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Feminist Woolf: New Perspectives on Woolf’s Resistance to Feminism

Woolf’s Exploration of —Combinations: Feminism in Night and Day

Exploration de combinaisons exceptionnelles : le féminisme de Night and Day
Nicolas Pierre Boileau


Le roman Night and Day (1919) a été négligé par les lecteurs tout comme les critiques, surtout si on compare la réception de ce texte à celle d’autres œuvres woolfiennes. Malgré un intérêt renouvelé pour certains écrits moins canoniques de l’auteure ces dernières années, le roman n’a cessé d’être lu comme une œuvre de second rang. Le mariage y est l’objet des préoccupations des deux héroïnes, et constitue le principe structurant du roman. On est peut-être encore plus surpris de constater que le roman ne soit que très peu étudié par la critique féministe, comme en témoigne par exemple le fait que l’ouvrage de référence de Rachel Bowlby n’y fasse référence que de manière anecdotique (Bowlby). Night and Day est pourtant le seul roman dans lequel l’un des personnages principaux est engagé dans le mouvement des Suffragettes, alors pourtant qu’on connait bien l’implication de Woolf elle-même sur la question féministe et qu’on aurait pu s’attendre à ce que cet engagement politique forme un ensemble plus significatif dans son œuvre de fiction. Si certaines réserves exprimées par les critiques ont pu être rediscutées récemment, telles que la place de la Grande Guerre (Briggs ; Pelan), tous les critiques semblent convenir que la structure du roman, si ce n’est son matériau, est traditionnelle, décevante et, in fine, n’est pas assez féministe. Alors, qu’est-ce qui résiste dans ce roman woolfien et pourquoi l’exception de cette œuvre est-elle construite comme une faiblesse plutôt que comme une force ? Cet article propose de voir que les contradictions du roman de Woolf ne sont pas jugées comme féministes si on s’attend à ce qu’un engagement sans faille pour la cause politique soit exprimé par des héroïnes qui seraient alors des porte-paroles. Toutefois, ces contradictions sont bel et bien féministes si on pense que le féminisme est une question, plutôt qu’une solution, posée à l’endroit de la possibilité pour les femmes de s’engager dans une action collective, et si le féminisme s’entend comme une manière de trouver à définir les femmes en dehors de la norme patriarcale. Cette proposition a des répercussions sur la question de l’inclusion de Woolf dans le réalisme et dans l’écriture féminine.

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  • 1 This does not appear in Anne Olivier Bell’s edition of the diary, but in an earlier version publish (...)

1Night and Day (1919) stands out in Woolf’s oeuvre in many ways. The now-hailed feminist writer is best remembered for the novels coming just after Night and Day, in the 1920s, Jacob’s Room, Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and The Waves, which enabled the author to find a fictional voice of her own, and to deviate from the template set by the tutelary figures of the Victorian and Edwardian periods (Peach). It was also in the 1920s that she wrote one of the most famous feminist essays of the 20th century, A Room of One’s Own (Favre 2020). The 1919 novel by comparison has been fairly neglected by both readers and critics, most being struck by the fairly traditional narrative form and plot: it is ‘perhaps the least satisfying of Virginia Woolf’s novels’ (Russell & Russell, qtd in Cumings, 97n). The back cover of the 1976 Penguin Modern Classics edition concedes: ‘Night and Day, Virginia Woolf’s second novel, although traditional in form, displays the preoccupations and largeness of ambition which portend the mature novelist’ (emphases mine). In comparison to other works, re-editions of the novel have been scarce. This suggests that the novel displays none of the attraction and interest other works did, or as Woolf herself said in her diary, that it is ‘dead’ (Woolf 1932).1 Despite recent revaluations of Woolf’s shorter fiction, essays, journals and other ‘humble’ art works (Reynier 2019), the novel has continuously been read as a second-rate novel. Some monographs leave it out of the corpus of Woolf’s works (Simpson), or only address it in comparison to The Years and The Voyage Out (Bowlby; Spiropoulou). Woolf follows in the footsteps of E. M. Forster and Jane Austen to construct a narrative largely based on the ‘comedy of manners,’—‘a novel of facts’ (Zemgulys, 57) in which marriage is the object of the heroines’ attention and the demanding principle of the novel’s structure. On November 6th, 1919,—the novel was published on October 21st—, E. M. Forster and Woolf dined together, and he is reported to have been critical of the novel: ‘N. & D. is a strictly formal and classical work; that being so requires, or he requires, a far greater degree of lovability in the characters than in a book like V. O. [The Voyage Out] which is vague & universal’ (Woolf 1981, 310, sic). The novel was praised in The Times Literary Supplement and The Cambridge Magazine and it was re-edited the following year (Woolf 1982, 13) but all in all, it failed to enter the canon of Woolfian oeuvre, and modernism as a result:

