Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Historical Novel at History's End: Virginia Woolf's the Years

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Historical Novel at History's End: Virginia Woolf's the Years

Article excerpt

It seems as if there were no progress in the human race, but only repetition.

--Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (1938)

The recent surge of interest in late modernism has expanded the purview of modernist studies in at least two directions: on one hand, the study of late modernism addresses lesser known literary and cultural activity that may not adhere to the stylistic or periodizing norms of modernism or postmodernism; on the other hand, it draws the late works of household names such asT. S. Eliot, Rebecca West, and Virginia Woolf from the shadows of their more lauded counterparts from the teens and the twenties. (1) Woolf's late fiction has been a prime focus of this latter direction. In Jed Esty and Marina MacKay's foundational studies, Between the Acts exemplifies the formal and historical distinctiveness of late modernism. (2) But where does The Years fit within this broadening, vibrant field? How might this often overlooked novel also be historically and aesthetically exemplary? The Years has not figured heavily in the history of Woolf criticism. To be sure, this hefty chronicle of the Pargiter family scarcely resembles the svelte, introverted novels that preceded it. It lacks the rapturous prose of To the Lighthouse and the hypnotic lines of The Waves; it displays little of the daring characterization of Jacob's Room or Mrs. Dalloway. By comparison, The Years falls shy of achieving what Woolf called the merger of "the granite and the rainbow" ("New" 235), the concrete and the poetic. Indeed, Woolf herself declared it "a failure" and curiously characterized that failure as "deliberate" (Writer 277). Years after its publication she would remember the novel only as "that misery The Years" (Diary 340). (3) The Years remained a stray, ugly duckling, an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise handsome career. (4)

More recent critical assessments of The Years seem less beholden either to Woolf's judgments or to the near reflexive equation of high modernist style with literary value. Karen Levenback, Judy Suh, Anna Snaith, and Maren Linett have all recast The Years as central to Woolf's political thinking on war, fascism, and, perhaps more complexly, anti-semitism. (5) In these readings, The Years exemplifies Woolf's imaginative confrontations with the mounting crises of the 1930s. John Whittier-Ferguson ties the social and political turmoil of the decade to the "local details of her style" and what he memorably dubs her "inventively exhausted prose" (231). My reassessment of The Years joins this renewed attention to the tangled aesthetic and political problems of Woolf's novel. I treat The Years as a late modernist version of the historical novel, one that seems primarily concerned with establishing a correspondence between the minutiae of the everyday lives of the Pargiter family and the world-historical processes that underwrite the novel's near fifty-year timespan. Of course, Woolf s concern with everyday life did not begin with this novel, but The Years marks an astonishing departure from the signature interiorized, phenomenological explorations of her earlier fictions. (6) The treatment of everyday life in The Years bears stronger resemblances to historical novels and family chronicles like Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Thomas Mann's Buddenhrooks, and John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga than anything one might find in her earlier novels or even in her modernist fellow travelers like Joyce, Proust, or Conrad. (7) By attending to Woolf's reworking of the formal features of the historical novel--plot, event, characterization--we can see The Years registering the protracted decline of a British centered world-system as a crisis of historical consciousness. (8) In this late novel, Woolf figures the everyday as the scene where the historical crises of the 1930s attain legibility. In what follows, I first examine Woolf's use and reconfiguration of the historical novel, a genre long thought to belong to the great realists. …

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