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Rohan Maitzen on Virginia Woolf

At her blog, Novel Readings, Rohan Maitzen has been taking a deep dive into the works of Virginia Woolf, most recently focusing on the “interesting failure” of Woolf’s final novel, The Years:

I would explain the novel’s failure on similar terms as [Hermione] Lee but with less subtlety: The Years is a failure because (deliberately or not) Woolf’s theory of the novel (including “her feeling that art should subsume politics”) was genuinely incompatible with her aims for this particular novel. She wanted (and this is pretty clear from what I’ve read of her diaries around this period) to write a “novel of purpose” (defined by Amanda Claybaugh in The Novel of Purpose as a novel “that sought to intervene  in the contemporary world”). It seems plausible, and some scholars make this connection explicitly, that she was motivated to breach the wall between art and politics because of Winifred Holtby’s analysis of her fiction, as well as because of her own ongoing anger about social and political circumstances. She wanted to make a decisive move into the world of facts: “what has happened of course,” she writes in her diary in 1932, “is that after abstaining from the novel of fact all these years … I find myself infinitely delighting in facts for a change, and in possession of quantities beyond counting: though I feel now and then the tug to vision, but resist it.” Unable, quite, to abandon her conviction that fact and fiction are not truly compatible, she began her new novel as a hybrid form, a “novel-essay” called The Pargiters, but over the course of the next few years she excised (or, as she put it, “submerged”) the explanatory portions: “What I want to do is reduce it all so that each sentence, though perfectly natural dialogue, has a great pressure of meaning behind it.” The essay impulse was redirected into Three Guineas, and the novel portion became The Years.

I’m not saying anything original about that process, which is well known. I’m just trying to clarify why I think (and why I think Woolf thinks) the result is a failure. “How to do that will be one of the problems,” she comments in her diary early in the writing process; “I mean the intellectual argument in the form of art: I mean how give ordinary waking Arnold Bennett life the form of art? These are rich hard problems for my four months ahead.” My take is simply that she did not solve these problems, or she refused to solve them, because she could not reconcile her means with her end.