by Robert Higney
Published in 1937, The Years was the last of Virginia Woolf’s novels to appear in print during her lifetime. Over the previous six years, Woolf had undertaken a massive project combining fiction and social critique that eventually produced both The Years and the polemical essays of Three Guineas. (While not the single volume tour de force that Woolf first envisioned, she would later write that the two works really constituted “one book.”) The Years consists of two long sections entitled “1880” and “Present Day” (approx. 80 and 120 pages, respectively) that bookend nine shorter sections, each headed only by a year: 1891, 1907, 1908, 1910, 1911, 1913, 1914, 1917, and 1918. Sections open and are occasionally interrupted by passages of what could be termed panoramic narration that describes seasons, weather, celestial bodies, and the day to day movements of people and things before the its scope tightens to inhabit the consciousness of particular characters. Each section covers a single day with the exception of the first, which includes events on at least three days.
The Years defies plot summary and includes nothing that could be termed a continuous storyline or a central protagonist. Nor is there much of the charged, poetic language that works in many of Woolf’s novels to evoke memory and the processes of perception–indeed, among the novel’s distinguishing features is its curious flatness of affect or tone. Woolf presents a large cast of characters whose ordinary activities and thoughts we follow on seemingly random days over a span of fifty-odd years. In “1880” we meet Colonel Abel Pargiter; his wife Rose, on her deathbed; their children, Eleanor, Morris, Milly, Edward, Delia, Martin, and Rose; and their longtime female servant Crosby. Later we are introduced to cousin Kitty; to Abel’s brother Digby and his family (wife Eugenie, daughters Sarah and Maggie); to Sarah and Eleanor’s friend Nicholas Pomjalovsky; and to Morris’s children, Peggy and North. While not all of these characters are equally present in the novel (Eleanor, for example, appears quite often; Milly hardly at all), the narrator moves frequently among them, and the sheer number of significant figures conveys a sense of the personal and historical scope Woolf aimed to capture.
The Years has long suffered from critical indifference despite its early popularity: though it was Woolf’s best-selling novel during her lifetime and went on to be published, somewhat oddly, in an American Armed Forces edition, today it squares off with Night and Day for the title of Woolf’s least-read (certainly least-commented upon) novel. The lack of critical attention to the finished version of The Years is perhaps understandable when one considers the exhilaration with which Woolf first conceived the project:
I have this moment, while having my bath, conceived an entire new book–a sequel to a Room of Ones Own–about the sexual life of women: to be called Professions for Women perhaps–Lord how exciting!
In this spirit Woolf began work in October of 1932 on The Pargiters, which was to be a “novel-essay” combining sections of historical fiction interspersed with critical commentary and explication. She abandoned this unusual though relatively straightforward form in February 1933 with a plan to incorporate the sections of commentary directly into the text of a far more ambitious book:
I think this will be a terrific affair. I must be bold & adventurous. I want to give the whole of the present society–nothing less: facts, as well as vision. And to combine them both. I mean, The Waves going on simultaneously with Night & Day . . . . It should aim at immense breadth and immense intensity. It should include satire, comedy, poetry, narrative, & what form is to hold them all together? Should I bring in a play, letters, poems? I think I begin to grasp the whole. And its to end with the press of daily normal life continuing. And there are to be millions of ideas but no preaching–history, politics, feminism, art, literature–in short a summing up of all I know, feel, laugh at, despise, like admire hate & so on.
Ultimately, Woolf would cut the social commentary completely, reserving it for Three Guineas, and drastically diminish the narrative authority of some of the novel’s most striking and politicized characters (mainly Sarah and Nicholas, who, in the process of revision, go from a fiery anti-war feminist and a homosexual utopian thinker to more or less harmless cranks). In light of this early plan–which seems to promise something like a feminist riposte to landmark epics of high modernism like James Joyce‘s Ulysses and Ezra Pound‘s Cantos—later scholars have tended to view the relatively modest novel that resulted as at best a tactical retreat, at worst an outright failure.
