katharine passes by and with her a fleeting glimpse into her mind, which breaks up Ralph’s perspective and inner discourse. It is as if the narrative entity, having followed Ralph around London for the chapter decides, upon their passing Katharine, to reach across the sidewalk and snatch a thought from her mind before continuing on. Berg notes the importance of Katharine’s quote, from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, which Woolf was reading at the time she wrote the chapter and which served “as a reminder that novel need not be strained through the net of tradition but could dispense with the rules in favor of a vision of unifying intensity.”[30] The influence, then, is clear.
The final example of cross-perspective consciousness presentation is one that richly illustrates Night and Day’s internal evolution. In the book’s final third, Rodney’s stuffy traditionalism and messy emotionality has proven too much for Katharine, beset as she is by feelings for Ralph and the knowledge that a marriage with Rodney would prove too limiting. For his part, Rodney has developed an interest in Cassandra, Katharine’s cousin, and so all that stands in the way of happiness for both of them—freedom for Katharine and Cassandra for Rodney—is society, which would forbid Rodney’s wooing of his ex-fiancée’s cousin if the engagement publicly ended. 
By all his [Rodney’s] codes it was impossible to ask a woman with whom he had just broken off his engagement to help him to become acquainted with another woman with a view to his falling in love with her. If it was announced that their engagement was over, a long and complete separation would inevitably follow…He would be cast off completely; he would have to trust to his own resources. He could never mention Cassandra to Katharine again; for months, and doubtless years, he would never see Katharine again; anything might happen to her in his absence.
Katharine was almost as well aware of his perplexities as he was. She knew in what direction complete generosity pointed the way; but pride—for to remain engaged to Rodney and to cover his experiments hurt what was nobler in her than mere vanity—fought for its life.
“I’m to give up my freedom for an indefinite time,” she thought, “in order that William may see Cassandra here at his ease. He’s not the courage to manage it without my help—he’s too much of a coward to tell me openly what he wants. He hates the notion of a public breach. He wants to keep us both.”
When she reached this point, Rodney pocketed the letter and elaborately looked at his watch. Although the action meant that he resigned Cassandra, for he knew his own incompetence and distrusted himself entirely, and lost Katharine, for whom his feeling was profound though unsatisfactory, still it appeared to him that there was nothing else left for him to do. He was forced to go, leaving Katharine free, as he had said, to tell her mother that the engagement was at an end.[31]
This passage brings us all the way to the doorstep of the type of mature technique Sotirova terms dialogic consciousness. Thoughts are no longer transcribed in juxtaposition, as in the novel’s first half, but now bleed into each other via free-indirect (and authorial-flagged psycho-narration); each mind seems to silently respond to the other. The movement, too, occurs at the paragraph break, an approach found in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. When set alongside the latter novel’s dinner party[32] and earlier attempts in Night and Day itself, the internal evolution of Woolf’s dialogic consciousness and Modernist cross-perspective narration is evident.
All Good Things Must Come to a Beginning: Katharine Hilbery and the Victorian Heroine
For all the acrobatics and innovation at the sentence, Night and Day marks a transitional moment on a broader level as well. Studies of the book have tended to focus here, demonstrating the parallels between the Katharine-Mrs. Hilbery dynamic and the one Woolf had with her own parents, the importance of Mary Datchet and her work in the women’s suffrage movement, and the disparity between Rodney’s antiquated notions of marriage and gender relations and the drive for independence and intellectual freedom found in Katharine (and eventually Ralph). Beyond the gap between Victorian society and an early twentieth-century England shocked by World War One that are echoed in the characters themselves, Berg sees even the Hilbery house as symbolic of the ‘beauty, order, and imprisonment of the Victorian literary tradition’.[33] These points are valid, if fairly clear, but by once more looking more closely at the line-level approaches as they evolve throughout the book, we can see the complexities within.
