The Years: Woolf’s Interesting Failure

oup-the-yearsI’m about three quarters of the way through my second reading of Woolf’s The Years. It is still pretty slow going for me, slower than before even because instead of wondering what the heck is happening (or, as more often seems to be the case in the novel, not happening) I am trying to figure it out with the help of the various sources I’ve been reading around in and also the amply introduced and copiously annotated Cambridge edition–of its 870 pages, only 388 are actually The Years. That’s not really a sufficient excuse for my not having read once more to the end, though: the truth is that The Years engages me much more in theory than in practice. I quite like reading about it, but I (still) don’t much like reading it.

I don’t think The Years is a failure because I don’t enjoy it, however. I am pretty careful about not assuming my own taste is a reliable measure of literary quality! (Just what is a reliable measure of literary quality I’m not sure anyone knows, but that’s another matter. Or maybe not, as the rest of this post may show.) I think it’s a failure partly because Woolf herself thought so: “Its going to be pretty bad, I’m certain,” she wrote in her diary about the book’s impending publication; ” … but at the same time I myself know why its a failure, & that its failure is deliberate.” But I don’t think we know exactly what she meant by calling it a “deliberate” failure. In her biography of Woolf, Hermione Lee offers a plausible explanation:

Because of her horror of propaganda, her feeling that art should subsume politics, and her fear of being laughed at, a good deal of the book’s explicit argument is buried. And so The Years is a kind of crippled text, which disables itself while writing about a disabled society.

Notice, though, that Lee doesn’t quite allow the novel to be a straight-up failure: instead, she ends up proposing a neat fit between form and theme that actually makes it sound like The Years is kind of a success–a successfully imperfect artistic representation of a broken society.

Penguin YearsI would explain the novel’s failure on similar terms as Lee but with less subtlety: The Years is a failure because (deliberately or not) Woolf’s theory of the novel (including “her feeling that art should subsume politics”) was genuinely incompatible with her aims for this particular novel. She wanted (and this is pretty clear from what I’ve read of her diaries around this period) to write a “novel of purpose” (defined by Amanda Claybaugh in The Novel of Purpose as a novel “that sought to intervene  in the contemporary world”). It seems plausible, and some scholars make this connection explicitly, that she was motivated to breach the wall between art and politics because of Winifred Holtby’s analysis of her fiction, as well as because of her own ongoing anger about social and political circumstances. She wanted to make a decisive move into the world of facts: “what has happened of course,” she writes in her diary in 1932, “is that after abstaining from the novel of fact all these years … I find myself infinitely delighting in facts for a change, and in possession of quantities beyond counting: though I feel now and then the tug to vision, but resist it.” Unable, quite, to abandon her conviction that fact and fiction are not truly compatible, she began her new novel as a hybrid form, a “novel-essay” called The Pargiters, but over the course of the next few years she excised (or, as she put it, “submerged”) the explanatory portions: “What I want to do is reduce it all so that each sentence, though perfectly natural dialogue, has a great pressure of meaning behind it.” The essay impulse was redirected into Three Guineas, and the novel portion became The Years.

claybaughI’m not saying anything original about that process, which is well known. I’m just trying to clarify why I think (and why I think Woolf thinks) the result is a failure. “How to do that will be one of the problems,” she comments in her diary early in the writing process; “I mean the intellectual argument in the form of art: I mean how give ordinary waking Arnold Bennett life the form of art? These are rich hard problems for my four months ahead.” My take is simply that she did not solve these problems, or she refused to solve them, because she could not reconcile her means with her end. To put it bluntly, she could not bring herself to write the kind of fiction that would get the job done. Fiction can’t intervene effectively in contemporary life if nobody knows what you mean by it. Burying the meaning, as she did (“the rest under water”), however artistically consistent, is polemically (politically) stifling, or at least muffling. Obscurity is incompatible with activism.

I’m not saying The Years is not an intervention in contemporary life; I’m saying it is a failed intervention. There’s plenty of critical commentary now explaining (or purporting to) the political implications of the ellipses and gaps and silences and lies in The Years; there are critical editions that fill in the explanations Woolf did not (would not) provide for her many brief and often oblique references to historical and current events and controversies. The novel itself, however, utterly fails to convey the relevance (and sometimes barely even registers the presence) of this material. Though The Years actually sold reasonably well (apparently because people mistook it for a “family saga,” which it kind of is and really isn’t), there’s no evidence that it was hailed on publication as a radical critique of patriarchal norms, militarism, or anything else. “No one,” Woolf wrote, as the (generally positive) reviews began to appear, “has yet seen the point–my point.”

honourable-estate.jpgThough  Holtby may be the pivot on which Woolf’s failure turns, it’s Vera Brittain’s Honourable Estate, not Holtby’s South Riding, that provides the most illuminating comparison to The Years, because it illustrates the perils of doing just what Woolf wouldn’t do: explaining everything. Where The Years (as many critics have noted) takes but subverts the form of the family saga, Honourable Estate embraces it. It covers nearly the same span of time as The Years and many of the same issues (the suffrage movement, the war, challenges to patriarchal dominance in the family, the hazards of sexuality, especially for young women, etc.). I wrote about Honourable Estate here before (here and here). If anything, my estimation of it as a work of art has gone down since that initial assessment, which is saying something considering I described it then as “effortful and long-winded.” Everything Woolf wanted to lurk below the surface of the action is in plain sight in Honourable Estate. It is the fictional equivalent of an earnest and well-researched but badly acted docudrama with mediocre production values. It is fairly interesting as a dramatization of social movements, with characters designed to exemplify its conflicts; there is some effective scene setting and some good description. But its purpose is so clear and its movement so plodding that it has almost no life as a novel.

