• U.S.

Books: How Time Passes

14 minute read

{See front cover) Last year Margaret Mitchell of Atlanta, Ga. wrote her first novel. Gone With The Wind. Last week Virginia Woolf of London, England published her seventh. The Years* Margaret Mitchell’s book has sold more copies (1,300,000) than all Virginia Woolf’s put together. But literary brokers who take a long view of the market are stocking up with Woolfs, unloading Mitchells (TIME, April 5). Their opinion is that Margaret Mitchell was a grand wildcat stock but Virginia Woolf a sound investment.

Virginia Woolf has been called “the best-equipped and the most disappointing woman novelist in the history of English literature.” That she can be considered a disappointment indicates that she may be not just a highbrow writer but perhaps a great one. She is certainly the foremost woman author of her day. Her books are addressed not to a literary clique but to the Intelligent Common Reader. And the address is written in such a fine and flowing hand that even when it is illegible the hopeful addressee can find some profitable pleasure in puzzling over it. Even her obscurer books have something about them that attracts popular attention, for more than most stylists, she writes about the common gist of things.

The Book. Nervous readers will find The Years not nearly such heavy going as their knowledge or hearsay of Virginia Woolf might lead them to expect. Unlike some of her other books, The Years is not experimental. It is written ”straight.” Superficially, it is the telescoped chronicle of a London family—an upper middle-class family, like all Virginia Woolf’s principal characters. But the actors are not the first thing seen. The curtain goes up on a scene that is pointedly empty of human beings. Time is to be the real protagonist of the story: “At length the moon rose and its polished coin, though obscured now and then by wisps of cloud, shone out with serenity, with severity, or perhaps with complete indifference. Slowly wheeling, like the rays of a searchlight, the days, the weeks, the years passed one after another across the sky.” On a spring day in 1880 Colonel Pargiter leaves his club to pay a visit to his cockney mistress, then home to his family: his bedridden, dying wife, his children.

Eleanor, the oldest daughter, runs the house, with social service as a sparetime hobby. At Oxford, the eldest son, Edward, spins the beginnings of a sound career, sometimes daydreams about his pretty cousin Kitty, only daughter of the head of his college. At last bedridden Mrs. Pargiter dies. And now it is 1891. Kitty is married, but not to Edward, who has become a don.

All the Pargiter children but Eleanor have left home. One is a full-fledged barrister, one a soldier in India, one of the daughters is leading a questionable life of her own. Age has parted Colonel Pargiter from his cockney mistress.

The story jumps ahead, like the bumping minute hand of a clock, to 1907, 1908, 1910, 1911, 1913, 1914, 1917, 1918, the present. Familiar figures are suddenly there no more; new ones appear; the passage of time is as apparent as in the cinema of a growing plant. In the last scene the whole family have come together in a big informal party. Eleanor, noted now for her rambling tongue and inability to finish a sentence, is over so. Rose, the baby, is stout and deaf. Milly is as fat as her jovial husband, who “swayed from side to side as if his benevolence rolled about in him. He was like an old elephant who may be going to kneel.” The once-lovely Kitty is now “one of those well-set-up rather masculine old ladies,” and the widow of a Governor-General. Edward is a distinguished old-bachelor scholar. The young people look at the old; the old, who such a short time ago were young, try to remember but find it easier to look at their successors. Before they know it the dawn is in the sky. the party has kept them up all night.

Long before a reader has finished the book he realizes that The Years is well named. It is not so much the story of a particular family as it is the story of how time passes—or seems to pass; recurs—or seems to recur. In Virginia Woolf’s plotless pattern there seems to be an inkling, a suggestion, a flash, of what time may mean. The effectiveness of her method, which she has been evolving for 15 years, is that it gives the reader this feeling of being abroad in space and time. The sense of time elapsing which the discontinuous “action” of the story gives is further deepened whenever the clock strikes and the years move on, in scenes that show the seasons changing, day fading into night, night becoming day. These scenes, unlike John Dos Passos’ Camera Eye, are described not from the vantage point of an individual but from a point in space somewhere above the world: “The fine rain, the gentle rain, poured equally over the mitred and the bareheaded with an impartiality which suggested that the god of rain, if there were a god, was thinking Let it not be restricted to the very wise, the very great, but let all breathing kind, the munchers and chewers. the ignorant, the unhappy, those who toil in the furnace making innumerable copies of the same pot. those who bore red hot minds through contorted letters, and also Mrs. Jones in the alley, share my bounty.”

