Analysis

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Prominent Woolf biographer Hermione Lee has called The Years a "crippled text" and named it one of her favorite Woolf novels, perhaps summing up the paradoxes about this late work with these two conflicting opinions.

We know from letters and journals that Woolf struggled to write this text. This struggle contrasts with the almost effortless flow that Woolf describes in composing To the Lighthouse.

Woolf, who was always experimenting with fiction, at first conceived of The Years as a semi-autobiographical fictional work interwoven with meditations about politics, pacifism, and woman's issues.

Woolf had recently completed the experimental novel The Waves when she began to write The Years, which she first called The Partigers, in 1932. She wrote that she wanted to continue to push the boundaries of the novel so as to discover "a fresh form . . . of expression, for everything I think and feel."

However, the composition dragged on painfully slowly. In April of 1934, she informed her American publisher that the novel would not be ready for another year, and in the fall of 1934, she completed a 200,000 word draft that had to be edited down. In 1935, she typed a 740 word draft that was too long. Woolf wrote of it as a "horrid plunge" to have to revise this novel. The book would not be published until 1937.

Much of Woolf's struggle with the novel reflects a battle between her political and novelistic sensibilities. What makes her difficulties more than writer's block, and therefore of interest to readers, is how she resolved this conflict. At first, the novel was filled with overtly political passages that reflected Woolf's own increasing loathing of what she thought of as a class ridden, imperialistic, and war-oriented patriarchal British society. The earlier drafts included passages that conclude that war is brought about by the way the society is structured, along with conversations about pacifism. In the end, Woolf decided to edit out most of her political thought.

Woolf did this out of a conviction that bringing overt politics into a work of art lessens the art's impact. She didn't want to write what she called propaganda. She didn't want it to sound like a "pamphlet."

Some critics, such as Lee, believe this has damaged the final text. It can be helpful therefore to read Woolf's long essay, Three Guineas, alongside The Years, because into this prose piece she pours the political sensibilities she excluded from her novel.

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