Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Virginia Woolf, 1937, The Years

Virginia Woolf's novel 'The Years' foreshadows her 'Waves' - only this, her most popular novel, is more accessible, less stream-of-consciousness and a more straightforward, conventional narrative. The story treads lightly through the lives of a family, detailing a youth full of infinite promise, a staid middle age and a repetitive old age of a group of siblings. The shifting relationships, the tone of voice, the tendency to repeat a joke - she paints with a fine brush. The rush of time shocks one initially. This is twenty years later right? and the reader frantically riffles a few pages back. The passage of time that another author would underline with description of gray hair or changing furniture and habits here first flows from a title - 1870, 1890.

Then the changes become apparent. The questions about class, gender and convention lie just under the surface of a shimmering narrative. The older women fume about their restricted lives, while a young woman doctor yearns for a man who is not interested in her in the early part of the 20th century. The Kitty character is deeply attracted to the working class atmosphere of a friend's house, wishes that the brother of the friend who strolls in with a hammer would kiss her. She becomes the Establishment with a capital E, marrying a Duke who becomes India's viceroy or governor general. The colonial enterprise, the first world war make oblique entries into the text - the young man who tells his aunt he is joining the army, the dinner interrupted by an air raid warning over London and the many casual references to India. Eleanor, the spinster older sister visits the Continent, India, plans to visit China next.

There is a faint sadness about the passing of time, or is that brought to text by the reader herself? Is it the fear of mortality that animates the narrative? Or is it a paean to the loss of possibilities because of the restrictions of convention and class?

The children waiting for their mother to die dream of a new dawn at the beginning of the novel and the novel really closes with a dawn. At the end of a long ball a few decades later, the characters welcome the world awakening to itself. Only the dream has dissipated into the claret. The changes are barely visible, the dead dreams all about. Sardonic woman Woolf. How can one not love her?

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