Into the mind of aged Eleanor, who thinks deeper thoughts than her old, busy, muddled brain can speak, Virginia Woolf puts her final suggestion: “Is there a pattern?” she asks. “A theme, recurring, like music; half remembered, half foreseen? … a gigantic pattern, momentarily perceptible?” Nobody answers the question; but the sun. which presumably knows its part in the gigantic pattern, rises.

The Writing. To say that Virginia Woolf writes well will hardly be news to anyone who reads contemporary literature. But it is sometimes hard to tell whether she is writing prose or poetry. Such a book as The Waves (TIME, Oct. 19, 1931), for instance, is not only in the mood but in the manner of poetry, flagrantly trespassing on poetry’s ground. The Years has fewer of these ambiguously-styled passages than To the Lighthouse or The Waves, but they appear now & then. Sometimes they are onomatopoetic: “And the walloping Oxford bells, turning over and over like slow porpoises in a sea of oil, contemplatively intoned their musical incantations.” But most of Virginia Woolf’s descriptions are pictures: “It was March and the wind was blowing. . . . With one blast it blew out color—even a Rembrandt in the National Gallery, even a solid ruby in a Bond Street window: one blast and they were gone … it paled every window; drove old gentlemen further and further into the leather smelling recesses of clubs; and old ladies to sit eyeless, leather cheeked, joyless among the tassels and antimacassars of their bedrooms and kitchens. Triumphing in its wantonness it emptied the streets; swept flesh before it; and coming smack into a dust cart standing outside the Army and Navy Stores, scattered along the pavement a litter of old envelopes; twists of hair; papers already blood smeared, yellow smeared, smudged with print and sent them scudding to plaster legs, lamp posts, pillar boxes, and fold themselves frantically against area railings.” It takes more than graceful, ingenious or suggestively beautiful writing to earn an author the name of “great.” As in a cosmic Customs Bureau, everything must be declared, even ideas. And Virginia Woolf’s ideas are hard to declare. The suggestion of three ideas runs through her books, appears in their very titles: Time, Space, the Sea. Since all three are undefinable in novelists’ terms, they have to be suggested semi-poetically, which is what Virginia Woolf does. Time, Space, the Sea are symbols, recurrent aspects of a dimly, intermittently perceived pattern.

The lives of human beings are even less observable indications of the same pattern but serve to mark the wavelike motion of life’s force. Nearest that common readers can get to Virginia Woolf’s prose meaning: human nature does not change, it only seems to, like the particles of water moved by a wave. Thus her characters are not so much individual people as aspects of human nature: human particles in the moving wave of time.

What Time means, what Space is, what the Sea mirrors is more than Virginia Woolf can say: but that they are, that they mean and mirror some Reality measureless to man is the whole import of her writing.

Analogies of the sea haunt Virginia Woolf: “As for the beauty of women, it is like the light on the sea, never constant to a single wave. They all have it; they all lose it. Now she is dull and thick as bacon; now transparent as a hanging glass.” Virginia Woolf’s novels are all attempts to answer the same inexhaustible question: What is the nature of life? “The strange thing about life is that though the nature of it must have been apparent to every one for hundreds of years, no one has left any adequate account of it.” Few of her admirers, and certainly not Virginia Woolf, would say that any of her books, or even the sum total of them, have supplied an adequate account of the nature of life.

But the majority of her readers would agree that her books, while they do not reveal Reality, do afford an authentic view.

The Writer. Unlike most novelists, Virginia Woolf has written as much criticism as fiction. Even those who do not care for her novels admit that as a critic she is first-rate. In her two Common Readers (collections of critical articles) she has practiced the detachment which Matthew Arnold preached. Her tolerance rarely deserts her except when she writes about literary climbers or timeservers, or about the Edwardian novelists who were her immediate predecessors. Her pet targets are Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, and John Galsworthy, whom she considers hopeless materialists, blind guides of their misled generation. Heaven, to one of Arnold Bennett’s characters, she has said, would be “an eternity of bliss spent in the very best hotel in Brighton.” (Bennett’s characteristic retort was that Virginia Woolf’s novels “seriously lack vitality.”) And of H. G. Wells: “What more damaging criticism can there be both of his earth and of his Heaven than that they are to be inhabited here and hereafter by his Joans and his Peters?” But Virginia Woolf’s criticism is usually appreciative. Her critical motto is a quotation from Sam Johnson that echoes her own literary practice: “Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of a whole—a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing.”