  • 2 CFP for the 100 Years of Night and Day, held on 26 October 2019, at the University of Westminster, (...)

Likewise with critics, the novel has moved in and out of favour. Coming as it did after the often surreal subversion of the Bildungsroman that is The Voyage Out, it has been sometimes read by Woolf’s contemporaries and more recent critics alike as a step back towards realist fiction. Famously described by Katherine Mansfield in 1920 as ‘Jane Austen up to date,’ and by critic Randy Malamud in 1989 as ‘a stillborn modernist artefact,’ the question of where this novel exists on the spectrum between realist and modern is one that persists in Woolf criticism, right up to present day.2

2From a cultural perspective, this is revealing of a process of exclusion/inclusion of canonical works, based on the author’s predominant traits: Woolf is often labelled as an experimental, feminist writer, which makes of Night and Day an irrelevant piece of work in her production, because the novel ostensibly looks back on the Victorian tropes and does apparently little to depart from their templates. In France, she is associated with an exploration of time (Ricœur 1984) and bereavement, neither of which feature in Night and Day. And yet, is it really not experimental? Does it lack the experimentation that is so central to Woolf’s writing? And if it does not lack it, where should it be found?

3One is even more surprised perhaps that the novel features very infrequently in Woolf’s feminist criticism, the seminal work by Rachel Bowlby for example making fewer references to Night and Day (there are only five of them, mainly about the pattern of love relationships) than to other novels, and these references are steps towards a larger argument that the novel alone does not seem able to make (Bowlby 182–83). Night and Day is one of the few novels in which the main character is involved in the Suffragette movement, despite the fact that Woolf’s own contribution to the movement is very much documented and could well have formed a more significant bulk in her fiction: she is known to have taken part in many meetings of the Women’s Cooperative Guild, was vocal about pacifism and her talks were often given to women’s societies. In The Years, Rose Pargiter is also involved in the movement, but the context is very different because the novel was published almost twenty years after Night and Day and after the vote had been given to women. As some have shown, the two novels reveal Woolf’s evolutions towards attacking and criticising a certain kind of activism, while she saw feminism as an intellectual practice (Park). As the construction of her formal and aesthetic achievements adumbrates the reception of Night and Day, what we know of Woolf’s political engagement can be argued to reflect back on the novel in a negative way:

  • 3 ‘Pour quelle raison Woolf n’épargne-t-elle pas les femmes de sa société dans sa satire du patriarca (...)

For which reason does Woolf not spare the women of her class in her satire of the patriarchy at the very moment when she is outraged by the sexists of all sorts, amongst whom there is one of her best friends? What is the meaning of this failed Lysistrata?—women do not prevent the First World War from happening; besides the cycle of their unsurpassable contradictions is opportunely broken by it. How should this feminist ‘draft’ be read, above all if compared to the flamboyant essays that A Room and Three Guineas were going to be, published respectively eight and seventeen years later? (Ravez; translation mine)3

4The paradox of the relative neglect of Woolf’s novel has not been regularly addressed, as well as perhaps its relative absence of merit, when the novel seems to be about an essential feature of Woolf’s writings: feminist action. If some of the critics’ qualms have been analysed recently, such as the question of the Great War (Briggs; Pellan), all critics agree that the structure of the novel, if not its material, is traditional, disappointing, and ultimately not feminist enough. So what is it that resists feminism in Woolf’s novel and why is exception construed as negative rather than positive in this case?

  • 4 See Woolf, ‘Jane Austen’ in The Common Reader, placed in the collection just before ‘Modern Fiction (...)

