Thick, wet snow fell steadily all day yesterday, covering cars, roads, trees, and roofs in white. It felt fitting for the weather to loom large as I finished reading Virginia Woolf’s The Years. Weather features prominently in the book, as it jumps from one year to another. In 1880, when the book opens, it’s rain; then in 1891, it’s the wind; in 1907, it’s the heat, and so on. A woman sees the rain out the window after looking up from her writing desk, a man contends with it as he walks home from the office. The shopkeeper, the cab driver, the theatre goer, the farmer, the nanny, all over the city and into the countryside, people go about living their disparate lives, connected by the indifferent weather.
The Pargiter family is at the center of the novel. We meet them — father Abel, dying wife Rose, and their five children — in 1880 and then revisit them, their cousins, and then their offspring in 1891, 1907, 1908, 1910, 1911,1914, 1917, 1918, ending in the present, so 1937-ish. Siblings Eleanor and Martin, maternal cousin Kitty, paternal cousin Sara, appear consistently across the years, while others disappear only to reappear at the end. (Reading it, I wondered how Woolf plotted this novel, how she decided what characters to feature and when.) There is a sense of disconnection throughout the book, of isolation, of frustration, of weariness. So many conversations are broken, disjointed, interrupted, incomplete. Characters reach for or aim for something, to transcend whatever keeps them locked in themselves, but so often it eludes them, although occasionally some small, fleeting understanding is reached. There are happy moments and sad. Big events and small. The ending does not bring resolution or satisfaction, just the knowledge that life goes on.
This was my first time reading The Years, and my first time reading Woolf in over a decade. It felt different from what I recall of To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. It was more detached in tone, more expansive in scope, and ostensibly more conventional in style, a family saga of sorts. Arguably it is the flip to Mrs. Dalloway. Instead of confining herself to exploring one day in the life of a person, Woolf follows several linked characters across time. It’s a different attempt at capturing life as it is really lived.
Woolf was 55 when she wrote The Years, firmly middle-aged, and close in age to a few of the characters. The passing of time feels like a middle-aged kind of subject. I’m 45, and I feel how time no longer travels in only one direction, how it’s possible to recall twenty years ago, and imagine twenty years ahead, how it’s easy to get lost in misguided nostalgia for the past or in a naive hope for the future. And there are personal questions to ponder: what do we carry with us over the years? What do we remember? And how much do we change as the world changes around us?
Overall, I enjoyed The Years, although I wouldn’t say I loved it as I’ve loved some of her others. Or I didn’t connect with it as strongly, which feels appropriate somehow to the book’s themes. Apparently it was her most popular novel during her life time, and some critics have described it as an indictment of Victorianism. That feels too sweeping and strong. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s looking at people who grew up at the end of the Victorian era and seeing what became of that generation.
A few other random notes:
- This is a very London novel. Characters travel up specific streets, around landmarks, through neighbourhoods. It’s the kind of book you could map.
- Woolf’s depiction of Jewish people is discomforting and anti-Semitic. No doubt this has been explored and discussed in academic articles. It was inevitably disappointing.
- Two new-to-me vocabulary words:
- comparison – (of a horse) be decked out in rich decorative coverings
- Fillip – something which acts as a stimulus or boost to an activity
- And finally, a quotation
- “They were two living people driving across London; two sparks of life enclosed in two separate bodies; and those sparks of life enclosed in two separate bodies are at this moment, she thought, driving past a picture palace. But what is this moment; and what are we?”