I didn’t like Virginia Woolf’s work when I first read it long ago. It was Mrs Dalloway or To the Lighthouse, I can’t remember. It seemed all a big fuss about nothing to me, and I thought if she had poverty or a job grinding the life out of her she might well be better off.
I’m not sure I was wrong. Still, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
A year or so ago my partner convinced me to read Orlando and I loved it, found it hilarious and imaginative and thought provoking.
The Years explained some of this disconnection to me. I had the same early frustrations in the opening chapter. I then sat on a very uncomfortable coach next to a barely-if-at-all overweight woman who still managed to spill into my seat and who didn’t seem to mind just what she was doing with her elbows for over two hours and read and read (after I had passed that sleepy stage) and my mind fell into the same cadences as the prose and my new older and wiser self recognised that swift passing of years, the ellipsing of time, the changing of things and the diverging of people, and I thought maybe I loved this book too. I walked from Victoria coach station to the underground with Woolf’s narrative voice in my head, describing the branches bare against the leaden skies and the bitter winds that crept down the neck of my coat and I wondered why I had not thought to bring a scarf, which I only like to wear on the very coldest of days but the day was very cold. The blue one, a beautiful and mathematically-amazing wool moebius strip that my mother knitted for me and I wore for the very first time in Limerick.
The priggishness of Belgravia took a little of the joy away. Martin lives on Ebury St, only one street away from my path between buses and trains, which she describes as a gloomy thoroughfare. But for their former servant Crosby in 1913, now working with another family:
She felt more herself in Ebury Street than in Richmond. A common sort of people lived in Richmond she always felt (169).
The pigeon cheered me up when I took this picture at least. I wondered too if Crosby would have found Ian Flaming common, when he lived on this street.
I spent one extremely terrible post-rave-on-the-Thames-Beach-can’t-let-the-party-stop-cocktails-and-card-playing night in one of the terraced houses one street over through some bizarre ironies of circumstance. I found it opulent without being interesting or revealing of character, and very oppressive.
I do love Woolf’s beautiful descriptions of London though, the groundedness of them as she replays us her memories, perhaps saying goodbye to them in a way. I’ve added my favourites at the end of the post.
The distance between some of them and what the places actually evoke in me perhaps explains why I finished the last fifty pages or so that night, and they helped crystallise my dislike. These pages bring us current, when the younger generation does the thinking, tries to muddle through it all. The year is unspecified, some time after the war, perhaps closer to the book’s date of publication in 1937?
I had been thinking, in that walk between coach and tube, that absolutely no one had been able to communicate, to speak openly and frankly about their troubles, to gain clarity of meaning either in their own thoughts or in their expression. With one exception (that one time Maggie and Martin sit beneath a tree one fine day, and he tells her everything that is troubling him).
But no one else can speak.
No one else can clarify what they want, what they believe, what they need.
No one can unburden themselves of the pressure of words, things unspoken.
It occurred to me suddenly that this stream of consciousness, these descriptions lathered across page after page that jumped from image to incident to thought and back again, reflect an uncertainty in the author as strong as that seen in Eleanor. Perhaps it is simply a way to characterise this generation, to set a mood and a tone. But perhaps Woolf has thrown everything on the page for us, everything that crosses her mind, everything she sees and hears she feels somehow are important and all the thoughts that come skipping along, hoping that out of it we can find some pattern, some deeper meaning.
At the end it felt almost like a yielding of her own agency, a releasing of frustration. That War and Peace moment with the general far removed from battle as everything is let go into the flow of time passing and the movement of nature and humankind. But in miniature, with nothing at stake. It is left for the next generation to struggle to give her words meaning. To find her life’s purpose.
