I had read a lot about Virginia Woolf’s relationship to this novel before I read it. I read that it had exhausted her to write it. That she had set out to create a huge political masterpiece but that she failed. That the one book she had set out to write, she turned into two, sectioning off the political essays to Three Guineas and the fictional, novelistic chapters to The Years. I read Three Guineas and then I began to read The Years. As I was reading The Years I kept trying to make the novel match that scenario and could not. Both stood alone for me, independent, regardless of Woolf’s original intent.   

Writers know that the intentions they set out with are rarely what end up in the finished product. Intentions are starting points, they are what interest us and lead us along. Especially with novels, we never really know what will come out of the oven once we have assembled all the ingredients and added imagination into the mix. Maybe what had exhausted Woolf in writing The Years was her trying to wrangle it into what she had wanted it to be and its insisting on being what it is. 

And so, with all that in my mind I was surprised as I read The Years to find myself pulled into the descriptions of individual characters in a family system moving through time in unrelated “chapters” that are actually linear snippets of the time they move through.

Tired of confusing myself with the information I had read about the novel, I decided to drop preconceptions and read the novel for what it is — an exploration of time and aging. We follow the trajectory of the characters’ lives over the years to see what they become; what the choices they make or the ones made for them lead them to become.

The Years begins in 1880 London and ends somewhere around 1937 London. There are eleven sections, each a different year and they all begin with descriptions of the season and its weather.

Woolf chose to focus on characters that stay in relationship with one another over time to give the reader consistency with them as well. We meet and stay with the Pargiter family (a family with 7 siblings), and some of  their cousins, friends, family maids and eventually, in-laws. Staying with this small group of interrelated characters allows us to experience their different memories of each other, different assumptions about each other, different regrets about and for each other. A scene in the beginning of the book becomes a memory or source of nostalgia in the latter for some, a bad association for others.

The Years is simple and unassuming and literally nothing happens. Except that everything happens. Lifetimes happen, relationships happen, memories are created, a war happens. We are shown it all through the internal experience of the characters in their individual lives and through the places where their lives meet other lives.

Woolf delivers it all in her cutting prose with descriptions that take one’s breath away. I read the following, then stopped and read it four more times for its word-skill.


“A very cold winter’s night, so silent that the air seemed frozen, and since there was no moon, congealed to the stillness of glass spread over England. Ponds and ditches were frozen; the puddles made glazed eyes in the roads, and on the pavement the frost had raised slippery knobs. Darkness pressed on the windows; towns had merged themselves in open country. No light shone, save when a searchlight rayed round the sky, and stopped, here and there as if to ponder some fleecy patch”(279).

the puddles made glazed eyes in the roads 

Deep bow.

The Years is a psychological and philosophical novel. It asks a lot of questions—the big questions—but this can be overlooked because it is dressed in the usual and the mundane.

“The Conversational Nature of Reality”

Woolf’s novel, The Years, is an exploration of what poet and philosopher David Whyte refers to as the “conversational nature of reality,” the frontier between what one expects of life and what life expects of them. This frontier is the primary experience of living, where the two meet and the conversation happens. Whyte explains:

“I began to realize that the only places where things were actually real was at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you; that whatever you desire of the world will not come to pass exactly as you will like it, but the other mercy is that whatever the world desires of you will also not come to pass, and what actually occurs is this meeting, this frontier”(https://onbeing.org/programs/david-whyte-seeking-language-large-enough/).

Whyte’s poem, “Everything is Waiting For You” re-articulates this belief:

Everything is Waiting for You

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you. 

You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.

This is the place where Woolf’s attention and insistent focus resides. In this novel she forces our attention there, and continues to force it to remain there, though we are waiting for more to happen . . . .(when will something happen, what is the plot of this book?). The characters in The Years are revealed through the conversation with the other humans, things and events around them, outside of them. How the world meets them is as important as how they meet the world. That this, this conversation, is who they are, in entirety—that this is who we all are in our entirety—is often the unwanted truth.  

We are neither more or less than this, our human lives; though we want to make them more important, want to make ourselves and our stories more important than this, we are not, in fact. 

And yet the moments within this conversation, the ones that cut through to transcendence and epiphany— what Woolf labels as moments of being—are indeed profound. The moments when we experience fully the present now and now and now—the “alertness” as Whyte describes it, those moments when we or Woolf’s characters notice it, the moments when time stops. 

Time stops. All is revealed. All is revealed when time stops. 

When we are fully present to the present, “alert,” this is when time stops and all is understood and coherent. 

