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Woolf portrays the fascinations of self-discovery through relationships with other people, and she also looks into the intricacies of love–are we aware of love? Katharine Hilbery is beautiful and privileged but uncertain of her future. She must choose between becoming engaged to the oddly prosaic poet William, and her dangerous attraction to the lower-class Ralph. As she struggles to decide, the lives of two other women - women’s rights activist Mary Datchet and Katharine’s mother, struggling to weave together the documents, events and memories of her father’s life into a biography - impinge on hers with unexpected and intriguing consequences. Virginia Woolf’s light, delicate second novel is both a love story and a social comedy, yet it also subtly undermines these traditions, questioning a woman’s role and the very nature of experience. A superb book that you will remember long after you read it. Making your own discovery is part of its charm.
It was a Sunday evening in October, and in common with many other young ladies of her class, Katharine Hilbery was pouring out tea. Perhaps a fifth part of her mind was thus occupied, and the remaining parts leapt over the little barrier of day which interposed between Monday morning and this rather subdued moment, and played with the things one does voluntarily and normally in the daylight. But although she was silent, she was evidently mistress of a situation which was familiar enough to her, and inclined to let it take its way for the six hundredth time, perhaps, without bringing into play any of her unoccupied faculties. A single glance was enough to show that Mrs. Hilbery was so rich in the gifts which make tea–parties of elderly distinguished people successful, that she scarcely needed any help from her daughter, provided that the tiresome business of teacups and bread and butter was discharged for her.
Considering that the little party had been seated round the tea–table for less than twenty minutes, the animation observable on their faces, and the amount of sound they were producing collectively, were very creditable to the hostess. It suddenly came into Katharine’s mind that if some one opened the door at this moment he would think that they were enjoying themselves; he would think, “What an extremely nice house to come into!” and instinctively she laughed, and said something to increase the noise, for the credit of the house presumably, since she herself had not been feeling exhilarated. At the very same moment, rather to her amusement, the door was flung open, and a young man entered the room. Katharine, as she shook hands with him, asked him, in her own mind, “Now, do you think we’re enjoying ourselves enormously?”… “Mr. Denham, mother,” she said aloud, for she saw that her mother had forgotten his name.