Virginia Woolf’s final two novels, The Years and Between the Acts, portray communities who are inextricably linked together; but are innately divided. The Years follows a middle class family, the Pargiters, from 1880 to Woolf’s ‘present day’ (c.1937), its members scattered across England; and in Between the Acts, a socially tight-knit village community come together to watch a village pageant in the summer of 1939. I chose to review the novels together firstly because they accompany each other in my copy; and because the themes are really so similar that I thought separate reviews would be derivative and repetitive.
In each, characters of different classes, backgrounds and experiences are bound together; experiencing alienation and separation as they attempt to forge links with their companions, all of whom appear to instinctively ‘fit’ and know their place within a disparate society.
My favourite of the two was undoubtedly The Years: beginning with a dying mother in a distinguished Victorian house, the novel chronicles the development of nineteenth century London into a modern city on the eve of the Second World War, with each chapter revealing a new progression in time and emphasising, with the lyrical descriptions of the nature and seasons, the constancy of the natural world as opposed to the ephemeral nature of humanity. After reading the blurb I was seduced into thinking that the novel depicted the family as its various members went through life but, as ever with Virginia Woolf, nothing is quite as simple as that.
The novel delves in and out of the family’s lives, interweaving different characters’ perspectives, unequally dispersing narrative weight amongst the linked generations, both old and new. Contrary to my usual line of thinking, this disparity suits the novel immeasurably, and gives the impression of a distance between the readers and the characters, as if the former can never truly hope to know the latter fully. The narrator’s small insight into the characters’ thoughts is just that: a drop in a vast ocean of musings and fears. At the same time, however, I would have liked to know more about some of the rather neglected characters, such as Delia – but Woolf’s talent for conveying extraordinary depth with a small, detailed sketch definitely shines through. The passage of time is evoked wistfully, and the family itself are really fascinating characters, especially Eleanor, with their great breadth of experience and differing personalities.
Between the Acts is almost the opposite: focusing on a summer day in a mere hundred pages, I felt that the novella at times became too ‘modernist’ for my liking, exploring grandiose, inexplicable sentiments that don’t entirely fit the situation at hand. Although Woolf’s ability to create expertly crafted worlds in a few phrases is truly mesmerising – and some of the descriptions of the natural world are so beautiful that they rise unbidden to the mind – the novella can be too abstract to conjure the sort of feeling that The Years so easily provokes. And – like many of the bemused characters in Between the Acts – I’m really not sure that I grasped the meaning of the inventive village pageant, as cleverly satirical as it undeniably was.
Image credit: The Hours, 2002