As with the elements discussed above, in the treatment of its players Night and Day changes as it goes along. Early on, most of them are given the classic Victorian character sketch—a run down of ‘dark oval eyes’, ‘a face built for swiftness and decision,’ certain lines on the ‘broad forehead and about the lips’.[34] It is interesting to note that while Mrs. Hilbery is certainly representative of Victorian England within the context of Night and Day, she is a far more modern figure than, for example, Austen’s Mrs. Bennet. The note she writes to her sister-in-law Mrs. Milvain—of which we see an “extract” at the end of Chapter Eleven—displays a viewpoint effectively unimaginable for her character archetype to possess the century prior. When she says, in merriment over Katharine’s engagement to Rodney, that ‘they won’t be rich, but they’ll be very, very happy’, it does not take the field’s most erudite scholar to find the canyon between her and the maternal influence of Pride and Prejudice.[35]
The most compelling section, for our purposes, in the treatment of character archetypes in Night and Day comes in Chapter Seven,  among the most important of Woolf’s career.[36] Among the shortest in the book, the chapter opens with a passing reference to the younger generation ‘coming in without knocking,’[37] and sees Katharine having dinner with her parents at home, soon after her agreeing to marry Rodney and directly after walking home with Ralph from Mary’s office. When Katharine enters the dining room, the rather opinionated narrative entity returns, looking up, as it were, with her parents to watch her come in:
[T]he eyes of father and mother both rested on Katharine as she came towards them. The sight seemed at once to give them a motive which they had not had before. To them she appeared, as she walked towards them in her light evening dress, extremely young, and the sight of her refreshed them, were it only because her youth and ignorance made their knowledge of the world of some value.[38]
This description sets the tone for the chapter, one that seems constructed to examine the extent to which the world has moved beyond that which the elder Hilberys knew, and their generation along with them.[39]
The Hilbery home is built, furnished, and run in a pointedly Victorian manner, complete with busts of famous nineteenth-century writers along the wall. The narration continues its stark editorializing during a conversation among the family about Mary’s women’s suffrage society, and the rather alien concept of working in an office:
“Yes, the office atmosphere is very bad for the soul,” said Mr. Hilbery.
“I don’t remember any offices in Russell Square in the old days, when Mamma lived there,” Mrs. Hilbery mused, “and I can’t fancy turning one of those noble great rooms into a stuffy little Suffrage office. Still, if the clerks read poetry there must be something nice about them.”
“No, because they don’t read it as we read it,” Katharine insisted.
“But it’s nice to think of them reading your grandfather, and not filling up those dreadful little forms all day long,” Mrs. Hilbery persisted, her notion of office life being derived from some chance view of a scene behind the counter at her bank, as she slipped the sovereigns into her purse.[40]
This sharp cut at Mrs Hilbery, a character who is typically treated rather kindly, if amusedly, by the narration, is an intriguing moment. In this context, the harsh comment contributes to the dinner scene’s sculpting Night and Day’s aesthetics and thematic approach away from Victorian England and into the twentieth century. It is a textbook display of narrative and textual functions uniting (the best in the novel), in that Katharine feels alienated from her parents even as she readily acknowledges her affection for them—a narrative function, setting up her ultimate character arc away from Rodney and conventional narrative—during a quintessentially Victorian dinner, served and cleared away by household staff that is so silent as to not appear at all, while discussing how strange, quant, and rather amusing these new offices and women’s suffrage movements are—a textual function towards theme, tone, and philosophy.
Further textual functioning, as well as efficient blending of narration, is the fact that the passage is rendered largely in psycho-narration (with some free-indirect), and as such represents the movement of the novel from Victorian-Edward to Modernist on both the stylistic and thematic levels. It is no accident, either, that chapter seems to be where Woolf most directly engages her own family history as Katharine locates the Hilbery legacy someplace between myth and reality; that the two considerations, alongside love, Mrs. Hilbery lists in choosing a husband are his surname and his money; or that, after Katharine reads aloud from the latest novel, her parents object and demand that she ‘read us something real.’[41]
The line about Mrs. Hilbery, then, which is most reasonably interpreted as another instance of the empty centre technique, is important in locating the book’s philosophical stance in relation to the elder Hilberys and their worldview while doing so via High Modernist technique. This is the key moment in the book, from a stylistic and ideological standpoint, and justifies the turn against Mrs. Hilbery; while she may be a character with which to sympathize, given her genial demeanor and humorous attempts at writing her father’s biography, she is ultimately on the other side, an incarnation of the old world and all it represents.[42]
Conclusion: Dreams and Realities
The world was changing rapidly as Virginia Woolf was completing her second novel in 1917 and 1918. World War One was a cataclysmic event on a scale that is difficult to understand for a twenty-first century audience; not only due to the staggering death toll, but that the very fabric and order of society had been wrenched apart in Europe. New technologies and new ways of seeing the world—from conceptions of time and transportation to mass-scale weapons and physiological theory—challenged a status quo that had existed, to some extent, for millennia. Woolf, as is well-known, was deeply affected by the war, and she would explore it fully in her third novel, Jacob’s Room. While the book she wrote during the conflict itself seems to make a concerted effort not to engage in the topic, one moment stands out. Early in Night and Day’s opening chapter, when Katharine and her family are meeting Ralph for the first time, Mrs. Hilbery admits to having little idea what precisely it is that the younger generation is up to: “What do you read, I wonder?—for you can’t spend all your time going up in aeroplanes and burrowing into the bowels of the earth.”[43] Given what is known about the compositional history of Night and Day, and the attention Woolf paid to events in France and Belgium, it is hard not to read this line as a reference, in her own oblique way, to the war.
