For The Years

Hogarth Press first edition, cover by Vanessa Bell
Published in 1937, The Years was the last of her novels that Virginia Woolf lived to see released. Coming more than five years after the release of the poetic and, to many people, opaquely experimental The Waves, The Years seemed like the work of a totally different writer — it looked like a family novel, something along the lines of Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga, the sort of book a younger Woolf had scorned.  

The Years became a bestseller in both the UK and the US, and garnered some good reviews — in the New York Times, Peter Monro Jack declared it "Virginia Woolf's Richest Novel". Its fame quickly faded, however. After Woolf's death, her husband Leonard claimed he didn't think it was among her best work, though he'd been afraid, he said, to tell her that, given how long she had worked on it and how hard that work had been for her. As Woolf's reputation increased in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly among feminist academics, The Years tended to get shuffled aside in favor of the other novels and essays. Despite some advocacy from scholars and an extraordinary edition as part of the Cambridge Woolf, The Years remains relatively neglected. This is unfortunate, as it is a magnificent book.

12 April 1937, photo by Man Ray

Some of the best scholarship on The Years occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when scholars began looking at the drafts of the novel. The progress of Woolf's writing of The Years was of interest not just because it took her so long and so much effort, but because her original conception for the book was much more obviously experimental than the final version proved to be. She had conceived it as what she called an "essay-novel" titled The Pargiters (the name of the central family in the book) where essayistic chapters would alternate with novelistic chapters. At one point, she planned on the book covering the years 1880 to 2032 — yes, for a moment, Virginia Woolf planned to write a science fiction novel. But she found the structure she had planned unwieldy, and never wrote beyond the 1880 years in The Pargiters. Instead, she reconceived the book as a novel that would proceed from 1880 to a final section titled "Present Day" (early 1930s), and incorporated much of the research she had done for the essayistic sections into her book Three Guineas.

One result of the research into the early drafts of The Pargiters/The Years — and particularly the publication of The Pargiters (edited by Mitchell Leaska) in 1977 and Virginia Woolf's The Years: The Evolution of a Novel by Grace Radin in 1981 — was a growing perception of The Years as a failed novel, a failed experiment. Both Leaska and Radin seem saddened by Woolf's failure to realize her original plan for a book that alternates between essayistic and novelistic chapters, and they judge the published version of The Years to be incoherent.

But The Years is far from incoherent and far from a failure. I've spent much of the last few months researching and drafting an academic article about the book (which some of the following is part of), and the more time I spent with The Years, the more I marvelled at it.

I first encountered The Years when I took an undergraduate seminar in Woolf in the late 1990s. We didn't spend much time on the book. Nonetheless, I remember liking it, perhaps for similar reasons as some readers in the 1930s: it felt like a nice break after the challenge of The Waves. I thus always had a fondness for it, but didn't return to it until a few years ago, when Samuel Delany said somewhere that he was extraordinarily impressed by it. I returned to it then, and really fell in love with it, but also knew I needed to spend significantly more time to delve into its complexities. Thanks to a seminar this term on British Modernisms, I was able to do so.

The perception of The Years as a failure is tremendously inaccurate. The book is, indeed, a failure of Woolf's original plan, but Woolf's original plan was too schematic and awkward, as she quickly discovered. It's not that she then gave up and wrote a traditional family novel, but that she found a way to create a book that would take the form of a traditional novel while achieving most of her original goals. The Years only looks like a traditional novel — once you slide below its surface, it proves to be nearly as radically experimental as The Waves.

The challenge is to see The Years not as a novel in the traditional sense (much less a family novel) but as a text that uses our assumptions about the novel form to highlight and reconfigure our knowledge and desires. In a way, the text wants us to misperceive it as a traditional novel, but then to recognize — in an almost Brechtian way — that we must shift our perception, and that this shift is, in fact, not merely aesthetic but also ethical.

At the time of writing The Years, Woolf was deeply concerned with fascism: the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, as well as the presence of fascist groups and sentiments in Britain. Leonard was Jewish, and together they traveled through Germany and Italy in the spring of 1935, seeing the fascist states first-hand, a "letter of protection" from Prince Bismark at the London Embassy in Leonard's pocket. (It didn't end up needing to be used, even as they passed through a vehemently anti-Semitic crowd waiting for the arrival of Hermann Göring. The Germans were won over by the pet marmoset Leonard often kept on his shoulder — something that, apparently, they figured no Jew would do.) Virginia's perception of Leonard's Jewishness, and of Judaism in general, has been the topic of much writing and controversy, more than I can get into here. (Julia Briggs thoughtfully considered the question of Woolf's use of Jewish stereotypes, and Lara Trubowitz has recently provided some fascinating context to Woolf's relationship to and representations of Jewishness. Helen Carr gives a good overview of discussions of Woolf, imperialism, and racism in her chapter of the Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, "Virginia Woolf, Empire, and Race".)

But Woolf wasn't only concerned with fascism as fascism. Three Guineas makes utterly clear that to Woolf, fascism and patriarchy were linked. The challenge for Woolf was to find a kind of unity or harmony, something she often referred to throughout her writings from an early age — but not a fascist unity.

