About five years ago I made it my mission to read all of Virginia Woolf's novels, and since then, I've been re-reading them. The Years was the final novel on the list, and not by coincidence; this, and it's 'non-fictional sister' Three Guineas have always been my least favourite of Woolf's works. I'm happy to say with a second read I came to like The Years.
Rather than focusing on women's creative lives as she had done in the brilliant A Room of One's Own (1929) Woolf focused in this novel and Three Guineas on their social and economic lives. In The Years Woolf follows the lives of the upper middle class Pargiter family from 1880 to 'the present day', which, my Penguin edition suggests, is about 1931-33. Each year has some relevance, for example 1880 was the year William Ewart Gladstone (Liberal) succeeded Benjamin Disraeli (Conservative) as Prime Minister; in 1910 Edward VII died, to be succeeded by George V; in 1914 the First World War began, and in 1918 it ended. Woolf writes almost in snapshots; as with life, there is no single unifying story line. Instead we read about Eleanor, Milly, Rose, and Delia Pargiter and their brothers Martin, Morris, and Edward in the various periods of their lives, and how it is not only personal factors but also social and political changes that impact upon their lives.
The concept of The Years is a brilliant one, I think. As in Mrs Dalloway, which is punctured by the chiming clocks, The Years is measured in the changing seasons. Woolf makes frequent references to time, weather, the seasons, and even astronomy. One particular passage I like is the opening of the final part, 'Present Day':
It was a summer evening; the sun was setting; the sky was blue still, but tinged with gold, as if a thin veil of gauze hung over it, and here and there in the gold-blue amplitude an island of cloud lay suspended. In the fields the trees stood majestically caparisoned, with their innumerable leaves gilt. Sheep and cows, pearl white and parti-coloured, lay recumbent or munched their way through the half transparent grass. An edge of light surrounded everything. A red-gold fume rose from the dust on the roads. Even the little red brick villas on the high roads had become porous, incandescent with light, and the flowers in cottage gardens, lilac and pink like cotton dresses, shone veined as if lit from within. Faces of people standing at cottage doors or padding along pavements showed the same red glow as they fronted the slowly sinking sun.
All, in fact, are beautiful; these details of nature and weather are effective, and recall Turgenev, an author Woolf very much admired. Her prose, as ever, is breathtaking, but however brilliant the concept, The Years doesn't quite work, nor does it come close to some of her finest works, To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway, and Orlando for example. Nevertheless The Years was a bestseller in its day, though now it is generally overlooked in favour of her earlier works, despite the similarities in outlook: the old and the new, and the transition through what was a difficult and remarkable period, both socially and literary. Certainly it is worth reading, but I think it would be a poor introduction to Woolf's writings.