It is indeed through this type of close, sentence-level study that the true legacy and brilliance of Virginia Woolf’s second novel can be seen. A conscientious textual analysis of Night and Day, along with a consideration of its creative context—many scholars note that as she was finishing the book, Woolf was beginning the essay that would become “Modern Fiction,” with its scathing critique of Edwardian literature—reveals a novel and novelist in a rich period of evolution. As this essay has attempted to show, the progression of Woolf’s vision and philosophy as an artist can be viewed throughout the book, giving it a unique and important place within her oeuvre.
As seen today the novel stands, like the High Modernist movement it foretold, as a sharp parallel to our own times. Night and Day captures a society split between two worlds, a culture in transition, a literary landscape undergoing revolutionary change. Katharine, in her late twenties and still making sense of life, is a figure jarred if not capsized by the titanic waves rippling around her. The desire that she exhibits—along with Ralph, Mary, and even Rodney—to find meaning and purpose at the outset of a life begun amidst turmoil and social upheaval is one felt by many in the early twenty-first century.
In composing Night and Day Woolf was not only reacting to the First World War and the utter transformation of her existence that came with it, but cutting the first steps along a new path in literary form, slicing her way through the brambles of convention and thickets of tradition towards a then-unknown destination. Night and Day does not represent the first inroads towards the Modernist oasis—The Rainbow, published four years prior, engages in many High Modernist methods, even if Lawrence’s style never comes particularly close to matching the raw intensity of Woolf or Joyce—but it marks an important landmark along the way. While she would be soon joined by the intricate bulldozer that is Ulysses, and would see her own work rapidly evolve into Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, Woolf in this early stage makes important, if subtle, progress in questioning what the novelistic form can and should be.
It is, too, an intricate, precise, and emotive book; the scenes between Katharine and Ralph are among the most poignant in fiction. If by the time she had finished it, Virginia Woolf’s second novel was something of a disappointment to her, it is all the more evidence of its origins and composition during a remarkably fertile and combustible period of growth. Looking back a century later, the significance of Night and Day is more clear now than ever—as a beginning of the most consequential revolution in literary history, as early evidence of a canonical novelist’s fearless writing and peerless technique, and as an important mirror to our own fractured age.


[1] Woolf, Night and Day, 406.
[2] Berg, Introduction to Night and Day, Virginia Woolf. xiii. Quoting Letters, Vol. IV.
[3] Daiches, Virginia Woolf, 33.
[4] Woolf, Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, 20.
[5] Daiches makes the point that Katharine, although descended from Jane Austen’s heroines, is a ‘stronger figure than any of them,’ and on this we can agree. Virginia Woolf, 18-9.
[6] Although Jane Austen is typically and rightly credited as the true pioneer of free-indirect style, and it is on display is nearly every third-person novel of the last hundred years, the High Modernist employment of it is both a defining feature of that type of novel and a singular usage of the technique.
[7] This makes sense given what we know about its composition history. Berg notes that it was begun in 1914 or 1915, put on pause during an interval of poor mental health, and completed just ten days after the end of World War One, an event that had a profound effect on Woolf’s view of the world and her approach to literature. This means that Woolf’s philosophy as an artist was rapidly evolving during the course of writing the novel, a change that can be mapped out within the book itself. Berg, Introduction to Night and Day, xi; xiii-xiv.
[8] Woolf, Night and Day, 15-6.
[9] For the most succinct and digestible explanation of direct vs. indirect vs. free-indirect discourse available anywhere, see Wood, How Fiction Works, 5-19.
[10] This is an ongoing component of the book. Part of what makes Night and Day such an effective social comedy in the Austenian tradition is a tightly controlled idiomatic narration which, especially in the second half, uses free-indirect to filter scenes through the perceptions of various characters. A particularly strong example is Mr. Hilbery’s bemused navigation of his daughter’s romantic entanglements in Chapter Thirty Two. 
[11] Woolf, Night and Day, 50-1.
[12] A book’s narrative function is the story, or plot—the fictive events told as if they are real. The textual function is the book acting like a book, a sculpted piece of art—point of view, symbolism, imagery. These terms have something in common with the narratologist concepts of fabula and syuzhet.
[13] Woolf, Night and Day, 89.
[14] Cohn’s Transparent Minds is the preeminent study of modes of consciousness presentation, with a focus both on technique and mechanics as well as the evolutionary history of the novel form. An easy if imperfect way of thinking about Cohn’s three-part system of psycho-narration, quoted monologue, and narrated monologue is to analogize it the better-known indirect discourse—direct discourse—free-indirect discourse schema.
