Virginia Woolf’s The Years, published by the Hogarth Press in March of 1937, was the first (and only) of her works to ever become a “bestseller,” though it only made the list during the year of its release. With a literary catalog as rich as hers—including works such as Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and renowned essays such as A Room of One’s Own—this may seem an incredible fact. Each of these works receives far more scholarly attention than The Years and are generally thought of as holding more literary merit by those same scholars. Furthermore, The Years differs from many American bestsellers in that it was originally published in England and, while it may not be as literary as her other novels, it was penned by an author at the forefront of the modernist and feminist literary movements. Additionally, it is a novel that lacks an overarching/central antagonist or conflict—focusing instead on the lives of three generations of the Pargiter family through all of their individual highs and lows. Each of these points, however, should not be thought of as demerits and may indeed have been the reason that this novel was able to reach the sales figures and overall positive reception amongst a wider audience that it did. When compared against her other novels, The Years seems to have appealed to a wider, more general audience due to the more simplistic, yet still lyrical nature of the work. Furthermore, the relatability of the characters within the novel—going about their everyday lives—added to the positive general reception of the work. Finally, her merit as a celebrated author bolstered the reception of her novel both within England and the United States after its release.
Beginning with the novel itself, The Years begins in 1880 and traces the course of the extended Pargiter family until “Present Day” which is assumed to be 1937—the same year of its publication. While it spans a great number of years, it’s scope is not nearly as great. It eschews from mentioning great happenings of the time period in favor of focusing on the granular, small aspects of this one family’s everyday life. It does this to such a degree that the first World War is hardly mentioned, even though the “1914” and “1917” sections of the novel take place right before the war and in the middle of the war, respectively. The only notable instances of the war come fleetingly during these of sections of the novel—with characters commenting upon guns, military service, the German forces, and bombing raids periodically throughout the latter section (Woolf 288-300). Woolf does not go into greater detail on the “Great War” than this. The only instance that the war is actually named comes in the final sentences of the “1918” section (which only spans four pages in the 1937 Harcourt edition of the novel). Crosby, the former housekeeper of the Pargiters, walks down High Street commenting negatively upon her new employers. She notes, “The guns went on booming and the sirens wailed. The war was over—so somebody told her as she took her place at the counter of the grocer’s shop. The guns went on booming and the sirens wailed” (Woolf 305). Following this instance, the novel skips straight to the “Present Day” and does not deal with the immediate ramifications of the war. By instead focusing on the plights and day-to-day aspects of the Pargiters’ lives, Woolf was better able to connect with her audience without re-hashing tales of the war that were prevalent before the publication of this novel. Woolf’s writing is much more relatable for the everyday person in England (and America) who was not directly involved in the conflict—instead simply having to make adjustments to routine, as depicted when the family has to go to their basement due to the raids (Woolf 300).
Besides plot elements that engendered a sense of relatability, Woolf’s beautiful lyrical-prose style certainly lead to its popularity. However, the composition of this novel is unlike anything that she had written prior to its publication. Originally, The Years was meant to be a “novel-essay” that would alternate between fictional scenes and chapters that provided historical context and critical commentary by Woolf—with a working title of The Pargiters (“The Pargiters”). This work was to be extraordinarily experimental—much more in-line with how she experimented with form in Mrs. Dalloway—and would focus primarily on feminist arguments and commentary. However, as Woolf began to fear that she would be unable to finish the work (“Virginia Woolf”) and “daunted by the problematic ‘marriage of granite and rainbow’” (Kirkus Review) as she switched between fiction and essay, she co-opted the fictional aspects of the novel into The Years. The essay sections were simply omitted from the book, and not brought to light until 1977. They were combined with the prose portions and published by the New York Public Library after being edited by Mitchell A. Leaska and repackaged as The Partigers: The Novel-Essay Portion of The Years (Archive.org). This history partially explains why The Years is considerably less experimental than some of her prior works—the novelistic portions that were in The Partigers would have inspired the rest of The Years to have been more straightforward. The straightforwardness is in accordance with the finalized novel that was eventually published.
Instead of a “novel-essay” hybrid, The Years simply, and elegantly, told the tale of the Partiger family in Woolf’s very lyrical style of prose. Many of the sentences within the work are beautifully written as only Woolf would be able to, such as: “It was raining gently, and as she stood at the door, breathing in the mild damp air, she watched the curious shadows that trembled on the pavement under the trees” (Woolf 44). Her writing is certainly far from being labeled “prosaic” as many contemporary reviewers were apt to note (Critical Heritage). Many reviewers noted that this was a wonderful work, with some even positing that this was her best endeavor to the date (Critical Heritage 390). As a result of such praise, both for Virginia Woolf as an author and for the work itself, it is not difficult to see how this novel became a bestseller.
The only “experimentation” that could be found within the novel is in the changing point of views of the sections. This is nowhere near the degree of Mrs. Dalloway which included a stream-of-conscious narrative with random jumps between narrator. In The Years, the narration shifts are clearly marked by a space on the page or by the introduction of a new section of the novel. While it does employ free indirect discourse like her other works, it is much easier to follow the basic plot of this novel. This more simplistic nature, yet one that is full of elegant writing, puts the work much more in alignment with other novels that became bestsellers at the time.