5When Forster claims: ‘Even the style has been normalised, and though the machinery is modern, the resultant form is as traditional as Emma’ (qtd in Dergisi 50), is he not missing the point that a woman writer back in 1919 would have been pleased to continue a tradition that was then very much exceptional—Austen’s novels having a contradictory position within the British canon, setting the tone of a certain femininity and yet remaining fairly exceptional in both the scope of her influence, her readership and her achievements?4 This paper argues that Woolf’s novel exposes contradictions that are not judged feminist because they do not reflect a solid political engagement in which the heroines would be regarded as spokeswomen for the cause. However, these contradictions can still be regarded as feminist, if feminism is understood as a question, instead of being a solution, posed to the possibility for women to be involved in some collective action, and if feminism lies in finding a way of defining woman outside patriarchal norms: ‘As a space of negotiation, Night and Day may seem tame but already engages with a sense of outrage’ (Cassigneul). This reverberates back to the question of the inclusion of Woolf in the tradition of realist writers, and women’s writing.

A Disappointing Plot: Suffrage vs Marriage

  • 5 As the adult suffrage for which the P.S.F. was committed was also known as ‘universal suffrage’, pe (...)

6The novel promisingly opens with two young women who seem to have other interests than marriage and are therefore not defined solely by their relationship with men: Katharine is involved in the writing of her grandfather’s life, while Mary Datchet is engaged in the Suffrage movement. This sends off the signal that perhaps the novel is feminist—or rather that it illustrates the feminist activism of the pre-War period. The first time Katharine Hilbery pays a visit to Mary Datchet at the SGS,5 she is an outsider who is not involved in the movement herself. Although Mary ‘seek[s] to draw Katharine into the community’ (78), Katharine remains an observer, which is shown in her ‘unlikeness to the rest of them’ (79). There, she meets Mrs Seal, who epitomises the ambiguity of political engagement. Considering herself a tyrant for being allowed into parks that poor women are forbidden access to, she absolves her crime by talking ‘shop at tea’, which costs her a lot of money: Mary’s rule is that one should not talk about politics while they are having tea, tea being a time for recreation (77), but it is a rule that is often broken . . . Thus, while Mary Datchet herself endorses the criticism of the movement by playfully interrupting Mrs Seal, ‘And we’re all sick to death of women and their votes’ (78), Mrs Seal tries to force Katharine to say why she refuses to take part in some collective action:

‘But surely if you care about the welfare of your sex at all, you must wish them to have the vote?’
‘I never said I didn’t wish them to have the vote,’ Katharine protested.
‘Then why aren’t you a member of our society?’ Mrs Seal demanded. (80)

7Mrs Seal’s political bias is simple enough: if you care, then you are in favour of the vote and if so, then you must be involved. But this logic is put to the test in the novel, as collective action only seems to work when it meets individual interests and concerns.

8At this early stage in the novel, Katharine is saved from this sophistic approach to feminism by a man, Mr Clacton, who discovers with interest who Katharine’s illustrious grandfather is, and by the entrance of another, secondary character. The political side of the Suffrage is thus treated as a piece of comedy: Mr Clacton mentions a drawing published in Punch that could help Mrs Seal understand why some people may be amiable even if they don’t have the same opinions as herself; the discussion of Mary Datchet’s capacity to run an office soon replaces the more serious conversation induced by Mrs Seal; what seems to be favoured by the narrator is the lack of understanding that the social comedy tries to cover, but that the narrator’s eyes reveal, if not exacerbate. Hermione Lee is critical of these office scenes in the novel, as she regards them as ‘caricatured’ (Lee 280), but she nonetheless relates them to the question of political activism and ‘private life’ (Lee 281) and to Woolf’s own experience of the Suffrage (Lee 280). The suffrage scenes are therefore based on social comedy and the philosophical ideas that they prompt are not an object of study—something Sowon S. Park also remarks when analysing the scene of Katharine telling this scene to her parents, transforming it into a ‘dinner-table amusement’ (Park 129). Just as in the first pages of Howards End (1910), which constitutes a great source of inspiration for Woolf at the time, the feminist movement is criticised and forms part of other discourses and ideologies the upper classes like to talk about, without getting involved into action themselves. In Howards End, it is Mr Wilcox who manages to convince Helen Schlegel that the Suffragettes are slightly ridiculous, and very often the subject is mentioned by many without interest (Forster 66), while in Night and Day, Woolf looks at two individuals’ grappling with their own personal qualms and paradoxes regarding the Suffrage but it is unclear that this is not just a pretext for Woolf to dramatize various social clashes of her time (Park 129).