Yet Woolf had reasons for producing the novel she finally did, one of them being a desire to avoid the pitfalls of social realism for which she had castigated John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, and H. G. Wells in essays like “Modern Fiction,” “Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown,” and “Character in Fiction.” A central tenet of Woolf’s theory of fiction is that no amount of accumulated detail can provide access to the kinds of truth that are fiction’s unique domain, and as she turned the remnants of The Pargiters into The Years she removed the strong authorial voice that critiqued and provided socio-historical context for the circumstances portrayed in the fiction. Instead, she hewed more closely to the notion formulated in those earlier essays that what makes the novel a distinctive form is the range of possibilities it presents for rendering character. In The Years as the novel was finally published, Woolf created a new kind of realism in which character emerges in tension with an array of institutions—universities, the military, medicine, government, the English aristocracy, law, charity, the family—that are themselves visible in the text only through the pressures they exert on the imagined individuals whom they shape. In doing so, Woolf does not abandon her attempt to “give the whole of the present society”; instead, she approaches the project through an innovative return to questions of the formal construction of character, the place of institutions, and novelistic representation.
In the novel’s first section, Colonel Abel Pargiter sits in his club among “men of his own type, men who had been soldiers, civil servants, men who had now retired . . . reviving with old jokes and stories now their past in India, Africa, Egypt.” He leaves to visit his mistress Mira, and as he “kisse[s] her on the nape of the neck . . .the hand that had lost two fingers began to fumble rather lower down where the neck joins the shoulders” (5). Finally, having tea with his family, his hand again “fumble[s]” and we learn that “he had lost two fingers of the right hand in the Mutiny” (13). Abel’s own thoughts return only briefly to his past life, but the missing fingers and their connection with the Mutiny draw into the novel the glacial institutions of the British Empire and Army that will give shape to Abel as an imagined individual. Characterological traits are historicized; Abel lives, we could say, in the perpetual afterglow of institutions. The novel thus maps the feedback between institution and character, and characters become recognizable individuals through their constructive narrative tension with the institutions that shape them both formally and thematically. While Abel returns from India a staunch imperialist, his grandson North comes to London from Africa sixty years later having gained a critical detachment from English society and a distrust of conformist thinking and militarism. That character be thus shaped rather than merely determined by institutional life is crucial to producing the novel’s compelling force, lending individuals and collective forms the sense of both durability and contingency that Woolf sees as necessary to capture “the whole of the present society.”
Moreover, the novel presents the relationship between character and institution as a problem across historical time and geographical space. Thus what seem at first to be merely arbitrary days on which the novel is set we find tied, directly or indirectly, to the looming events of history: the General Election of 1880 that brought Lloyd George to power; the deaths of Parnell and Edward VII; the WWI air raids on London; the War’s end (which we learn of in “1918” through Crosby, in one of Woolf’s few extended depictions of a servant- or working-class character); the founding of the Irish Free State. The newspapers characters read and the monuments to an imperial past that surround them as they circulate through London evoke other events contemporary and historical; meanwhile, repeated images, words, and phrases (the “take two coos, taffy” of the city pigeons, for example) tie together the temporally disparate scenes. And while nearly the whole novel is set in and around London, the institutions that lend it structure range in scale from the sub- to the supra-national.
The Years thus speaks to modernist studies’ recent and still growing concerns with history and transnationalism; at the same time, its often un-“modernist” style troubles accounts of the history of the novel that engage with modernism primarily through a narrative of crisis, rupture, and fragmentation. Though it would perhaps be difficult to argue that The Years is in the first tier of Woolf’s fiction, neglect of the novel may also be due in part to a dominant account of the modernist novel that has not fully taken on the legacy of terms like character, realism, and representation and their associated critical stakes. The Years is particularly suited to draw our attention to these issues. As Woolf herself wrote, “Its different from the others of course: has I think more ‘real’ life in it; more blood & bone.”