[Autumn Leaves (1856) John Everett Millais, Manchester Art Gallery]
I've been thinking about this Virginia Woolf novel a great deal since finishing it. The problem is that I thought I was reading one book, only to discover during and after that I'd been reading a very different book altogether. This is what The Years does; it wrongfoots the reader, setting him/her up to read one way, only for it to break up into something very odd and disconcerting. You may begin by thinking it's a recognisable family saga, the sort of thing Galsworthy might write, but it doesn't take long before the saga collides with both Dickens and Chekhov, and the likes of John Osborne and even JG Ballard.
It opens as a late Victorian novel about a large family living in London, which is all quite comfortable and familiar. You believe you know where you are and where you are going. But almost immediately, there's the father with two stumps on his hand where his fingers are missing, and a frightening flasher under a lamp, leering at a young daughter who has left the house without permission. From there, it's not long before the novel is full of the usual VW mix of London life, glimpses into large lamp-lit houses, tea-time conversations, but now mixed with broken communications, touches of madness, wandering minds, and outbreaks of disgust and anger. All the way through, I was searching for the novel I thought I was reading but had somehow lost, and it took time to realise that I should be reading in a very different way, looking for very different things, making very different conclusions.
The Years is, like all VW's novels, full of repeated motifs, themes, details whose repetition I found oppressive and headache-inducing, presented as they often are in an atmosphere of morbid sensitivity. There is washing and cleansing (shades of Lady Macbeth and 'Out, damned spot!'), dirt, diseased skin, many baths and a great deal of running water, cold winds, birds and birdsong, twigs falling from trees, and leaves in all seasons, wine and the blurring of perception that comes with it, hands on shoulders, hands on knees, hands on clocks, coins and money, dressing tables and mirrors, dogs, bells, hammers, and the sounds and noises of London on every page. People are regularly late, there are fires and flames and a great deal of burning, kettles and hair-pins, windows, portraits and pictures (each section opens with a landscape picture in words) and statues and monuments, staircases and a lot of going up and down, top floor rooms, and many cows and foreigners. Just as this list shows, it is muddled in the way that a dream or, more likely, a nightmare jumbles everything but with horrible clarity, as objects and stuff loom out of a mist or the dark corners the mind. As the novel continues, the interruptions in thoughts and lost threads increase, and no-one seems to take any notice of others' difficulties in thinking clearly. It remains recognisable but somehow hellish; 'How many people, she wondered, listen?' is clearly the question at the centre of this broken-down world.
By the end the I found it painful to read.The apparently normal world has an increasingly odd, sometimes hallucinogenic and feverish feel, reminiscent of the hysterical madness of Ophelia and the ravings of Lear's fool. The loss of communication, the truly awful anti-Semitism, the treatment of 'foreigners', the constant breakings-off, lack of coherence, the muddles and oddness all tested my patience and reading skills. And yet, historically this book has been described as having a happy, positive ending with the family party and the sight of a young couple going into their house.
Perhaps The Years needs to be read a different way and most definitely not as a family saga or a historical novel. It might help to stop thinking that even VW herself knew what she was writing. She edited and changed the text over and over, it made her ill, it became a monster. Even if you don't know this beforehand, you feel it as you read. The breaking out of what lurks below the surface of facts and objects and all the things she couldn't wash away or eradicate (sex, touching, physicality, dirt, foreigners, human nature, failures in communication) are what makes it such an interesting but uncomfortable novel. Once we see beyond the apparent novelistic structure, it becomes far darker, more disturbing and, dare I say, more Dickensian book.
I admit I struggled to see the range and depth of possible readings of The Years until I read the fantastic introduction by Professor Steven Connor in the Vintage edition. Although I knew I'd found a huge amount of themes and subtexts, I wasn't putting them together in the way that Connor does. It would take another reading to find out for myself that, as Connor suggest, this is the novel that VW couldn't control which makes it the most revealing of all. And, at the moment, I just couldn't manage another reading.