9And yet, the question of a collective movement is central to Woolf’s feminist thought, a thought derived from her preoccupation with pacifism during the First World War (Briggs 42) and the place of women in such wars, as she was later to discuss in Three Guineas (1938). For a long time, critics did not dare to raise the question as it had become a commonplace that Woolf was a feminist, but there have been recent publications addressing the ambivalence of her engagement (Jones, Cassigneul, Park). In the late 1920s, before the publication of her feminist essays, Woolf seems to be interested in the logic behind her characters’ refusal to endorse a political discourse; she looks at the way their resistance to a collective discourse functions for both of her heroines, albeit with different outcomes. For example, although Mary Datchet is introduced within the context of her involvement in the SGS, the novel displays her hesitation and almost her final departure from the movement. If Mary Datchet is once shown as being happy that the vote has escaped women (237), it is because she has just broken up with Ralph Denham. During their break up, Mary accuses Ralph of insincerity, to which Ralph replies: ‘You can’t go through life measuring right and wrong with a foot-rule.’ Mary is thus led to reflect, ‘She saw herself in the Suffrage Office, delivering judgement, meting out right and wrong, and there seemed to her to be some justice in the charge, although it did not affect her main position.’ (235) Mary wavers at the critique, and this allows Woolf to explore a modality of femininity, that is, its resistance to categorisation, noted by many feminist and non-feminist critics (Lacan 73–83; Irigaray 27–30).

10The vote turns out to be a secondary plotline. It is within this context that the marriage plot functions as a norm that almost, but not quite, threatens to deviate the heroines’ personal beliefs and trajectories away from the feminist cause. Marriage, or rather its possibility, is a source of destabilisation and disorder that almost jeopardises Mary’s political engagement; in a twist that may seem highly artificial, towards the end of the novel, it also comes to determine it in a way that challenges the patriarchal norms: Mary thinks of quitting, before returning with renewed momentum into the Suffrage movement. Marriage has often been regarded as a patriarchal institution (Wagner 137–57) and the novel’s plot revolves around the heroine’s emotional attachments to men: The two heroines of the novel will be involved at various levels with Ralph Denham and William Rodney, and all four of them form a couple of couples that allow for all the combinations possible. Early in the novel, the following conversation happens:

‘But for me I suppose you would recommend marriage?’ said Katharine with her eyes fixed on the moon.
‘Certainly I should. Not for you only, but for all women. Why, you’re nothing at all without it; you’re only half alive; using half your faculties; you must feel that for yourself.’ (59)

11Katharine is not shocked by the insinuation but Woolf’s heavy symbolism of the ‘moon’ that recalls the title of the novel, and Katharine’s question seem to suggest that there is some room for doubt that it is indeed what she seeks. The reduction of the plot to this aspect of the story is one way of understanding the disappointment many have felt when reading the novel: it turns out that the Suffrage is not the main focus of the plot, but marriage and its necessary patriarchal implications. It is true that despite Mary’s activism in the realm of the suffrage, this plot is quickly abandoned by Woolf, and she pursues instead a more subjective, individual course. Furthermore, as stated above, the Suffrage movement is often dealt with in scenes of a comic nature. However, Woolf remains interested in the possibility of a choice, that is some form of empowerment and agency, which she reveals in extracting marriage from a pure question of the union of binaries: the union the heroines test are unheard-of combinations that may be construed as forms of emancipation from norms and determined paths, with political as well as artistic implications.

The Odd Combination: beyond or in Favour of Boundaries

12The title Night and Day suggests that the world revolves around a clear-cut dichotomy and that all the characters can easily be distributed along fairly well-defined lines. Night and day, like men and women, yin and yang, the sun and the moon, the public and the private, Mary and Katharine, and other pairs, constitute basic, binary oppositions in a world dominated by the law of the signifier and its implacable structure. It is redolent of a world where things are where they should be, or have a room of their own. The first sentence of the novel is in keeping with such a vision: ‘It was a Sunday evening in October, and in common with many other young ladies of her class, Katharine Hilbery was pouring out tea . . . and played with the things one does voluntarily and normally in the daylight’ (7). Katharine is like others but not quite, and in the seclusion of her own home, she immediately transgresses the norms of daylight and night, perhaps a sign that the novel will explore ways in which the clear-cut opposition between night and day can be challenged. The transgression is also presented as subtle, lodged in details, because all the while Katharine is silent and prepares for a tea party which her mother, Mrs Hilbery, unawares of her daughter’s feelings, will ensure is ‘successful’ (7). Thus, the novel opens with a tea party, a domestic scene par excellence, one of the symbols of femininity and of women’s belonging to the so-called private sphere, where marriage is sure to confine them (Rosenberg). It does not seem to challenge any patriarchal norms.