The best steeplechasers are bred in Ireland. From England come literary thoroughbreds. Virginia Woolf’s stepgrandfather was William Makepeace Thackeray. Half the most scholarly families in Eng-land—the Darwins, Maitlands, Symondses, Stracheys—are related to her. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, editor of the Cornhill Magazine and the Dictionary of National Biography, kept open house for the great literary men of his day (Meredith, Stevenson, Ruskin, Hardy, John Morley, Oliver Wendell Holmes). The classic dead crowded the shelves of his library. Though Virginia Woolf’s experience was as restricted as Jane Austen’s, her reading knew no bounds. She began early to write reviews for the august London Times Literary Supplement, and still does. When she and her husband, Leonard Woolf, founded the Hogarth Press (1917), they began by publishing limited editions of such promising newcomers as Katherine Mansfield. John Middleton Murry, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster; went on to commercial success and the most promising writer of them all, herself. Her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), a conventional, competent piece, was well received in spite of the War. The pages of her second (Night and Day) now seem browned at the edges. In 1921 she cut loose from convention, published a book of sketches (Monday or Tuesday) written in an experimental associative-train-of-thought style which in the next ten years she developed into full flower. With Jacob’s Room (1922), she captured the critics, began to win the reading public as well. Of her other books, Mrs. Dalloway is the most popular, but critical consensus has hailed The Waves as her masterpiece.

The Woman. Of the Englishwomen of letters before Virginia Woolf (Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontes) none had her advantages. She was brought up as a young lady of the Edwardian era, with all a young lady’s privileges but no prunes and prisms. She was too delicate to go to school, and no Edwardian restrictions were put on her reading. She never lost her faith for she was never taught any. And her huge connection (her eight brothers and sisters had two different fathers) gave her entree into the useful worlds of English literature and English society.

When Adeline Virginia (she dropped the Adeline early) was 13, her beautiful mother died. After her father’s death, nine years later, she kept house in London with her sister Vanessa and two brothers.

In appearance a pure preRaphaelite, she was actually more like an emancipated Bryn Mawr girl. With her towering brother Adrian (6 ft. 5 in.), and some friends, she was a party to the famed hoax on a British admiral and the entire ship’s company of H.M.S. Dreadnought. Disguised as the Emperor of Abyssinia & party (see cut. p. 93), they were brought aboard with due ceremony, barely restrained the captain from ordering a 21-gun salute, got safely away undiscovered.

Two years before the War, Virginia Stephen married Leonard Sidney Woolf, a liberal journalist and literary critic. Their tall house in Bloomsbury soon became the nucleus of a literary set, the “Bloomsbury Group.” The Woolfs housed their Hogarth Press under the same roof. There, in “an immense half-subterranean room, piled with books, parcels, packets of unbound volumes, manuscripts from the press,” Virginia Woolf wrote. Many of her friends have been politically active feminists, and from her study Virginia Woolf has done her bit for woman’s cause. Her essay on the position of women stated the now-classic requisite of modern women who want independence: “500 [pounds] a year and a room of one’s own.”

Virginia Woolf sympathizes with “Mrs. Jones in the alley.” She would even like Mrs. Jones to be able to read her books, but thinks on the whole “it is better to be a lady.” Lady or not, feminist or not, woman or not, she believes that to be a good writer demands something more still. “If one is a man, still the woman part of the brain must have effect; and a woman must also have intercourse with the man in her. Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly.” Tall, gaunt, haunted-looking Virginia Woolf lives quietly with her husband, divides her time between long weekends in a low-lying Sussex cottage (where she does most of her work) and a tall house in London. She rarely makes a public appearance. She has no children. Careless of her clothes, her face, her greying hair, at 55 she is the picture of a sensitive, cloistered literary woman. Jealous juniors derisively style her “The Queen of Bloomsbury.” Her physical existence is as sheltered now as it always has been. But in the 12-ft. square workroom, whose old-fashioned uncurtained windows overlook a half-acre of English garden, she has made a world of her own. It is not a cork-lined invalid’s retreat like Marcel Proust’s, with the shades drawn; nor a chamber of nightmares like James Joyce’s, where after dark all the familiar objects break up into strange & sinister shapes. Visitors who feel at home in Virginia Woolfs world say it is a room with a view.

*Harcourt, Brace ($2.50).

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com