Since its publication in 1919, Virginia Woolf’s second novel has been largely dismissed as “traditional”—but reading the book more closely today shows us just how prescient and unconventional it was. On its surface, Night and Day plays with the tropes of Shakespearean comedy: We follow the romantic endeavors of two friends, Katharine Hilbery and Mary Datchet, as love is confessed and rebuffed, partners switched, weddings planned and cancelled, until we finally arrive at two engagements. But these dramas play out against the first steps of the women’s suffrage movement, as women’s roles in society fitfully started to shift away from charm, subservience, and self-sacrifice toward equal partnership. Ultimately, Woolf’s novel is a subversive challenge to the male-writer establishment of the Edwardian age—Henry James, E.M. Forster, their forebears and successors—that undercuts the unequal gender dialectic on which their plots depend.
The Virginia Woolf of Night and Day is every bit as brilliant, funny, sharp, and imbued with a deep love of language as in her celebrated later works Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. What makes Night and Day so remarkable is its devotion to “real life.” As bestselling author of Fates and Furies Lauren Groff writes in her introduction, “Virginia Woolf, in pushing outward in this book toward an articulation of a new and better kind of marriage, doesn’t stop for a moment to try to seduce the reader into loving her characters—she is too fixated on breaking new ground and exploring her ideas.”
This edition, beautifully illustrated by Kristen Radtke, celebrates the 100th anniversary of this key work not only of the Woolf canon, but also of the vital history of feminist literature.
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is the author of acclaimed works of fiction like Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) as well as the feminist call to arms, A Room of One’s Own (1929). Born to a wealthy family in South Kensington, London, Woolf was the seventh child of eight. Her mother died in 1895 and Woolf experienced her first mental breakdown; two years later, Woolf’s stepsister and surrogate mother, Stella Duckworth, also died. After attending the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London, Woolf started to write seriously with the encouragement of her father. Woolf’s father died in 1905 and Woolf experienced a second mental breakdown. She married Leonard Woolf in 1912 and in 1917 they founded Hogarth Press. At the age of 37, Woolf published her second novel, Night and Day. She continued to have a successful literary career and is remembered as one of the most important modernist writers of the twentieth century. Woolf also had an affair with peer and author Vita Sackville-West, who is the inspiration for the main character in Orlando (1928). At the age of 59, Woolf drowned herself in a river; she struggled with bouts of depression and bipolar disorder throughout her life.
Kristen Radtke is the author of the graphic nonfiction book Imagine Wanting Only This (Pantheon, 2017). She is the art director and deputy publisher of The Believer magazine. She is at work on a graphic essay collection, Seek You: Essays on American Loneliness, and Terrible Men, a graphic novel, both forthcoming from Pantheon. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Marie Claire, The Atlantic, GQ, The New Yorker’s “Page Turner,” Oxford American, and many other places. Find her on Twitter @kristenradtke.
“If Woolf was better acquainted with profound sorrow than most, she was also, by some mysterious manifestation of will, better than almost anyone at conveying the pure joy of being alive. The quotidian pleasure of simply being present in the world on an ordinary Tuesday in June. That's one of the reasons we who love her, love her as ardently as we do. She knew how bad it could get. And still, she insisted on simple, imperishable beauty, albeit a beauty haunted by mortality, as beauty always is. Woolf's adoration of the world, her optimism about it, are assertions we can trust, because they come from a writer who has seen the bottom of the bottom. In her books, life persists, grand and gaudy and marvellous; it trumps the depths and discouragements.” —Michael Cunningham, The Guardian