13However, this summary is reductive. For the question of domesticity is so forcefully put forward, so immediately the object of wonder and criticism, that one is wont to believe that Woolf is challenging it instead of just following in the footsteps of the patriarchy. The sign of Woolf’s subtle distancing from the expected roles and tropes is first mentioned within the story itself when Ralph Denham, regarding a secondary character, his sister, muses about the distribution of roles between men and women: ‘Ralph looked at the ceiling, and shut his lips closely together. Why, he wondered, could Joan never for one moment detach her mind from the details of domestic life?’ (30) This suggests that Ralph ponders on the inherent nature of Joan’s preoccupations and that these are not explained to him by some essence of feminine nature, but by some specific or individual trait of Joan’s. However, Ralph is even more surprised when Mary tells him she reads Emerson. When she asks him why it should be bizarre, he replies: ‘There’s no reason that I know of. It’s the combination that’s odd—books and stockings’ (45; emphasis added). The phrase brings Mary and the readers to laugh but Mary seems to think the combination less odd than her enjoyment of it. As in the scene at the SGS, the social comedy of an insignificant chitchat is interrupted by a knock, like in vaudevilles, only pointing to an oddity that is likely to question any conception of life defined in binary terms, along essential lines. A feminist upheaval does not happen in the sense that there is no radical change in Mary’s or Joan’s lives, but the author’s feminism is already surfacing: odd combinations that found the subject’s enjoyment are at the source of a renewed interest in the relationships between men and women. They also contribute to the author’s finding a voice of her own and constructing her novel. If Park thinks Night and Day is an exercise in undermining classical forms (Park 127), Cassigneul reminds us that in the 1927 article ‘The Narrow Bridge of Art’, Woolf ‘postulates that the novel “will take the mould of that queer conglomeration of incongruous things—the modern mind”’ (Woolf 1975, 19–20; qtd in Cassigneul).

14Night and Day therefore may be more interested in the things one does at dusk when one should do them in daylight, in the combinations others may find odd, than in the distribution of social activities along pre-defined lines, what is now called gender norms, and whose best expression would be found in marriage, domesticity and other markers of class roles defining the characters. This also suggests that the feminine act of the narration may lie less in the political action of the vote and more in the individual paths followed by each of these women, leaving open the question of how women could get together for some common action. In the meantime, women of this class remain defined by domesticity and the logic is still to glorify it rather than take them away from this sphere:

Katharine, thus, was a member of a very great profession which has, as yet, no title and very little recognition, although the labour of mill and factory is, perhaps, no more severe and the results of less benefit to the world. She lived at home. She did it very well, too. Any one coming to the house in Cheyne Walk felt that here was an orderly place, shapely, controlled—a place where life had been trained to show to the best advantage, and, though composed of different elements, made to appear harmonious and with a character of its own. (40)

  • 6 A relation between the two novels is also made by Clare Hanson in the only reference she makes to t (...)

15Katharine’s art, perhaps like Mrs Dalloway’s, is to discipline life, but she is no Angel in the House for that reason.6 If her achievement is measured in the well-kept house, it is ‘life’ that has been staged and captured, and not some superficial domesticity (Woolf 1925). Plus, Katharine’s home is like the Schlegels’ in Howards End, a home where only women live.

16One could therefore criticise the lack of upheaval and the perpetuation of tradition in Night and Day, but Woolf suggests that domesticity is a case of great wonder that women must come to terms with in their own way and which constitutes a feminist question: ‘D’you think children—a household—that sort of thing—d’you think that’ll satisfy her? Mind, I’m out all day’ (190). Before that, Joan had already explained: ‘It was out of the question that she should put any more household work upon herself. No, the hardship must fall on him, for he was determined that his family should have as many chances of distinguishing themselves as other families had’ (27). In other words, women may well be defined by their domestic activities, yet their reflection leads them to interrogate this situation, and to raise a revolutionary question concerning whether their desire is lodged in this or whether this is a place they have inherited or that they have been assigned to. This may rend the apparent binaries ordering the world, as can be seen in a specific example that somewhat reverses the traditional associations of feminine and masculine qualities.