This is what happens in the novel The Years.

Kitty in her forest:

“The wind ceased; the country spread wide all around her. Her body seemed to shrink; her eyes to widen. She threw herself on the ground, and looked over the billowing land that went rising and falling, away and away, until somewhere far off it reached the sea. Uncultivated, uninhabited, existing by itself, for itself, without towns or houses it looked from this height. Dark wedges of shadow, bright breadths of light lay side by side. Then, as she watched, light moved and dark moved; light and shadow went traveling over the hill and over the valleys. A deep murmur sang in her ears—the land itself, singing to itself, a chorus, alone. She lay there listening. She was happy, completely. Time had ceased”(278).

Read our other posts about Virginia Woolf:

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: Being, Non-Being, and the Spiritual Continuum Holding Up The World-A Woman Writer On Writing

Virginia Woolf’s Far Reaching Network Within The Web Of Women Writers

Women Writers on Writing: Virginia Woolf’s “Angel in the House” and what it takes to be a #Nastywoman

Women Writers on Writing: Virginia Woolf and a Room of One’s Own(First Published in London, 1929)

Delia at her mother’s funeral:

“Earth dropped on the coffin; three pebbles fell on the hard shiny surface; and as they dropped she was possessed by a sense of something everlasting; of life mixing with death, of death becoming life. For as she looked she heard the sparrows chirp quicker and quicker; she heard wheels in the distance sound louder and louder; life came closer and closer  . . .”(87).

The Years is the progression of time and the progression of these characters lives and their stories through time which is revealed through aging, which adds in memory and more memory and shared memory. Now layers and more layers and even further layers as time progresses, not only with other humans, but with places, and with those no longer alive, and events and the world around us.

And so in the midst of all this plodding and repetition and aging and relentless movement of time, “alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.”

Kitty on the train going North:

“The train rushed her on.The sounds had deepened; it had become a continuous roar. How could she sleep? How could she prevent herself from thinking? She turned away from the light. Now where are we, she said to herself. Where is the train at this moment? Now, she murmured, shutting her eyes, we are passing the white house on the hill; now we are going through the tunnel; now we are crossing the bridge over the river. . . . A blank intervened; her thoughts became spaced; they became muddled. Past and present became jumbled together”(271).

How do we stay alert in the relentless progression of the same, in the familiar presence of our loved ones, in the familiar presence of ourselves? Staying alert keeps us noticing the present, which is alive and always new and fresh in spite of the progression of years, in spite of all the familiarity. Here in this magical potent and active present “everything is waiting for you.” And everything is available.

Sara is reading a translation of Antigone that has been translated by her cousin, Edward Pargiter. When her sister returns home the following conversation ensues:

“This man,” she said, tapping the ugly little brown volume, “says the world’s nothing but thought, Maggie.”

“Does he?” said Maggie, putting the book on the wash-stand. It was a device, she knew, to keep her there talking.

“D’you think it’s true?” Sara asked.

“Possibly,” said Maggie without thinking what she was saying. She put out her hand to draw the curtain.

“The world’s nothing but thought, does he say?” she repeated, holding the curtain apart.

She had been thinking something of the kind when the cab crossed the Serpentine; when her mother interrupted her. She had been thinking, Am I that, or am I this? Are we one, or are we separate—something of the kind.

“Then what about trees and colours?” she said, turning round.

“Trees and colours?” Sara repeated.

“Would there be trees if we didn’t see them?” said Maggie. “What’s I? . . .’I’. . . ” She stopped”(140).

Whyte says:

“Half of all human experience is mediated through loss and disappearance. And this is one of the reasons why we won’t have the conversation”(https://onbeing.org/programs/david-whyte-seeking-language-large-enough/).

But Woolf wants to have it, and so she does have it in this second to last of her novels, The Years. It must have pronounced itself to her as somehow more important than the political novel she had planned to write. It must have come at her out of its subtle yet knife-edged truth in the writing, in the dreaming, and what was she to do but give herself over to it, surrender to this narrative of the modesty of human life revealed and leave it as a sort of postscript in her body of work for those of us who want to understand.  Read The Years.

©Theresa C. Dintino 2022

Featured photo: Virginia Woolf photographed by Gisèle Freund, 1939.  National Portrait Gallery

Works cited:

Seeking Language Large Enough: An Interview with David Whyte and Krista Tippett. Onbeing.org. April 7, 2016. https://onbeing.org/programs/david-whyte-seeking-language-large-enough/

Woolf, Virginia. The Years. Harcourt Inc., London, 1939.