Non-Accredited Book Reviews: Virginia Woolf.

Woolf, Virginia. The Years. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

The Years, during her lifetime Virginia Woolf’s most popular novel, is one of the most powerful indictments of ‘Victorianism’ ever written. Its first part follows the fortunes of the Pargiters, a middle-class London family, from 1880 to 1917: Colonel Abel Pargiter, hag-ridden by his invalid wife and fly-blown mistress; and all his children, fighting to escape a social system with a fixed pattern of repression.

The second part finds the children grown up in the 1930s, ostensibly independent, but spiritually maimed by their upbringing…the Victorian patriarchy has died to leave its successors willing to re-make society, but drained of the power to formulate a new system.

This description, which I’ve taken from the back cover of the Penguin edition, was the determining factor in following my reading of Orlando with The Years. Intrigued by the former work’s brief portrayal of the Victorian period, The Years seemed the most likely text to expand upon that critique. As with most of Woolf’s writing, however, The Years cannot be easily summed up in 150 words or so. This work is much more than a critique of Victorianism.

To begin, I would suggest that The Years is divided into three, rather than two distinct sections[i]: the first third of the work (104 pages) covers the years 1880 to 1891, the second third of the work (140 pages) covers the years 1907 to 1918, while the final third of the work (101 pages) covers a single evening in the “Present Day” (likely indicating c.1937 when The Years was first printed). The text, then, can be roughly divided into “Victorian,” early modernist, and late modernist “eras”.

The “Victorian” segment of the book takes as its central characters Colonel Pargiter, his wife Rose, his mistress Mira, and his seven children: Eleanor, Edward, Rose, Delia, Martin, Milly, and Morris. Among others introduced are Pargiter’s niece Kitty, his sister Eugenie (her husband Digby, and children Sarah/Sally and Maggie) and the Pargiter servant, Crosby. The early “modernist” section of the book shifts to focus on the seven children, their own spouses and children, Maggie and Sarah, and Eleanor’s friend Nicholas. The text, then, critiques not one, but two distinct generations of the extended Pargiter family (its servants, in-laws, and friends), bringing them together in the final party in “present day” (by this time Eleanor, the eldest of the Pargiter children, is in her eighties, and grandchildren Peggy and North, who observe most of the evening, are well in their thirties).

The physical juxtaposition of two generations in a single house during the final party mirrors the juxtaposition of the two generations in the first two segments of the text, and allows the reader to contrast two distinct versions of “spiritual maim[ing]” which the cover summary identifies as the result of Victorian patriarchy.

Certainly, the Pargiter children’s ability to meaningfully communicate with each other is destroyed by their Victorian upbringing. The text formally reveals this inability to communicate: most of the work is divided into segments of third-person present accounts of each character’s thoughts (that is, through an omniscient narrator, the reader learns what they are thinking, but none of the other characters are allowed this knowledge). When the characters do “speak” with each other, it comes in the form of impersonal pleasantries and truncated thoughts in which nothing critical is communicated:

‘I know,’ she said guiltily. I haven’t been to Papa lately. But then there’s always something –‘ She hesitated.

‘Naturally,’ said Mrs. Malone, ‘with a man in your father’s position…’ Kitty sat silent. They both sat silent. They both disliked this petty bickering; they both detested these recurring scenes; and yet they seemed inevitable. Kitty got up, took the letter she had written and put them in the hall.

What does she want? Mrs. Malone asked herself, looking up at the picture without seeing it. When I was her age…she thought, and smiled. (67)

Frustrated by their inability to communicate, and yet unable (or unwilling) to break their silence with each other, the children retreat into an internal space of selfish cynicism. This retreat, however, leaves them unable to cope with trauma. Preoccupied with the looming death of their mother, Eleanor finds herself unable to comfort her sister Rose (“‘Have you been chasing cats again?’ she asked […] they mind it just as much as you would,’ she said. But she knew that Rose’s fright had nothing to do with the cats.” 35). Similarly, young Delia, unable to communicate her confusing anger towards her dying mother (“You’re not going to die — you’re not going to die!’ said Delia bitterly, looking up at her,” 38), becomes almost completely alienated from her family in the remainder of the work (of the seven children, she appears the least in The Years).

When the children are grown, they find themselves clinging to fleeting memories of their siblings as children (the image of Milly spreading the candle wick with her hat-pin is a recurring one), and when they meet it is as strangers (And who’s that [Martin] thought, looking at someone who was standing against one of the pillars. Don’t I know her?’ Her lips were moving. She was talking to herself. ‘It’s Sally! he thought”, 184).

Yet Woolf does not portray these characters with pity or contempt only; amongst the heaps of references to the parties and fashions (and fashionable parties for various “causes”) that characterise the children’s lives, the reader has the sense that they are also part of the social and political revolutions of the time: Eleanor’s volunteer work for the poor during her youth, her brief visit to a low-income apartment block she oversees, details of Rose’s apartment in a poor London neighbourhood where she works on behalf of the Irish cause, or the children’s dismay that “Parnell* is dead!” (92) all indicate their interest in social reform. [ii]

The Pargiter children’s engagement with social and political reform, while limited and (at times) superficial, contrasts with the attitudes of the following generation who, in their thirties, seem incapable of participating in any type of reform at all. The third generation of the Pargiter family is mainly represented by Peggy and and her brother, North, during the final segment of the text. Peggy, freed from the Victorian period’s oppression of women, is a doctor, yet spends the evening scrutinising the party with derision, denying even the worth of her own achievements (‘Oh, doctors are great humbugs,’ she threw out at random,” 287), until she finally bursts out in angry futility:

‘Here you all are — talking about North –‘ He looked up at her in surprise. It was not what she had in meant to say, but she must go on now that she had begun. Their faces gaped at her like birds with their mouths open. ‘…How he’s to live, where he’s to live,’ she went on. ‘…But what’s the use, what’s the point of saying that?’ […] ‘What’s the use?’ she said, facing him. ‘You’ll marry. You’ll have children. What’ll you do then? Make money. Write little books to make money….’ (314)

Peggy denies any possibility of social change. The reader might attempt to justify Peggy’s views as realistic and generative: perhaps in revealing the naiveity of the previous generation’s optimism she creates a space where real revolution can begin. This outcome doesn’t seem likely, however, given her family’s willingness to ignore her outburst. Too, Peggy’s pessimism seems a bit of a disservice to the feminist reform that has succeeded in creating the opportunity to enter the medical field. Peggy begins to look less of a realist and more of an outright cynic, one who is far angrier than any of the Pargiter children are throughout the text.

