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The Years [Secure eReader]
eBook by Virginia Woolf

eBook Category: Classic Literature
eBook Description: A stirring, straightforward work written near the end of her luminous career, Virginia Woolf's The Years is a portrait of the Pargiters, a staid London family presided over by Colonel Abel Pargiter. In some ways, "portrait" is not an entirely appropriate word, because Woolf's subject in this novel (and an abiding concern in all of her works) is fluidity and flux: the movement of the seasons and years, the experience of maturing and growing old, and the pain of change, passing, and loss. Although it spans a fifty year period, it is not an epic novel in the sense that Mann's Buddenbrooks or Tolstoy's War and Peace are epic. The fifty years under consideration in The Years are not continuously narrated; instead, the novel deals with only certain years--1880, 1891, 1908, 1911, 1914, 1917 and "The Present Day"--punctuated with large gaps of time in between. At each new juncture, the reader is left to surmise what has happened in the intervening time with little assistance from a controlling narrative presence. Although The Years is written in the third person, the novel's narratorial "eye" roves among the point of view of different characters fluidly, and recounts the events of the past through memory and dialogue rather than through a third-person summation. Leaping over years and even decades-as the novel does-infuses it with a sense of time's rapid, relentless movement, as the reader watches characters age significantly with the turn of a few pages. The subject matter of The Years is also decidedly not epic, but it is what gives the novel its remarkable power. Although it does discuss what might be termed monumental events in the lives of its characters, such as the death of Mrs. Pargiter in the first chapter, the novel leaves out many events that might seem particularly noteworthy, such as the birth of a child, a courtship, or a wedding. These traditional milestones are often consigned to the blank, unnarrated stretches of time that pass between the chapters. Woolf instead focuses our attention on smaller, less self-evidently significant moments of experience: a girl writing a letter to her brother, a college student sipping a glass of port and studying ancient Greek, the goodnights exchanged after a dinner party. These tiny moments exist in a tension against the sweep of seasons, years, and lives passing in the background, and this ever-present tension is what makes the novel ultimately so disquieting and so moving. Not only does the book's structure keep us constantly aware of the time's march, but also many of the smaller details-the sound of cars moving in the streets, the sight of a hearth fire dying, a gust of wind and rain-subtly keep an atmosphere of change, flow, and passing defining the experience of the characters. The things that lend a sense of fixity to life, such as rank, employment, or marriage, or those things that pass for it, such as a painting, a text, or a sentimentalized object, are touchstones for Woolf as well. The discord between the desire for stasis and the inevitability of change in many ways defines the novel, and is everywhere evidenced in the very environment in which the characters live and breathe.

eBook Publisher: RosettaBooks
Fictionwise Release Date: September 2002


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1880

It was an uncertain spring. The weather, perpetually changing, sent clouds of blue and of purple flying over the land. In the country farmers, looking at the fields, were apprehensive; in London umbrellas were opened and then shut by people looking up at the sky. But in April such weather was to be expected. Thousands of shop assistants made that remark, as they handed neat parcels to ladies in flounced dresses standing on the other side of the counter at Whiteley's and the Army and Navy Stores. Interminable processions of shoppers in the West end, of business men in the East, paraded the pavements, like caravans perpetually marching, -- so it seemed to those who had any reason to pause, say, to post a letter, or at a club window in Piccadilly. The stream of landaus, victorias and hansom cabs was incessant; for the season was beginning. In the quieter streets musicians doled out their frail and for the most part melancholy pipe of sound, which was echoed, or parodied, here in the trees of Hyde Park, here in St. James's by the twitter of sparrows and the sudden outbursts of the amorous but intermittent thrush. The pigeons in the squares shuffled in the tree tops, letting fall a twig or two, and crooned over and over again the lullaby that was always interrupted. 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 came 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 sores 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. The mixed light of the lamps and the setting sun was reflected equally in the placid waters of the Round Pond and the Serpentine. Diners-out, trotting over the Bridge in hansom cabs, looked for a moment at the charming vista. At length the moon rose and its polished coin, though obscured now and then by wisps of cloud, shone out with serenity, with severity, or perhaps with complete indifference. Slowly wheeling, like the rays of a searchlight, the days, the weeks, the years passed one after another across the sky.

* * *

Colonel Abel Pargiter was sitting after luncheon in his club talking. Since his companions in the leather armchairs were men of his own type, men who had been soldiers, civil servants, men who had now retired, they were reviving with old jokes and stories now their past in India, Africa, Egypt, and then, by a natural transition, they turned to the present. It was a question of some appointment, of some possible appointment.