In the final pages North and Peggy hammer and hammer away at this inability to understand, to speak, to get to the truth of their own desires. They do so at a party of pleasure and immense privilege, the upper middle classes at their sparkling leisure. It’s thrown by Delia, the most interesting character to me by far fighting for the cause of Irish independence, but she appears only at the beginning and the end. I think because Delia’s edges are too sharp for the novel’s effect of blurriness, she knew struggle and heartbreak even though her marriage casts a shadow across the strength of her ideals. Instead we cast about with other Pargiters unable to grasp their own beliefs:
He paused. There was the glass in his hand; in his mind a sentence. And he wanted to make other sentences. But how can I, he thought — he looked at Eleanor, who sat with a silk handkerchief in her hands — unless I know what’s solid, what’s true; in my life, in other people’s lives? (313)
Then he shut up. It’s no go, North thought. He can’t say what he wants to say; he’s afraid. They’re all afraid; afraid of being laughed at; afraid of giving themselves away. He’s afraid too, he thought, looking at the young man with a fine forehead and a weak chin who was gesticulating too emphatically. We’re all afraid of each other, her thought; afraid of what? Of criticism; of laughter; of people who think differently… (315)
This party…it filled me with disdain, I confess, for brittle enjoyment and all of the things people of this class could not allow themselves to say. That stopped their minds and lips completely. Their silences became self-serving. I thought about their servant Crosby who served them but in old age was let go and made to serve others, I thought about their pettiness, their ambition, their privilege. Their unquestioning natures, even as they focused on detail and minutiae. Their multiple and mutual dislikes and discomforts.
The novel opens with the father figure, Colonel Pargiter in his club chatting with other members also returned from the business of Empire. Three fingers on the one hand are stumps, lost in his fighting to put down the mutiny. He dies never having told his children what really troubles him, though he yearns to speak to someone. In the novel it appears to be the trouble of his mistress, but I couldn’t help but feel the silence is one not just of male privilege and desire (and loneliness), but also of Empire. He leaves his friends abruptly in the club to think his own thoughts. Remember his own stories.
Stories we never hear. War and death stories. (I found out more here).
Perhaps this is the foundational silence. He is where this novel begins, where everything begins for Eleanor, and the generations that follow. The wealth of conquest is the basis for this position in society, a way of life that permits both the freedom and sets the limits for their thoughts. Their mother dying seems nothing but a weight to them all. A silent one.
Eleanor’s realisation — that in fact is the opposite of realisation — comes at the end:
There must be another life, she thought, sinking back into her chair, exasperated. Not in dreams; but here and now, in this room, with living people. She felt as if she were standing on the edge of a precipice with her hair blown back; she was about to grasp something that just evaded her. There must be another life, here and now, she repeated. This is too short, too broken. We know nothing, even about ourselves (325).
We know nothing. Everything is broken. All we have are these moments, impressions, fleeting happinesses that we cannot explain.
The back of my book says that this was Woolf’s most popular work in her lifetime…this must have resonated.
But ah, her descriptions of the city. Like this one on the Strand, 1891, walking from the courts of justice…I love this street too, could share in this.
The uproar, the confusion, the space of the Strand came upon her with a shock of relief. She felt herself expand. It was still daylight here; a rush, a stir, a turmoil of variegated life came racing towards her, in the world. It was as if something had broken loose — in her, in the world. She seemed, after her concentration, to be dissipated, tossed about. She wandered along the Strand, looking with pleasure at the racing street; at the shops full of bright chains and leather cases’ at the white-face churches; at the irregular jagged roofs laced across and across with wires. Above was the dazzle of a watery but gleaming sky. The wind blew in her face. She breathed in a gulp of fresh wet air….
Cabs, vans and omnibuses streamed past; they seemed to rush the air into her face; they splashed the mud on to the pavement. People jostled and hustled and she quickened her pace in time with theirs (85).
and then she reads that Parnell is dead…
To Covent Garden, 1907: Covent Garden when it was still a market, when this kind of business still took place in the city and its connection to the countryside and the origins of its food still strong, I love this too:
All along the silent country roads leading to London carts plodded; the iron reins fixed in the iron hands, for vegetables, fruit, flowers traveled slowly. Heaped high with round crates of cabbage, cherries, carnations, they looked like caravans piled with the goods of the tribes migrating in search of water, driven by enemies to seek new pasturage. On they plodded, down this road, that road, keeping close to the kerb. even the horses, had they been blind, could have heard the hum of London in the distance; and the drivers, dozing, yet saw through half-shut eyes the fiery gauze of the eternally burning city. At dawn, at Coven Garden, they laid down their burdens; tables and trestles, even the cobbles were frilled as with some celestial laundry with cabbages, cherries and carnations (101).