It is also of note that The Years is considerably longer than most of Woolf’s other novels. Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse are both only about half as long as this one. This puts it in line with other bestsellers during 1937 and the surrounding years. Gone with the Wind is much longer, but novels like The Citadel by Cronin, It Can’t Happen Here by Lewis, and The Rains Came by Bromfield are closer to the same length (20th-Century). The number of leaves in a novel is not an absolute determinant though, as the novella Of Mice and Men by Steinbeck became a bestseller for the year as well. There merely seems to be a correlation between slightly longer novels and their appearance on the fiction bestsellers list that The Years seems to adhere to.
The inclusion of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men on the bestsellers list the same year as the Years is especially noteworthy due to its place among works deemed to have “literary merit.” Of Mice and Men is worth juxtaposing against this novel for that reason. Both of the authors are ones that have an extensive literary catalog—and a catalog of works that have stayed relevant throughout the course of English literature. The primary difference though is in the point of each author’s career that they made the bestsellers list. The majority of Woolf’s renowned works came before the publication of The Years, with only a feminist-essay collection Three Guineas, a biography of a friend Roger Fry, and Between the Acts—a novel published posthumously—coming after this work (“Chronological”) and none of these charted. With Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men was his breakout work, and his later masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath also made the bestsellers list in 1939 starting a trend where many of his works charted through to 1961 (“20th Century”). While many of his works were popular with a general audience, they also maintained literary importance—especially The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck’s works, and The Years each deal with similar issues, however. The plight of the “common man” is a central theme of each—which may be seen with George and Lennie’s search for work during the Great Depression in Of Mice and Men and the family lives of the Pargiters. Additionally, class-issues are important within both the works—the Pargiter family is more well-to-do, but comments upon the circumstances of the poor (which George and Lennie would fall into). While Steinbeck’s work deals with the ramifications of the Great Depression it is not epic in scope, much like The Years. Furthermore, each is written in a manner that is easily and rather quickly read. These similarities may indicate that the relatability of each of the works—in combination with the simpler plot structures and vocabularies—were important for the general audience at the time.
In regards to Woolf’s public persona, by the time The Years was published—the last novel she published in her lifetime—Virginia was already a successful and well-renowned author. When promoting this novel, many advertisements drew upon her storied career. The March 6, 1937 edition of Publisher’s Weekly contained an advert that noted that this was “Mrs. Woolf’s first novel since 1931” (“Publishers” 1109) and also noted that it was “[t]he longest and most consistently readable, exciting, and important work of fiction of her distinguished career,” (1109). This advertisement in particular echoes the earlier sentiment that the readability and ease of plot is more marketable towards a wider audience. However, it makes a point to push the novel to consumers based on the basis of Woolf’s literary career—going as far as to claim that this novel would become the most important of her notedly distinguished career. This turned out not to be the case, but as a marketing ploy, it certainly seemed to work. This advertisement in particular ended with the claim, “it is confidently expected to introduce her to a large new audience” (1109) which can be believed as this is her only novel to become a bestseller. A later advertisement from the May 29, 1937 edition of Publisher’s Weekly echoes both of these points by saying that “America is reading Virginia Woolf as it never has before. And talking about it. Which presages an excellent summer market for a novel which happens to be, in many critics’ opinion, the finest work of this distinguished novelist” (2150).
The reason that this novel was able to move so many copies and find its place on the bestsellers list does seem to be a combination between the beautifully elegant prose style that Woolf uses, the marketability of Woolf as an author due to her past successes, and the less-experimental plot/structure of the work. It dealt with ideas and themes that were more relatable to a wider audience and the length of the novel was more in accordance with the other bestsellers. Each of these factors combine so that this novel, more than any of her prior works, seemed to be in the best situation to jump onto the list and sell numerous copies. It is less of a “literary masterpiece” like Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse and more of a pleasant read that was able to be popular both inside of England and abroad in America. It is a work that many readers could, and certainly did, get behind.
Works Consulted for this assignment:
20th-Century American Bestsellers Database. http://bestsellers.lib.virginia.edu/decade/1930. Accessed 16 Apr. 2018. Included submissions on The Citadel, It Can’t Happen Here, Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Gone with the Wind and The Rains Came
“1938 Books and Bestsellers” Pop Culture Dot US, http://pop-culture.us/Books/1938.php. Accessed 16 Apr. 2018.
Chronological List of Works By Virginia Woolf. https://www.uah.edu/woolf/chrono.html. Accessed 16 Apr. 2018.
Majumdar, Robin, and Allen McLaurin, editors. Virginia Woolf: The Critical Heritage. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.
Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. Modern Library, 1965.
“The Pargiters.” The New York Public Library, https://www.nypl.org/node/57973. Accessed 16 Apr. 2018.
The Pargiters – Modernism Lab. https://modernism.coursepress.yale.edu/the-pargiters/. Accessed 15 Apr. 2018.
THE PARGITERS by Virginia Woolf. www.kirkusreviews.com, https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/virginia-woolf-5/the-pargiters/. Accessed 15 Apr. 2018.
The Publisher’s Weekly: The American Booktrade Journal. Vol. 131: January-June, 1937, R. R. Bowker Company, 1937.
“Virginia Woolf | Biography, Books, Death, & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Virginia-Woolf. Accessed 15 Apr. 2018.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway. Wordsworth Editions, 1996.
Woolf, Virginia. The Pargiters, the Novel-Essay Portion of The Years. Edited by Mitchell Alexander Leaska, New York : New York Public Library : distributed by Readex Books, 1977. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/pargitersnovel00wool.
Woolf, Virginia. The Years. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1937.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Wordsworth Editions, 1994.