25 June 2019

The Years by Virginia Woolf

I've just counted the number of pages I filled with notes while reading this book.....thirteen!  Possibly a new record for me when it comes to note-taking for sheer pleasure.  With the streets bustling around St. James's in the first paragraph before moving into an upper middle-class home a few sentences later, I was hooked from the very first page.

'The gates at the Marble Arch and Apsley House were blocked in the afternoon by ladies in many-coloured dresses wearing bustles, and by gentlemen in frock-coats carrying canes, wearing carnations.  Here comes the Princess, and as she passed hats were lifted.  In the basements of the long avenues of the residential quarters servant girls in cap and apron prepared tea.  Deviously ascending from the basement, the silver teapot was placed on the table, and virgins and spinsters with hands that had staunched the sore of Bermondsey and Hoxton carefully measured out one, two, three, four spoonfuls of tea.  When the sun went down a million little gaslights, shaped like the eyes in peacocks' feathers, opened in their glass cages, but nevertheless broad stretches of darkness were left on the pavement.'

And that's why I've come to adore Woolf's writing.  The reader is every bit as much of a spectator as the characters in the story.  The sound of the tea leaves falling into the pot come alive and in that moment I'm not bothered about what happens next because I'm quite happy to soak up the beauty of the moment.  Although the story of the Pargiters, and in particular Eleanor, do make for a satisfying glimpse into late nineteenth century London and the swiftly changing times of the Edwardian era.

It's 1880 and Colonel Pargiter has left Abercorn Terrace to visit his mistress in a lesser neighbourhood of London.  In contrast to the tidy doorways of home, Mira's flat always has a smell and dirty clothes on the line.  Still, it's a distraction from his terminally ill wife who lies in her bed, hovering between life and death.  Colonel Pargiter wearily contemplates...His wife was dying; but she did not die.  Their seven children, the youngest only twelve, are coincidentally equal in number to the combined children in Virginia Woolf's childhood including stepchildren.

As the years pass, the Pargiter siblings leave for university, get married, decide not to marry, and in Rose's case become politically motivated to fight for the right to vote.  Eventually she is incarcerated for throwing a brick through a window and there's mention of force feedings.  In a style I'm becoming familiar with, Woolf never delves too deeply into the thoughts of any one character but  instead chooses to let the reader listen in on conversations.  Although, Eleanor's views on repeat pregnancies and poverty are all too clear while inspecting a boarding house....

   'The door was opened by Mrs Toms, the downstairs lodger.   Oh dear, thought Eleanor, observing the slant of her apron, another baby coming, after all I told her.'

The chapters are labeled by significant years; each with an opening paragraph about the weather.  I found the short chapter of 1913 heartbreaking when Crosby, the Pargiter's housekeeper, leaves the family after forty years to move to lodgings in Richmond.  Initially I thought she was beginning a well-deserved retirement, but instead Crosby is a cleaning lady who has to scrub the tub of a 'foreigner' who regularly spits in the bath. 

In 1914, Maggie and her husband host a dinner that has to be moved to the basement when the guns and bombs begin to blare.  They calmly chart the destruction by the proximity of the booms....first in Hampstead then Embankment.  And with the courage we associate with the British during wartime....

   'It didn't come to much, did it?'  said Sara.  She was tilting back her chair as she held out her glass.'   'Ah, but we were frightened,' said Nicholas.  'Look - how pale we all are.'   They looked at each other.  Draped in their quilts and dressing-gowns, against the grey-green walls, they all looked whitish, greenish.     'It's partly the light,' said Maggie.  'Eleanor,' she said, looking at her, 'looks like an abbess.'

At various times throughout the story I felt that Virginia was reflecting herself in the character of Eleanor.  Towards the end, Eleanor wonders to herself...

'But why do I notice everything? she thought.  She shifted her position.  Why must I think?  She did not want to think.  She wished there were blinds like those in railway crriages that came down over the light and hooded the mind.  The blue blind that one pulls down on a night journey, she thought.  Thinking was torment; why not give up thinking, and drift and dream?

At its most simplistic, this is the story of a family living their lives and going about their business.  But Eleanor does realize that she used to be the youngest person on the omnibus, but now she is the oldest.  The portraits of the matriarch and patriarch of the family hanging on the wall eventually become nothing more than pieces of art to the young visiting Abercorn Terrace.  The central characters at the beginning of the story have faded away, replaced by the next generation, and so it goes.

   'The years changed things, destroyed things; heaped things up - worries and bothers; here they were again.'

Published in 1937, The Years sold extremely well.  Why it isn't more popular today is a mystery as it's very accessible and the descriptions of London are beautifully captured.  I could start it all over again.  Highly recommended!

Two Women Having Tea by Frank S. Desch


  1. Oh yes! Thank you for mentioning this. I haven't read it, and I'm sure I can relate. "Why do I notice everything...?"

    1. Perhaps it's an ingredient in the DNA of writers, but in Virginia's case something of a blessing seems to have been a bit of a curse.
      Have a lovely day, Susan!

  2. It sounds just wonderful! I have read Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse - would this be a good one of Woolf's to read next?

    1. Most definitely! A Voyage Out was another very easy read but for London porn, The Years is going to tick a lot of boxes. Go for it, Anbolyn!