The_YearsHere’s just one of many potential examples showing how differently these novels approach the same material. Both include sections that take place in 1908, the year of the great “Women’s Sunday” demonstration for women’s suffrage. In its explanatory note for the 1908 chapter of The Years, the Cambridge edition tells us that “the WSPU adopted purple, green and white as its official colours in this year, and in June held a 300,000-strong ‘Women’s Sunday’ rally in Hyde Park.” In the novel itself, Rose Pargiter arrives to visit her sister Eleanor with “a scratch on her chin”; “she had been holding meetings in the North,” we’re told, and a bit later,

They began to discuss politics. She had been speaking at a by-election. A stone had been thrown at her; she put her hand to her chin. But she had enjoyed it.

“I think we gave ’em something to think about,” she said, breaking off another piece of cake.

She ought to have been the soldier, Eleanor thought.

The Cambridge edition offers nearly two full pages of notes explicating this short scene, including information about Ethel Smyth, the model for Rose; details of the WSPU’s political activities; and details about the influence of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene on Woolf’s “thinking on women, militarism and suffrage activism.” (Of course, The Faerie Queene! What, that isn’t what came immediately to mind for you when you read that passage?) There is no mention at all in the novel of the Hyde Park rally.


Nearly four full pages of Honourable Estate, in contrast, are taken up with Janet Rutherford’s attendance, first at the march (“walking, in her capacity as unrepresented taxpayer, just behind the Fulham Prize Band”) and then at the demonstration:

Standing stiffly to attention with her banner, Janet felt deliriously dizzy as her senses absorbed the compelling animation of that vital stream. Looking at the throng surging back and forth to the boundaries of the Park, she shared the exhilarating consciousness of the individual lost in the mass, the glory of anonymous effort and sacrifice.

“This,” she reflected excitedly, “is the invincible force which is going to count! The contemptuous smiles that greeted us from windows and balconies represented a traditional, unreasoning antagonism which cannot stand for ever against this united determination!”

“We are out to win the vote!” exclaims one of the speakers; “We are effecting a complete revolution in the whole conception and attitude of men to women and of women to their own womanhood!” “The attitude of men to women! Yes,” thinks Janet, eagerly listening, “it will be harder to change that than to get the vote. Will it ever alter widely, and if so, how soon?” The final part of the novel, as I described in my earlier post, gives a moderately positive answer: “‘To-day men and women, but especially women, live in a very different world from that of 1870, or 1900, or 1910.”

pride-and-prejudice-penguinIn that earlier post on Honourable Estate I discussed Marion Shaw’s essay “Feminism and Fiction between the Wars: Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf,” saying that it “cautions us (me!) against underestimating the art of a novel like Honourable Estate.” Throwing that caution to the wind, I will say frankly that I think Honourable Estate is not a good novel (see, I knew we’d work our way back to the problem of measuring literary quality). It just seems so painfully obvious from start to finish! On its own terms, though, I’m not sure it is actually a failure. Unlike Woolf, Brittain had an uncompromised mission as a novelist. In her own foreword to Honourable Estate, Brittain explains,

I have tried to leave a truthful impression of certain changes and movements–and especially of the social revolution that has so deeply affected the position of women and their status in marriage and other human relationships … I have not sought to draw conclusions so much as to give imaginative life to the struggles, doubts, fears, misgivings and experiments of men and women passing through a period of rapid and momentous transition in manners and morals.

George Henry Lewes said Jane Austen was “the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end.” Given that description of Brittain’s goals–which conspicuously do not include beauty of language, formal innovation, or other qualities we might simply call “aesthetic” ones–it is possible that she too qualifies as a great artist. (The argument pro or con would presumably stand or fall on that phrase “imaginative life.”)

Penguin-RomolaWhat an uncomfortable conclusion, though: even if I’m reluctant to let Woolf (or Austen) set the evaluative terms, I find it hard to concede that literary merit consists solely of doing  whatever it is that you set out to do. I have argued (at some length!) about Romola that its failure was a sign of George Eliot’s ambition and thus ought to be cherished: “If consistent “mastery” requires playing it safe, perhaps we should actually consider failure part of, rather than a problem for, our standard of artistic greatness.” I’m not sure I feel the same way about The Years, but I do find its failure more intellectually interesting than Brittain’s (arguable) success.

As for which book I’d rather reread, well, at this point it’s a tie: I still haven’t finished reading either of them for a second time.

2 thoughts on “The Years: Woolf’s Interesting Failure

  1. Scott Bailey June 5, 2019 / 12:44 pm

    I think I understand what Woolf means by “success” in this context. Last year I completed a draft of a new novel. One of my goals for this book was to have a section that read like the majority of English turn-of-the-century adventure narratives (which is to say, a bit dry, overly concerned with details, and emotionally distant–or “stiff upper lippy” if you prefer). I certainly achieved that goal with the section in question (1/3 of the novel), so it was a success in terms of following the original formal/stylistic plan. Unfortunately, that sort of writing does not make for compelling fiction, and I’ve been spending the last couple of months rewriting all of it to bring it to life. So success without literary merit, which is, yes, still a failure.

    • Rohan Maitzen June 7, 2019 / 9:46 am

      That’s so interesting. What feels like ‘life’ to one reader isn’t guaranteed to translate to another, either. I suppose it’s also possibly true that ‘life’ is not an essential quality of every kind of fiction: other properties might count more.

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