I’m not completely sure how I feel about Virginia Woolf – despite this being the fifth** of her books that I’ve now read I still regard her works with suspicion due largely to the tedious boredom that I encountered on my first attempt to read Mrs Dalloway. However, when I gave it a second chance a few years later I managed to get through it and even (grudgingly) liked it (a bit); since then I did find myself enjoying To the Lighthouse but to be honest both the Waves and (especially) Orlando were just a struggle to get through and I didn’t really come away with much more of a lasting impression of them than that.
The Years follows a middle class London family from the 1880’s through to the 1930’s: the Pargiters (Colonel Pargiter, his dying wife and their seven children), their cousins and subsequently their spouses and children as the novel progresses. The initial family dynamic is not completely what you’d expect – one daughter, Delia, eagerly anticipates her mother’s death and believes her father (who has a mistress we see him visiting early in the first chapter) feels the same. The family is already somewhat divided, with one son up at Oxford and another training to be a lawyer, the eldest daughter, Eleanor, involved in charity work and the youngest, Rose, only 12. At first we jump quickly through the decades, lurching from 1880 to 1891, then to 1907 when chapters tick on year by year, showing more gradual changes; but in doing so we are able to see the children’s growth accelerated, thus Rose quickly becomes an adult activist and Eleanor seems to go from her early 20’s straight to spinsterhood (which is perhaps a bit unkind, because she doesn’t seem unhappy but to me “spinster” does carry that connotation). I’m not sure that I’m selling this all that well – which is something of a misrepresentation because I did actually get through this quite quickly without much tedium, but to be honest I don’t think that the story particularly gripped me. For me I think the most illuminating moment was the Pargisters’ servant, Crosby, moving into her own lodgings following the father’s death and hanging pictures of the family on her wall after having served them for 40 years and (seemingly) having no other life or loves, which I found saddening (especially given Martin’s – her favourite – flippant attitude towards her when she comes to collect some laundry from him).
I suppose one thing that was interesting was the way the characters and their relationships evolved through the years – the novel focuses largely on Eleanor who, following her father’s death, seems to travel most of the continent and then on to India in her much later life; and then in later chapters on Peggy (struggling to remember all the tenuous family connections…) one of Morris’s children, who is a doctor and finds herself unable to express herself at Delia’s party at the end. North and Martin (I think) spend time living abroad “in the colonies”, as does (cousin ?) Kitty, while Edward wiles his life away in Oxford and another daughter, Milly (who seems annoying although we only really glimpse her briefly in the first chapter) becomes really fat. I suppose I’m trying to say that I liked the way the family spread out and then comes back together again and how they all end up old (with a slightly disillusioned Peggy trying to comprehend how they could ever have fallen in love) despite their different lives – some being more conventionally interesting, while some more unconventional (like their cousin Sally, who seems to have a lose grasp on reality that’s not really properly explored – or at least not in a way that was basic enough for me to properly follow – but I was glad to see her being championed by the younger members of the family). Ultimately I think I’m clutching at straws a bit here, and although I do appreciate Virginia Woolf’s writing I don’t think I’ll ever be her biggest fan.
*In crossing this off the list I realised I missed Orlando – which I distinctly remember reading and not enjoying one summer, so this boosts the total up to 295 instead of 294
**See above, I think it’s probably a good reflection of my feelings towards her that I managed to miss one of them out of my total count – although in saying that I’m a bit surprised because it’s generally the more tedious novels that I do remember and am keener to cross off (to avoid having to accidentally read them again).