In September 1908, as she traveled in Italy and worked on the manuscript of Melymbrosia (which, revised, would become her first published novel, The Voyage Out), the 26-year-old Virginia Stephen wrote in her diary, contrasting her writing with the art of Italian painters:
I achieve a different kind of beauty, achieve a symmetry by means of infinite discords, showing all the traces of the minds [sic] passage through the world; & achieve in the end, some kind of whole made of shivering fragments; to me this seems the natural process; the flight of the mind.
Though she had yet to publish her first novel, a central element of Woolf’s aesthetic sense had already formed. Up through The Waves, this credo served her well, but it seems that by the time she began imagining The Pargiters, she desired something more than tracing the mind’s passage through the world — or, rather, she desired to emphasize the world in a way she had not done since Night and Day (when she was not yet as practiced and skilled at tracing the mind’s passages). As so many of her books (fiction and nonfiction) are, The Years is “some kind of whole made of shivering fragments”.

What Woolf discovered in the 1930s, though, was that the aesthetic and psychological unities she had explored earlier could be developed into a more social, political, and historical unity that was not fundamentally fascist.

U.S. first edition
The Years presents ideas of unity in a variety of ways. Characters yearn for forms of unity, and the text itself unifies through its narrative voices. In The Years, the characters of Peggy and Eleanor — who approach the world in quite different ways — both yearn for a unity that will bring freedom and peace, but both fail to be able to express this desire coherently in words. Peggy tries to share her vision of “a state of being, in which there was real laughter, real happiness, and this fractured world was whole; whole and free”, but “she had broken off only a little fragment of what she meant to say”. Eleanor is the character who returns most often to ideas of wholeness, but words always fail her: “…it was impossible to find one word for the whole”. Again and again, the text demonstrates that the desired wholeness cannot be achieved only through words or only through an elite view — it requires a perspective that can see a system, a distance that delineates the movement of groups.

Each chapter of The Years begins with a kind of prelude, one that shows the world from a distance. It's useful, I think, to see the prelude narrator as a separate voice from the narrator of the main text. The prelude narrator shows that distanced perspective is key to achieving the desired unity: it brings time, space, and event together in a way that doesn’t let any one element dominate. To be more than just a distant, frozen image, though, other elements are necessary, and that's where the novel form's particular ability to represent both a multitude of consciousnesses and a multitude of material details proves useful for Woolf's purposes.

The details of people, places, and things contribute to traditional verisimilitude, but their excess is not the excess of Barthes's reality effect; instead, the details are not excessive enough. This is what causes many readers' frustration with the book — what, they wonder, is the purpose of all these random details?

The details, though, are not at all random, but are, instead, part of a very complex system, a careful pattern built from repetitions and echoes. (Critics such as Alice Van Buren Kelley, Michael Rosenthal, and Julia Briggs have delineated the pattern of echoes and repetitions that produce the book’s meanings, even if, as with Briggs, they find the results “ultimately less consistent than earlier novels”.) On one level, the details provide us information about the characters and their place within the social and material setting. But the characters and setting work in a more fluid, less individual way than they do in traditional novels. (Indeed, some readers' major complaint about the book is that it's difficult to keep the characters straight, since they flit in and out of the text. This is true, but also, I think, a desired and important effect.) The characters and setting are united in memory, both the characters' memories and the readers'. The material world melds into the personal, and vice versa.

On another level, all the details highlight the contrivance of narrative, a contrivance the characters themselves frequently run up against. During a dinner party, for instance, Martin tries to be friendly and to share stories of his life with the young woman he has been made to sit beside, but “what little piece of his vast experience could he break off and give to her, he wondered?”. Novels are too clean in their causalities and inferences, as North thinks when regarding his cousin: “She left the room without looking in the glass. From which we deduce the fact, he said to himself, as if he were writing a novel, that Miss Sara Pargiter has never attracted the love of a man.” Novels, though, provide false certainty: “Or had she? He did not know. These little snapshot pictures of people left much to be desired, these snapshot pictures that one made, like a fly crawling over a face, and feeling, here’s the nose, here’s the brow”. Then North struggles to reconcile the brute facts of Sara with her personality: “The actual words he supposed — the actual words floated together and formed a sentence in his mind — meant that she was poor; that she must earn her living, but the excitement with which she had spoken, due to wine perhaps, had created yet another person; another semblance, which one must solidify into one whole”.

These are, Woolf shows us, failed strategies, failed epistemologies. Vast experience cannot be captured by stories: it always exceeds them, and the excess pushes the honest storyteller toward silence. In a world of fascism, though, silence can too easily become consent or complicity (normalizing discourses don’t mind silence). There is an energy to people, an unpredictable excitement, that exceeds sentences and yet must be accounted for.

Yet Woolf is not Samuel Beckett. Failure and silence are present, but they are not the end point. We must remember the prelude narrator. Without that narrative voice, it would be more difficult to make sense or meaning of the many scattered moments that make up The Years. The prelude narrator does not simply stand (or hover) at a distance, looking down on the unindividualized people below, but rather has the freedom to dart from perspective to perspective, fact to fact, moment to moment — and even genre to genre. While traditional novelistic form totalizes, absorbing into it all other genres and forms,  The Years allows the pieces autonomy within the whole. Its pieces have pieces, its whole is never whole.

We return to the sky at the end of the novel, when the prelude narrator becomes the epilogue narrator: “The sun had risen, and the sky above the houses wore an air of extraordinary beauty, simplicity and peace”. By now, the narrative has taught us some of what is in the houses, and so the word “houses” possesses an extraordinary resonance, as we have observed life and conversation in houses of many sorts across the city and across the years. There is no simple answer to any of the questions the novel raises, any of the possibilities it explores. The houses possess memories of nightmares and dreams. The oppressive power of their walls is undeniable. It is, perhaps, not the houses that we should look to, but the sky, for the possibility of peace resides there, in simple beauty. The novel seems to understand, as Virginia Woolf certainly understood, that that sky might quickly become clouded, its possibilities wiped out by Stukas, bombs, and fire.

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