The interrupting telephone in Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day
[Full transcripts appearing online for the duration of Telepoetics (27 May – 5 June 2020) have been reduced to excerpts of approx. 750 words.]
The telephone in Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day interrupts. The emphasis on the telephone making itself heard in Woolf’s novel, with her repeated mention of the ‘telephone bell’ and emphasis on its ring, underlines this disruption, making clear that the technology distracts. In Night and Day the telephone is particularly made mention of in two contexts: firstly, that of the office in which certain characters work to campaign for women’s suffrage, and secondly, in private homes. In the latter instance, there is a recurring motif of a scene in which two characters are conversing in person before they are disrupted by the ring of the telephone. The telephone demands the kind of task-switching abilities which are often associated with our own contemporary moment, as technologies compel our attention for an instant. In Woolf’s novel we can see an analysis of the telephone’s ability to both connect, and to disrupt.
One of Night and Day’s central characters, Mary Datchet, volunteers in an office campaigning for women’s suffrage (the novel was published in 1919, but is set before the the first world war). The office is filled with the noise of rattling typewriters as they compose campaign letters, and the sound of the ringing telephone. Mr Clacton is one of the especially eager campaigners; following a set-back in Parliament regarding the vote, he his determined to get back to work, to contact various constituents and MPs to try and persuade them to their cause. He expresses this via the image of the telephone, as he explains to Mary:
“We must try to consider ourselves rather in the light of a telephone exchange—for the exchange of ideas, Miss Datchet,” he said; and taking pleasure in his image, he continued it. “We should consider ourselves the center of an enormous system of wires, connecting us up with every district of the country. We must have our fingers upon the pulse of the community; we want to know what people all over England are thinking; we want to put them in the way of thinking rightly.”
In this instance, the telephone is not merely a literal form of connection but an image representing connectivity. The ease with which the telephone permits connections leads Mr Clacton to imagine, and encourage his colleagues to imagine, the emergence and pushing forward of a political campaign. In this way, Mr Clacton’s image resembles those described by Laura Otis in her book Networking. Otis notes that the image of the network in certain nineteenth century literature led to analogies between bodily nerves and technologised networks. The bodily networks and technologised ones become linked through this, Otis observes. This link, and the instantaneous nature of electronic messages ‘challenged’, Otis writes, ‘the traditional notion of a bounded, delimited individual.’ In Night and Day, the image of the telephone and its wires lays emphasis on not the individual, but on interconnected networks, an imagined ‘we’, which is growing an increased presence all around the country.
There is some humour here too, though; this speech is made by Mr Clacton, a minor character who is at points something of a figure of fun, and here is a masculine individual explaining to two women why they shouldn’t be disheartened by the vote not being passed once again. The vision of the network, and of community, is somewhat disrupted by his own belief in hierarchy within their office – he positions himself as their leader. Nevertheless his use of the telephone exchange as an image underlines the positive possibilities enhanced by such technologies. Towards the end of the chapter, one of the women of this office, Mrs Seal, hurries to answer the ring of the telephone-bell. As she answers, the narrator reports that ‘she felt that it was at this exact spot on the surface of the globe that all the subterranean wires of thought and progress came together’. Extending Mr Clacton’s image beyond the whole country to encompass the globe, Mrs Seal furthers the image of interconnectivity. But I want to now turn to focus on the scenes in which the telephone repeatedly interrupts, and consider how this affects the more positive view of the telephone seen in the suffrage office. As noted, there is a recurring motif of the ‘telephone-bell’, as it is referred to, interrupting a scene. The majority of the time, characters are in the middle of a conversation; one character disappears to answer the phone, but the narrator typically doesn’t ‘follow’ them to report their conversation to the reader. Instead, the scene resumes when the character reappears, and typically is quizzed as to who is on the phone.