Suddenly the youngest and the sprucest of the three leant forward. Yesterday he had lunched with... Here the voice of the speaker fell. The others bent towards him; with a brief wave of his hand Colonel Abel dismissed the servant who was removing the coffee cups. The three baldish and greyish heads remained close together for a few minutes. Then Colonel Abel threw himself back in his chair. The curious gleam which had come into all their eyes when Major Elkin began his story had faded completely from Colonel Pargiter's face. He sat staring ahead of him with bright blue eyes that seemed a little screwed up, as if the glare of the East were still in them; and puckered at the corners as if the dust were still in them. Some thought had struck him that made what the others were saying of no interest to him; indeed, it was disagreeable to him. He rose and looked out of the window down into Piccadilly. Holding his cigar suspended he looked down on the tops of omnibuses, hansom cabs, victorias, vans and landaus. He was out of it all, his attitude seemed to say; he had no longer any finger in that pie. Gloom settled on his red handsome face as he stood gazing. Suddenly a thought struck him. He had a question to ask; he turned to ask it; but his friends were gone. The little group had broken up. Elkins was already hurrying through the door; Brand had moved off to talk to another man. Colonel Pargiter shut his mouth on the thing he might have said, and turned back again to the window overlooking Piccadilly. Everybody in the crowded street, it seemed, had some end in view. Everybody was hurrying along to keep some appointment. Even the ladies in their victorias and broughams were trotting down Piccadilly on some errand or other. People were coming back to London; they were settling in for the season. But for him there would be no season; for him there was nothing to do. His wife was dying; but she did not die. She was better today; would be worse tomorrow; a new nurse was coming; and so it went on. He picked up a paper and turned over the pages. He looked at a picture of the west front of Cologne Cathedral. He tossed the paper back into its place among the other papers. One of these days -- that was his euphemism for the time when his wife was dead -- he would give up London, he thought, and live in the country. But then there was the house; then there were the children; and there was also... his face changed; it became less discontented; but also a little furtive and uneasy.

He had somewhere to go, after all. While they were gossiping he had kept that thought at the back of his mind. When he turned round and found them gone, that was the balm he clapped on his wound. He would go and see Mira; Mira at least would be glad to see him. Thus when he left the club he turned not East, where the busy men were going; nor West where his own house in Abercorn Terrace was; but took his way along the hard paths through the Green Park towards Westminster. The grass was very green; the leaves were beginning to shoot; little green claws, like birds' claws, were pushing out from the branches; there was a sparkle, an animation everywhere; the air smelt clean and brisk. But Colonel Pargiter saw neither the grass nor the trees. He marched through the Park, in his closely buttoned coat, looking straight ahead of him. But when he came to Westminster he stopped. He did not like this part of the business at all. Every time he approached the little street that lay under the huge bulk of the Abbey, the street of dingy little houses, with yellow curtains and cards in the window, the street where the muffin man seemed always to be ringing his bell, where children screamed and hopped in and out of white chalk-marks on the pavement, he paused, looked to the right, looked to the left; and then walked very sharply to Number Thirty and rang the bell. He gazed straight at the door as he waited with his head rather sunk. He did not wish to be seen standing on that door-step. He did not like waiting to be let in. He did not like it when Mrs. Sims let him in. There was always a smell in the house; there were always dirty clothes hanging on a line in the back garden. He went up the stairs, sulkily and heavily, and entered the sitting-room.

Nobody was there; he was too early. He looked round the room with distaste. There were too many little objects about. He felt out of place, and altogether too large as he stood upright before the draped fireplace in front of a screen upon which was painted a kingfisher in the act of alighting on some bulrushes. Footsteps scurried about hither and thither on the floor above. Was there somebody with her? he asked himself, listening. Children screamed in the street outside. It was sordid; it was mean; it was furtive. One of these days, he said to himself... but the door opened and his mistress, Mira, came in.

"Oh, Bogy, dear!" she exclaimed. Her hair was very untidy; she was a little fluffy-looking; but she was very much younger than he was and really glad to see him, he thought. The little dog bounced up at her.

"Lulu, Lulu," she cried, catching the little dog in one hand while she put the other to her hair, "come and let Uncle Bogy look at you."

The Colonel settled himself in the creaking basket-chair. She put the dog on his knee. There was a red patch -- possibly eczema -- behind one of its ears. The Colonel put on his glasses and bent down to look at the dog's ear. Mira kissed him where his collar met his neck. Then his glasses fell off. She snatched them and put them on the dog. The old boy was out of spirits today, she felt. In that mysterious world of clubs and family life of which he never spoke to her something was wrong. He had come before she had done her hair, which was a nuisance. But her duty was to distract him. So she flitted -- her figure, enlarging as it was, still allowed her to glide between table and chair -- hither and thither; removed the firescreen and set a light, before he could stop her, to the grudging lodging-house fire. Then she perched on the arm of his chair.

"Oh, Mira!" she said, glancing at herself in the looking-glass and shifting her hair-pins, "what a dreadfully untidy girl you are!" She loosed a long coil and let it fall over her shoulders. It was beautiful gold-glancing hair still, though she was nearing forty and had, if the truth were known, a daughter of eight boarded out with friends at Bedford. The hair began to fall of its own accord, of its own weight, and Bogy seeing it fall stooped and kissed her hair. A barrel-organ had begun to play down the street and the children all rushed in that direction, leaving a sudden silence. The Colonel began to stroke her neck. He began fumbling, with the hand that had lost two fingers, rather lower down, where the neck joins the shoulders. Mira slipped onto the floor and leant her back against his knee.

Then there was a creaking on the stairs; someone tapped as if to warn them of her presence. Mira at once pinned her hair together, got up and shut the door.

Copyright © 1937 by Virginia Woolf


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