One wonders if the war, rather than patriarchy, is not the main cause of Peggy’s cynicism. This event, which marks the end of the second segment of the book, is barely mentioned while it occurs: when it is mentioned, as in “1917,” the children seem inured to it, more worried about the inconvenience of not having servants during the London bombings. The Pargiter grandchildren, however, seem entirely broken by the event. North, having served in the war, questions the value of his education and, more quietly than his sister, queries “the point” of his existence. Peggy sees the violence of the war reflected in the every day:

how can one be ‘happy’? she asked herself, in a world bursting with misery. On every placard, in every street corner was Death; or worse — tyranny; brutality; torture; the fall of civilization; the end of freedom. We here, she thought, are only sheltering under a leaf, which will be destroyed. And then Eleanor says the world is better, because two people out of all these millions are ‘happy’. (312)

Yet Peggy’s catalogue of the miseries of the world are not generated by the war, nor limited to her era: the tyranny of wealthy over the poor, the oppression of women, English brutality towards the Irish exist in the Victorian period, just as the tyranny of English Colonialism in Africa, and the brutality of World War One exist in Peggy’s time, and Peggy and North’s frustration at their inability to express these outrages parallels the Pargiter children’s inability to express their shared grief and anger during their mother’s extended death.

Humans, The Years suggests, will always find themselves unable to communicate (let alone combat) their suffering because, once one has acquired the wisdom to understand suffering, and the vocabulary to express it, one is already too old: life, as Eleanor realises, is “too short, too broken” (343). Finally, humans will only rarely, as North realises, acquire the courage to attempt to express their loneliness and suffering:

He can’t say what he wants to say; he’s afraid. They’re all afraid; afraid of being laughed at; afraid of giving themselves away. […] We’re all afraid of each other, he though; afraid of what? Of criticism; of laughter; of people who think differently….He’s afraid of me because I’m a farmer […] And I’m afraid of him because he’s clever. […] That’s what separates us: fear, he thought. (333)

Like Peggy’s catalogue of miseries, North’s catalogue of the things of which humans are afraid is neither limited to, nor produced by, any particular era, whether Victorian, modern, or contemporary. The text’s critique, then, is universal, rather than an indictment of a particular time.

The Years, then, is essentially a rewriting (and extension) of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Indeed, she quotes the title phrase in the third segment of her work, transposing the Nelly‘s descent into the Congo jungle onto North’s descent into the final party: “He felt that he had been in the middle of a jungle; in the heart of darkness; cutting his way towards the light; but provided only with broken sentences, broken words, with which to break through the briar bush of human bodies, human wills and voices, that bent over him, binding him, blinding him” (330-331). While Conrad’s novella, however, critiques a problem that is “over there,” though possessing an identifiable cause (the terror of uncontrolled colonial power free from law), Woolf’s text suggests that the political, legal and social institutions which cause suffering can be endlessly replaced: the real cause is, as Conrad chillingly states in book one of his novella, that “we live, as we dream — alone.” [iii]

Despite the fact that humans will never be able to fully communicate with each other, and despite the flawed institutions which will always exist, causing suffering, and further hampering communication, it is important, Woolf’s text also seems to urge, not to “live in dreams […] alone” (The Years, 298). To divorce oneself from one’s environment and live (as Sarah does [iv]) in an idealised fiction or (as Peggy does) as a detached cynic, is irresponsible. The Years, however, does not seem entirely certain of how to live responsibly. Though the party creates a space for a dying Eleanor to realise that “There must be another life […] Not in dreams; but here and now, in this room, with living people” (343), for most of the guests, the party is a frivolity. Finally, though Eleanor may leave to the light of the early morning, it is also the light of a dying autumn, and one which leaves her — and the reader — wondering in a melancholic fashion : “And now?” (349)

End Notes:

[i] distinct sections. This divide is somewhat arbitrary considering Woolf does not divide the text into “sections”. The largest leaps forward in time however, occur between the years 1891 and 1907, and 1918 and c.1937, and are marked, too, by the alterations I’ve indicated in the “cast of characters”.

[ii] social reform. This interest is marred, though, by details like Eleanor’s shortsightedness in letting their elderly and deformed housekeeper, Crosby, go without providing her a substantial pension. Crosby is forced to make her living manually cleaning apartments for wealthier residents.

[iii] dream– alone.” My 19th-century books are currently buried under an infestations of interlibrary loans; I’ll settle for referring to the Project Gutenberg online version here.

[iv] as Sarah does. No, I can’t distinguish between all these names either. Sarah is one of Colonel Pargiter’s nieces and Peggy and North’s Aunt (making Eleanor, Rose, Martin, etc. their first cousins, once removed). If Martin can’t keep track, though, we needn’t worry about it, overmuch.

27 July 2008 ~ St. Catharines

Glossary of Terms:

Parnell, Charles Stewart. n. nom. (1846-1891). Founder of the Irish Parliamentary Party in the UK, and advocate of Irish Home Rule.

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