[15] Woolf, Night and Day, 89-90.
[16] A paragraph after the famous first line: “What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air.” See Cohn’s analysis of this same passage in Mrs. Dalloway, as an example of narrated monologue, Transparent Minds, 128.
[17] See Sotirova, “Repetition in Free-Indirect Style”; Daiches, The Novel and the Modern World, 108-9; Lodge,Consciousness and the Novel, 91-3; Sotirova, Consciousness in Modern Fiction,144.  
[18] Woolf, Night and Day, 129.
[19] Woolf, Night and Day, 40-2.
[20] Sotirova, “The Status of the Narrator in Modernist Fiction,” 75.
[21] Of course value judgments and other subjective statements made by third-person narrations untethered to any one character are not the exclusive domain of Modernism. The opening line of Pride and Prejudice is something of an opinion, despite its claims to the contrary. But it is a question of degree and kind; in Night and Day, the narrative entity constantly makes subjective statements and judgments upon characters in scene, and those statements tend to be much more opinionated and forceful than found in Victorian literature.
[22] Sotirova, “The Status of the Narrator in Modernist Fiction,” 85.
[23] Woolf, Night and Day, 256.
[24] See Cohn’s analysis of Lily Briscoe’s reveries in To the LighthouseTransparent Minds, 126-7, and Daiches’ Virginia Woolf, Chapter 4. 
[25] See Cohn’s demonstration of quoted monologue in Mrs. DallowayTransparent Minds, 75.
[26] Point-of-view taken to mean the technique employed to render a given perspective, which is a narrative alignment with a specific character.
[27] Woolf, Night and Day, 73-4.
[28] The interested reader might also compare the panoramic effect of Night and Day, 45-49 with Sotirova’s analysis of the dinner in To the LighthouseConsciousness in Modern Fiction, 148-151. 
[29] Woolf, Night and Day, 106.
[30] Berg, Introduction to Night and Day, xx.
[31] Woolf, Night and Day, 275.
[32] See Sotirova’s analysis mentioned above, note 16.
[33] Berg, Introduction to Night and Day, xxii. Berg makes several arguments along these lines.
[34] Woolf, Night and Day, 6; 9; 13. These are taken from descriptions of Katharine, Ralph, and Mrs. Hilbery, respectively.  
[35] Woolf, Night and Day, 117.
[36] This rather strong opinion is driven by the fact that one can, quite easily, observe Woolf’s evolution as a stylist and technician in this very chapter, laying the groundwork for what would come at the pinnacle of her career.
[37] Woolf, Night and Day, 78.
[38] Woof, Night and Day, 79.
[39] For a plot-driven book with a “traditional storyline”, as is often said of Night and Day (and superficially true, if nothing else), the chapter does remarkably little in the way of moving the events forward; its narrative utility instead seems to be in marking the borderland between Katharine’s world and that of her parents’.
[40] Woolf, Night and Day, 81.
[41] Woolf, Night and Day, 82-84.
[42] That she is the ultimate agent of reconciliation, too, suggests perhaps that all hope is not lost between the generations.
[43] Woolf, Night and Day, 7.

Works Cited
Berg, Julia, introduction to Night and Day, by Virginia Woolf, xi-xxxiii. London: Penguin Books, 1992.
Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.
Daiches, David. The Novel and the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.
Daiches, David. Virginia Woolf. New York: New Directions, 1942.
Lodge, David. Consciousness and the Novel. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Sotirova, Violeta. Consciousness in Modern Fiction: A Stylistic Study. London: Palgrave, 2013.
Sotirova, Violeta. “Repetition in Free Indirect Style: A Dialogue of Minds?” Style 39, no. 2 (2005): 123–36.
Sotirova, Violeta. “The Status of the Narrator in Modernist Fiction.” Journal of Literary Semantics 49, no. 2 (2020): 75-97.
Wood, James. How Fiction Works. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008.
Woolf, Virginia, Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown. London: Hogarth Press, 1924.
Woolf, Virginia. Night and Day. London: Penguin Books, 1992.

D. W. White writes consciousness-forward fiction and criticism. A graduate of the M.F.A. Creative Writing program at Otis College in Los Angeles and Stony Brook University's BookEnds Fellowship, he serves as Founding Editor for L'Esprit Literary Review and Fiction Editor for West Trade Review. His writing appears in Florida Review, The Rupture, Another Chicago Magazine, Necessary Fiction, and Chicago Review of Books, among several other publications. A Chicago ex-pat, he now lives in Long Beach, California, where he frequents the beach to hide from writer's block.