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Sunday, 15 February 2015

Reading Woolf: The Years

In embarking on a thorough reading of Woolf’s works, The Years was one of the books I was most interested in. I’m not sure why this is; perhaps it was something to do with reading Woolf’s diaries in which she spent so much time talking about her book ‘The Pargiters’, as it was originally titled; a book she spent a considerable amount of time writing and about which she was so conflicted. Coming down from something as extraordinary as The Waves, it’s perhaps not surprising that this change in direction caused Woolf so much angst. This was also the book that Leonard Woolf lied to her about for fear that telling her it was a failure would send her spiralling into a further bout of depression. This alone generates a certain degree of intrigue.

The Years is an historical novel, charting the fortunes of a family – The Pargiters of the original title – over the pre and post Great War period. The Pargiters are a ‘well to do’ family, well connected and reasonably wealthy. The novel opens as Mrs Pargiter, who has been unwell for some time, is dying. Awaiting her death are her husband Colonel Abel Pargiter (who we learn, very early on, has a mistress) and her children: Eleanor, Morris, Martin, Milly, Delia and Rose. Edward, the eldest Pargiter, is away at university. As Mrs Pargiter dies we learn key distinctions in the personalities of the children, with two in particular standing out: Eleanor who reacts with compassion both towards her mother and to her small sister Rose who has suffered a fright, and Delia who is the only one who reacts with relief and an apparent lack of sadness at her mother’s death.

“’It has come,’ Delia said to herself, ‘it has come!’ An extraordinary feeling of relief and excitement possessed her. Her father was pacing from one drawing-room to the other; she followed him in; but she avoided him. They were too much alike; each knew what the other was feeling.”

Delia senses both her own desire for her mother’s death and her father’s, whilst the others react more standardly with tears and open sadness. It is a notable distinction, created with a few, well placed, sentences.

Having established the character of Delia so clearly, she then disappears from the book almost entirely until the end. Aside from hints of some sort of disgrace, we know nothing of what happens to Delia after this point. Instead the book focuses largely on Eleanor, the eldest daughter who stays with her father, who never marries, who travels the world by herself. It is, perhaps, the most interesting part of The Years that it focuses largely on the fortunes of the female characters – these being the people least likely to achieve anything, the ones who would stay home from the war, who would not sit at the Bar or enter commerce or government or hold a distinguished post at a university. We learn about Kitty, a cousin of the Pargiters, whom Edward wished to marry but who married Lord Lasswade in line with her mother’s wishes. There is always the sense about Kitty that she suited the life that she chose (or was chosen for her) yet it was not the life that she wanted. There are Sara (also known as Sally, I found this very confusing) and Maggie; more cousins, one of which married a Frenchman and the other of which is a storyteller, a kind of fantasist who doesn’t seem to do anything in particular (yet she is very interesting all the same). There is Rose who goes to prison for throwing a brick, Rose the activist who appears, like Delia, more often through rumour and reference than in direct presence.

Through the eyes of these female characters, disenfranchised and limited in their options despite their wealth and status, we see the world changing. Yet it is Eleanor, I think, who embodies the most interest in this book. Eleanor is there from beginning to end. She suffers ennui, she furrows her small path through life always observing if not partaking in the events that occur. She reflects on subjects like marriage, like life, like war yet there is always the sense that Eleanor is outside all of these things. As she reflects here:

“My life, she said to herself. That was odd, it was the second time that evening that somebody had talked about her life. And I haven’t got one, she thought. Oughtn’t a life to be something you could handle and produce? – a life of seventy odd years. But I’ve only the present moment, she thought. Here she was alive, now, listening to the fox-trot. Then she looked round. There was Morris; Rose; Edward with his head thrown back talking to a man she did not know. I’m the only person here, he thought, who remembers how he sat on the edge of my bed that night, crying – the night Kitty’s engagement was announced. Yes, things came back to her. A long strip of life lay behind her. Edward crying, Mrs. Levy talking; snow falling; a sunflower with a crack in it; the yellow omnibus trotting along the Bayswater Road. And I thought to myself, I’m the youngest person in this omnibus; now I’m the oldest…Millions of things came back to her. Atoms danced apart and massed themselves. But how did they compose what people called a life? She clenched her hands and felt the hard little coins she was holding. Perhaps there’s “I” at the middle of it, she thought; a knot; a centre; and again she saw herself sitting at her table drawing on the blotting-paper, digging little holes from which spokes radiated. Out and out they went; thing followed thing, scene obliterated scene. And then they say, she thought, “We’ve been talking about you!””

Is The Years a failure? Compared to the poetic masterpiece that is The Waves, I think I can understand the judgement. The Years is a long book, yet it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Unlike Woolf’s more challenging works (and arguably, brilliant), it is a very easy book to read, quite entertaining and it flows very easily. Despite its length, it didn’t take very long to read. So it felt lightweight, compared to her other works. And this is perhaps the source of the problem with The Years, it fails by comparison.

That doesn’t mean to say I felt the book a failure in itself. It includes Woolf’s excellent characterisation, her insights and ranging eye. She continues to stab characters down in a few words, pinning them like a butterfly to a board with lightning quick observations. Her focus on the feminine experience, remembering that this covered a period during which women did not have the vote, and she shows how it is possible – through the characters of Eleanor and Rose – to exercise a political influence in spite of the lack of traditional franchisement. It is a lesson, perhaps, to those who throw out those pithy remarks about voting ‘I don’t know why people don’t vote; it’s their only chance to have a say in the political landscape’ when in fact this book shows that there are a myriad ways to be politically active, rather than simply putting an ‘X’ in a box once every 5 years. Perhaps the problem with The Years is that it covers so much ground that the focus become lost, the meaning hovers somewhere in the air above the book and its power is curtailed as a result.

I don’t think The Years is a failure. I think if I had read it before Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse or The Waves I would have thought more highly of it. And perhaps it is one of those books that benefits from re-reading, from slow and detailed examination. It was a pleasurable book to read, enjoyable in a way Woolf’s works often aren’t. It wasn’t a failure, and I don’t think it was a book that Woolf should have been depressed about. The problem is that Woolf had set the bar so high. For any novelist of calibre, this book stands up as an accomplished piece of work. For a writer of Woolf’s calibre, perhaps it does not.


The Years receives an enjoyable 7 out of 10 Biis.