Women and Maths: an Odd Woman

17One example of a binary opposition that is toppled down in the novel is that between mathematics and literature, leading to combinations ever more bizarre than the one discussed about Mary. Other examples of a similar nature could well have been taken, but I have chosen to focus on this because it will enable us to draw conclusions on the very choice of plot Woolf opted for, i.e. the significance of romance as a potential feminist ethos. In the novel, Katharine’s occupations are in keeping with women of her rank: she looks after her mother and assists her with the writing of her grandfather’s biography. If men are still revered, since she and her mother keep themselves occupied by writing the ‘life’ of her grandfather, who was a poet, the novel still shows two women who intend to pen the life of a man, which may be seen as a sign of empowerment (Gilbert and Gubar 14). The reversal is as yet subtle, and women still exist through their homes, but in the middle-class of the England Woolf portrays, this is already some crack in the veneer of social organisation and appearances. Woolf challenges the traditional, or more conventional ways of representing women’s subversive position in the patriarchy. Katharine may have been brought up in a house of letters, she confesses that literature is something that does not appeal to her:

The worst of it was that she had no aptitude for literature. She did not like phrases. She had even some natural antipathy to that process of self-examination, that perpetual effort to understand one’s own feeling, and express it beautifully, fitly, or energetically in language; which constituted so great a part of her mother’s existence. (39)

18Detaching herself from the lineage and image of her mother, and losing therefore one of the fundamental identifications of a girl that is still at home and yet to marry (Chodorow), Woolf’s heroine becomes exceptional in the sense that she refuses the easy way and escapes from constraining and predominant ways of building one’s norm. One notices that it is not only that she is not good at it, but there is no personal, individual desire for it. Beyond the norm, there is still something that is greater than the subject’s conscious wish. Katharine further explains:

But the more profound reason was that in her mind mathematics were directly opposed to literature. She would not have cared to confess how infinitely she preferred the exactitude, the star-like impersonality, of figures to the confusion, agitation, and vagueness of the finest prose. There was something a little unseemly in thus opposing the tradition of her family; something that made her feel wrong-headed, and thus more than ever disposed to shut her desires away from view and cherish them with extraordinary fondness . . . . But seeing her own state mirrored in her mother’s face, Katharine would shake herself awake with a sense of irritation. Her mother was the last person she wished to resemble, much though she admired her. (41)

19In this seemingly traditional tale of marriage, which borrows so much from the comedy of manners, and Victorian realism, Woolf introduces silence. Instead of simply being an odd girl, Katharine is presented in a state of being at odds with the expectations of society and the character herself, something which surfaces in a dream that is a nightmare, namely that she is destined to resemble her mother. Mathematics and literature figure like two sides of the same coin, like night and day. Woolf does not seek to topple their logics but she attributes these thoughts to Katharine, suggesting thereby that forms of resistance to social determinism are likely to be concealed, to make the subject feel uneasy and guilty of committing a fault. This would not be the case for a man, as the novel suggests, because Ralph offers an example in which what seems to be a contradiction for Katharine, can be united indeed:

By profession a clerk in a Government office, he was one of those martyred spirits to whom literature is at once a source of divine joy and of almost intolerable irritation. Not content to rest in their love of it, they must attempt to practise it themselves, and they are generally endowed with very little facility in composition . . . But as it fell in accurately with his conception of life that all one’s desires were bound to be frustrated, he concentrated his mind upon literature, and determined, philosophically, to get what he could out of that. (51)

20Ralph may not be passionate about maths, yet he has made a career for himself in a field that Woolf relates to the world of logic (clerk/ Government), while entertaining desires whose function is obsessively to be unfulfilled—or one could say which it is very important that they remain so. Ralph and Katharine are therefore champions of norms and ready-made ‘combinations’: books and knitting, books and maths, books and legal documents, etc.

