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.
664 pages, with a reading time of ~10.25 hours (166,178 words), and first published in 1919. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2010.
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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.
That fact was perceptible to Mr. Denham also, and increased the awkwardness which inevitably attends the entrance of a stranger into a room full of people much at their ease, and all launched upon sentences. At the same time, it seemed to Mr. Denham as if a thousand softly padded doors had closed between him and the street outside. A fine mist, the etherealized essence of the fog, hung visibly in the wide and rather empty space of the drawing-room, all silver where the candles were grouped on the tea-table, and ruddy again in the firelight. With the omnibuses and cabs still running in his head, and his body still tingling with his quick walk along the streets and in and out of traffic and foot-passengers, this drawing-room seemed very remote and still; and the faces of the elderly people were mellowed, at some distance from each other, and had a bloom on them owing to the fact that the air in the drawing-room was thickened by blue grains of mist. Mr. Denham had come in as Mr. Fortescue, the eminent novelist, reached the middle of a very long sentence. He kept this suspended while the newcomer sat down, and Mrs. Hilbery deftly joined the severed parts by leaning towards him and remarking:
“Now, what would you do if you were married to an engineer, and had to live in Manchester, Mr. Denham?”
“Surely she could learn Persian,” broke in a thin, elderly gentleman. “Is there no retired schoolmaster or man of letters in Manchester with whom she could read Persian?”
“A cousin of ours has married and gone to live in Manchester,” Katharine explained. Mr. Denham muttered something, which was indeed all that was required of him, and the novelist went on where he had left off. Privately, Mr. Denham cursed himself very sharply for having exchanged the freedom of the street for this sophisticated drawing-room, where, among other disagreeables, he certainly would not appear at his best. He glanced round him, and saw that, save for Katharine, they were all over forty, the only consolation being that Mr. Fortescue was a considerable celebrity, so that to-morrow one might be glad to have met him.
“Have you ever been to Manchester?” he asked Katharine.
“Never,” she replied.
“Why do you object to it, then?”
Katharine stirred her tea, and seemed to speculate, so Denham thought, upon the duty of filling somebody else’s cup, but she was really wondering how she was going to keep this strange young man in harmony with the rest. She observed that he was compressing his teacup, so that there was danger lest the thin china might cave inwards. She could see that he was nervous; one would expect a bony young man with his face slightly reddened by the wind, and his hair not altogether smooth, to be nervous in such a party. Further, he probably disliked this kind of thing, and had come out of curiosity, or because her father had invited him–anyhow, he would not be easily combined with the rest.