The Novels of Virginia Woolf #9: The Years

The big question for me while reading The Years was about whether it’s a reversion to an earlier writing style – something more like a Victorian social novel, or if it’s a step forward in Woolf’s own evolution. The earlier novel of Woolf’s that most resembles this is Night and Day, which is definitely a traditional family/relationship/marriage novel. But though The Years seems a bit like that, it’s actually much more stylistically interesting (and puzzling).

It feels a little bit like War and Peace in its overall shape. The narrative reads like the entire social sphere is on display, like the whole more than half-century age from 1880 to “the present day” (presumably 1937 or so) is the subject of the book. There is some resemblance to To the Lighthouse in its use of time. 1880 and “the present day” are bookends, with a set of much shorter sequences every lying in between. The reader is able to stop and think and feel most about the beginning and the end, but the middle is not nearly as amorphous or unspecified as “Time Passes.” So in that sense maybe it’s more like The Waves, which stops at several periods within the span of the main characters’ lives, but those periods felt equally spaced, and the almost total lack of anything like family in The Waves make those periods much different.

There are times when The Years starts to feel like a national epic, or at least like it’s aiming for that status, but then, the vignette style, lack of omniscient narration, uncanny sense of repetition and confusion about names, places and dates, makes everything much more unsettling. The sense of dislocation and asymmetry and has a suggestiveness about it that has a lot of effects that are difficult to discern – it allows for investigation of different people, places and events without a requirement that it cohere into the whole, even though that kind of expectation of coherence is pretty hard, as a reader, to set aside.
There were some vignettes that were very striking as almost free-standing pieces of narrative: the Oxford sequence, Kitty’s party hosting and succeeding train ride home and eventual conclusion in the northern fields where “time had stopped,” and the huddled nervousness of an air raid during the Great War stood out most in my memory when I finished. The ending did not bring them all into focus or relief, and I don’t think it was really meant to.

The characters felt new, even though it was almost impossible not to try to draw analogies to earlier characters in other Woolf books. There was a strikingly refreshing lack of intellectualism among them – even Eleanor, though she clearly has a conscience, isn’t all that astute about it. Edward’s study of Greek ends up being more just something about his character than something the book uses to generate broader meaning. The “family resemblances” between the characters were subtly and powerfully drawn.

If this is a social novel, what is its broader point? There are lots of micro-level illustrations of the Pargiters’ different forms of hypocrisy, and the family definitely feels like a vision of England as a whole (or at least a class within it). But the overall takeaway for me was less that (accusing the upper-middle class of hypocrisy is hardly groundbreaking after all): more what I took was a sense of the atmosphere of the interwar years in England, the sense that something was dying which had no immediate replacement.

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