21Here Woolf’s narrative voice may be too intrusive to count as modernist, and her insistence on well-made, sophisticated phrases that explain rather than express the subject’s grappling with their own logic may appear stylistically in want of experiment. What is still an achievement is that she is paving the way for a feminine challenge to the patriarchal order of social rituals—developing a feminist approach that touches men and women alike. In tackling the subject of the relation between men and women, Woolf resorts to a form of nineteenth-century spleen (a melancholy, Baudelaire-inspired feeling) and impressionism to situate her character, and not to maths:

it remained something of a pageant to her. Not having experience of it herself, her mind had unconsciously occupied itself for some years in dressing up an image of love, and the marriage that was the outcome of love, and the man who inspired love, which naturally dwarfed any examples that came her way. Easily, and without correction by reason, her imagination made pictures, superb backgrounds casting a rich though phantom light upon the facts in the foreground. (98)

22This introspective reflection is an interrogation on marriage rather than a condoning of it: marriage is another way of exploring coupling and union, albeit in a divergent way. Is ‘Marriage’, purely and simply, antifeminist, as Mrs Seal thinks it (244) when she envisages that the only reason for Mary dropping out of the Suffrage movement should be marriage? Or can marriage be seen in the novel as the place from which new relations may be construed? If Katharine ends up married, Mary refuses to and Woolf offers two trajectories supported by a new awakening to the question of the relations of the sexes that are never as simple as night and day:

The incessant and tumultuous hum of the distant traffic seemed, as she stood there, to represent the thick texture of her life, for her life was so hemmed in with the progress of other lives that the sound of its own advance was inaudible. People like Ralph and Mary, she thought, had it all their own way, and an empty space before them, and, as she envied them, she cast her mind out to imagine an empty land where all this petty intercourse of men and women, this life made up of the dense crossings and entanglements of men and women, had no existence whatever. (97)


23To return to our initial question, Night and Day is exceptional in Woolf’s œuvre and in relation to the author’s generally accepted so-called feminist views. I have endeavoured to show that if collective action is treated as social comedy, the novel’s female characters are exemplary of a feminine modality in which the individual subject may offer slight deviations from norms that are perceived as an Imaginary dimension related to appearances. Woolf therefore seems less interested in the vote than in a kind of feminism based on the question of the social distribution of men’s and women’s roles. It is to be noticed that as early as 1986, Alex Zwerdling dealt with the question of Woolf’s feminist stance over two chapters: one was dedicated to domesticity and the trope of the frustrated female artist in Woolf’s novels, while another was dedicated to feminism and its ambivalent representation in the texts, a sure sign of Woolf’s own hesitation between the collective, activist movement and the individual, subjective question of what a female being may want,—or wants differently. Back in the 1970s, when feminist criticism was interested in the promotion of female characters and écriture feminine as difference, critics such as Melinda Fledt Cumings, Harvena Richter and Herbert Marder could read the novel as an exemplification of Woolf’s early construction of epiphanies and synthesis such as the one quoted above (qd in Cumings 97n). Richter could thus oppose night as ‘related to woman’ and daylight as related to ‘man’ (Richter, 122) without seeing it as a fault, when Cumings sought to find a way out of the dichotomy in the delineating of moments of vision that unite the masculine and feminine principles by seeing Ralph as equally obsessed with dreams as Katharine (Cumings 96–97). This feminist criticism is no longer predominant in academia and has sometimes missed an opportunity to analyse what is at stake in the acts of union, however short-lived they are, that are represented in the novels—unions between men and women, between Katharine and her mother, Katharine and Mary, etc. I think that Night and Day fails in many respects, because to a certain extent, it does seek to unite Night and Day, but there are exceptional episodes in which Woolf glimpses at another reality, made of different, odd combinations indeed:

‘I detest politics.’
‘I don’t think any man has the right to say that,’ said Cassandra, almost severely.
‘I agree; I mean that I detest politicians,’ he corrected himself quickly.
‘You see, I believe Cassandra is what they call a Feminist.’ Katharine went on. ‘Or rather, she was a Feminist six months ago, but it’s no good supposing that she is now what she was then.’ (326)