Wandsworth, 1913: Some thoughts on class and place, a little self-defensive snobbishness as Eleanor sells the house in Abercorn Terrace where she grew up and took care of her father:
As he went downstairs, she noticed the red ears which stood out over his high collar; and the neck which he had washed imperfectly in some sink at Wandsworth. She was annoyed; as he went round the house, sniffing and peering, he had indicted their cleanliness, their humanity, and he used absurdly long words. He was hauling himself up into the class above him, she supposed, by means of long words (165-166).
Milton St, Present Day, North visiting Sarah: and more reflections on class and housing (if this is actually today’s Milton St it has been swallowed by the Barbican, nothing left that is dusky or old):
This was Milton Street, a dusky street, with old houses, now let out as lodgings; but they had seen better days.
‘What a dirty,’ he said, as sat still in the car for a moment — here a woman crossed the street with a jug under her arm — ‘sordid,’ he added, ‘low-down street to live in. (237)’
…There was a curious smell in the hall; of vegetables cooking; and the oily brown paper made it dark. he went up the stairs of what had once been a gentleman’s residence. The banisters were carved; but they had been daubed over with some cheap yellow varnish (238).
‘Why d’you always choose slums–‘ he was beginning., for children were screaming in the street below, when the door opened and a girl came in carrying a bunch of knives and forks. The regular lodging-house skivvy, North thought; with red hands, and one of those jaunty white caps that girls in lodging houses clap on top of their hair when the lodger has a party (240).
Abercorn Terrace, Present Day, Eleanor to Peggy in a cab
‘That’s where we used to live,’ she said. She waved her hand towards a long lamp-starred street on the left. Peggy, looking out, could just see the imposing unbroken avenue with its succession of pale pillars and steps. The repeated columns., the orderly architecture, had even a pale pompous beauty as one stucco column repeated another stucco column repeated another stucco column all down the street (254).
Abercorn Terrace (which doesn’t exist in London, though a Lord Abercorn was head of the British South Africa Company) is ‘a replica of 22 Hyde Park Gate where Woolf grew up’ writes Nuala Casey, who sees this as a book of ghosts — I like thinking of this book like that. But while the house itself might be a replica, the street is certainly not. Because this is the street:
I imagine the new buildings are from bomb damage, but seems that this was always an odd street of unique homes. Lived in by four more blue plaque winners, Winston Churchill, Robert Baden-Powell the founder of Scouts, Enid Bagnold the author of National Velvet and sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein (Blue plaques are so damn useful).
Woolf’s house is bigger, far grander than I was expecting from her description, I could not fit it into a camera view, there is another floor above and the main entrance is down the stairs on the lower level:
I perhaps could have tried for a better picture, a different angle, but I didn’t like this street, didn’t feel comfortable here. Two men in suits stood talking at the end of it. Most of Kensington, in fact, looms above you in wealth and monumental architecture of five stories and higher. Inequality hiding the sky from you. I found relief only in the winter stripped branches of trees beautiful against the tarnished clouds at the end of the street and across the road in Kensington Gardens. But then there is this, this massive gilded gaud of a thing:
The Royal Albert Memorial facing the huge red brick mansions of Kensington Gore alongside the Royal Albert Hall. Everywhere monuments of wealth and ambition, and perhaps a strange kind of love. Perhaps.
I thought to myself that this place, this wealth and ambition written into architecture, this inequality looming large, this is no place to raise children. And perhaps that is just the trouble, this intertwining of mental health and power and privilege into something that harms everyone.