24Woolf enables us to bear in mind that feminism is a shifting ideology, something which the ‘wave metaphor’ used to describe various phases, or which the various trends in feminism highlight, whereas a woman’s fight for her own place in the world is a constant, individual battle. Woolf therefore gradually designs what was going to become the dominant trait of her novels in the 1920s, namely how great ideologies and wars affect the lives of individuals and their ambivalent responses to them. In her 1919 ‘Modern Fiction’ essay, Woolf designates a male ‘figure of authority [who] imposes the plot of the conventional novel on the resisting novelist. The writer seems constrained, not by his own free will but by some powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has him in thrall, to provide a plot . . . The tyrant is obeyed; the novel is done to a turn’ (160; Briggs 50). This might well describe her own appreciation of her novel once it was published and her decision to expand on her experimental short stories instead (‘The Mark on the Wall’ (1917) and ‘Kew Gardens’ (1919)), but it is also revelatory of the necessity to give pride of place to those acts of resistance that are not necessarily acts of rupture or breach, because after the Great War, even if the novel is set before it, to her and critics’ dismay (Lee 374), Woolf clings to the idea that society must hold. For indeed, continuity may give way to change:

Where Katharine was simple, Cassandra was complex: where Katharine was solid and direct, Cassandra was vague and evasive. In short, they represented very well the manly and the womanly sides of the feminine nature, and, for foundation, there was the profound unity of common blood between them. (317)

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1 This does not appear in Anne Olivier Bell’s edition of the diary, but in an earlier version published by Leonard Woolf, 184 and referred to in Zemgulis 56.

2 CFP for the 100 Years of Night and Day, held on 26 October 2019, at the University of Westminster, London. (last checked 10 November 2019).

3 ‘Pour quelle raison Woolf n’épargne-t-elle pas les femmes de sa société dans sa satire du patriarcat à un moment précisément où elle s’indigne contre les sexistes de tous poils, parmi lesquels compte un de ses meilleurs amis ? Que signifie donc ce Lysistrata raté (les femmes n’y empêchent pas la guerre de 14, laquelle vient ironiquement et fort opportunément briser le cercle de leurs insurmontables contradictions) ? Comment lire ce « brouillon » féministe, surtout si on le compare aux flamboyants essais que seront A Room et Three Guineas publiés respectivement huit et dix-sept ans plus tard.’ 

4 See Woolf, ‘Jane Austen’ in The Common Reader, placed in the collection just before ‘Modern Fiction’: ‘She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust—but enough. Vain are these speculations: the most perfect artist among women, the writer whose books are immortal, died ‘just as she was beginning to feel confidence in her own success’ (Woolf 1925, 145).

5 As the adult suffrage for which the P.S.F. was committed was also known as ‘universal suffrage’, perhaps we could unravel the initials of Mary Datchet’s society and reconstruct them as ‘The Society for General Suffrage’ (

6 A relation between the two novels is also made by Clare Hanson in the only reference she makes to the novel Night and Day (Hanson 69) to suggest a likelihood in the treatment of domesticity. Bowlby, on the other hand, uses both novels to demonstrate the lack of ease in the passage from the 19th to the 20th century in terms of sisterhood (Bowlby 74). In any case, the ‘Angel in the House’ is the ideal of femininity understood as domesticity, care and submission to the patriarchal order as it came to be defined in the long 19th century, especially after the publication of Coventry Patmore’s poem (1854), and in conjunction with the theory of the separate spheres. In ‘Professions for Women’, Woolf attacks this ideal and explains that she has had to kill it in order to start writing.

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Nicolas Pierre Boileau, « Woolf’s Exploration of —Combinations: Feminism in Night and Day »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 58 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2020, consulté le 28 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Nicolas Pierre Boileau

Nicolas Pierre Boileau is Senior Lecturer in English Studies at the University of Aix-Marseille, France. His Ph.D thesis is entitled Experiencing the Impossible: Autobiographical Writing in Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Janet Frame’s An Autobiography (2008). He has published papers on autobiography and psychoanalysis, and modernism, including an article on autobiography and gender criticism, and one on Janet Frame in a/b: Auto/Biographical Studies. He is a member of the British Association of Modernist Studies and of the French Virginia Woolf Society, and has published articles on Rachel Cusk (with the edition of a special issue of E-rea) and Sarah Kane. He has recently worked on the publication of Mrs Dalloway into French. He is currently working on the representation of madness since Woolf and on women’s resistance to feminism in the 20th century.

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