The years changed things; destroyed things; heaped things up—worries and bothers; here they were again.
—Virginia Woolf, The Years
The story of life required its stops and its pauses, its days and nights. It didn’t make sense otherwise. But to look at that view you’d think that a human life was meaningless. You’d think that a day meant nothing at all.
—Rachel Cusk, Arlington Park
There are many ways to measure the greatness of an artist. One might look at technique, influence, or vision. One might consider instead how certain works speak to the individual, drawing no distinction between celebrated masters and overlooked practitioners. All methods are inherently and viciously subjective, and to attempt to paint too bright a line is to miss the point entirely—the personal relationship between artist and audience is at the core of artistic expression and experience. The literary world is no exception to this individualism, but there is one measure, perhaps, that can be used in the consideration of the ‘great’ novelists that will satisfy if not all (an impossible dream), then at least many. Among many of the most effective and talented writers, there is a recurring pattern: their ‘minor’ books, the lesser known and lesser celebrated, the novels that they have ‘also’ written, alongside whatever classic(s) for which they are famous, are in their own right novels of immense power and skill. It is this depth, perhaps, of an oeuvre than can be used as a fair barometer of a writer’s legacy.
By this measure, two novelists—strikingly similar in aesthetic and design, each hailing from the same overabundant and overambitious island, nearly a century apart—stand out as especially ‘great’. This essay will consider The Years and Arlington Park, supposedly secondary works of Virginia Woolf and Rachel Cusk, respectively, in light of a few common craft elements. Both novels rely on incredible skill at the sentence level, along with a panoramic, free-flowing narration set in an exact structure, to render in great detail the collective lives of a group of people. While Cusk follows a set of wives and mothers across a single day in a London suburb, and Woolf rather astonishingly manages to paint a portrait of an entire extended family over a fifty year span, each operates on similar principles and achieve similar success. With neither representing the most famous or lauded books by their author, they both illustrate the depth and range of achievement enjoyed by two of England’s and English’s greatest novelists.
Each novel takes as its main fuel source quotidian details of individual everyday lives, emphasizing structure, technique, mechanics, and voice. In other words, within a temporally-driven structure, we find skilled mechanical blending of a technically precise close third-person point-of-view with a series of remarkably rich and specific voices attached to each perspective character, a combination used to immediately make real and whole any given protagonist. This sensibility of subtle impressions on worldview and diction, when combined with an adept third-person fusing narration with impressionistic voice is what defines both Woolf and Cusk, in these books and throughout their careers.
While we will begin with a note on structure, not because it is most important element of either novel (or novelist; for Woolf it is probably voice and for Cusk mechanics); rather, it is an illuminating way to compare them, and the aspect that is most readily apparent. Structure is the beneficiary of the effectiveness of the first three elements. Because they have such strong command of their characters’ voices, a technical understanding how to most artfully blend narrative and character speech, and the technical ability at the sentence level to do so, the structure Woolf and Cusk use—moving from character to character in order to explore their book ’s concerns—is realized to its full potential.
The Years, at more than 400 pages, is a highly ambitious book in scope and scale, one that stands out in Woolf’s career. It is a compendious study of the Pargiter family from 1880 to the late 1930s, warped around the black hole that is the First World War in depicting Victorian-Edwardian-Georgian England; noticeably personal to Woolf as it wrestles with the effect of time on life. Her penultimate novel, and the last she would fully complete, it was published in 1937, amongst the early tremors of the Second World War, a foreboding that can be felt, however subtlety, throughout.
Put succinctly, The Years follows the Pargiter family and their extended relations. If a single protagonist had to be named, it would be Eleanor, eldest daughter and classic Woolfian heroine. Of course it is a fundamental tenant of the novel (and this essay) that The Years is able to vividly render a number of characters across the pages and decades, meaning that Eleanor is more star pupil than only child in the professorial eyes of the narrative entity. Opening in 1880, we are first introduced to the Pargiters and their late Victorian life, Woolf’s typical attention to detail illustrating London as it was more than fifty years before publication.
Moving between the Pargiter children, their cousins and extended family, and at times others close to them, the narration then jumps ahead to a new year each chapter, with 1880 and Present Day as the longest on either end. Chapters themselves are broken up into vignetted sections, which vary in length and allow enormous flexibility. Woolf focuses on specific days and moments in each section to paint the picture and to illustrate, with very little authorial guidance, the change, evolution, progression, and decay found in life. Thus the long middle, between 1880 and the mid-1930s Present (approximately two hundred pages, or half the total length), is sort of a series of Mrs. Dalloways, or an extension of the method used in To The Lighthouse, which tells of single days many years apart. In this way The Years is a prime example of Woolf’s literary-artistic philosophy, casting light on the ordinary moments of being the make up the stuff of life, a string of des action banales which, run together, compose an existence.
This blueprint is used to similar effect in Rachel Cusk’s sixth novel. Arlington Park, interestingly, in many ways more similar to Woolf’s earlier masterpieces in its approach, covering as it does one day, relying on temporal compression over expansion to provide a sense of each character ’s entire life over twelve hours or so. Yet like The Years it is interested in the passage of time and the effect it has on people and their relationships. Set in the titular London suburb, the narration, like Woolf’s, moves from character to character, each chapter signaling a different perspective and a slight advance on the clock. While here there are no vignettes—Arlington Park’s much shorter length obviates any such need—Cusk relies on her skill with voice and her ability to weld each of them to her narrative entity to render with great detail each woman’s life distilled into an ordinary Friday. When considered in conversation with each other, structurally The Years is something of a series of Arlington Parks stacked on end, and the literary evolution from Woolf to Cusk is readily apparent, with one examining the length and breadth of five decades, the other the lifelong depth found in a single day. This density of meaning is granted by both writer’s talent and skill on the sentence level, to which we now turn, with a look at technique.
Technique is the stylistic approach a writer takes in a story or a novel, be it first- or third-person, past tense or present; mechanics is the method with which a given technique is achieved. There is no better way to study these topics in The Years and Arlington Park—especially as it relates to point-of-view—and to highlight the literary ancestry from the former to the latter than to examine their respective openings. In both instances, we see the point-of-view being precisely and subtly delineated amongst a suitably English tempest.
In a tradition of the English novel found at least as early as Dickens’ Bleak House, both novels call upon weather, especially London’s rather impetuous climate, to introduce everything—themes and story, yes, but also mechanics and technique. In The Years we are given a look at an April evening as well as indicia of exactly when we are:
It was an uncertain spring. The weather, perpetually changing, sent clouds of blue and of purple flying over the land. In the country farmers, looking at the fields, were apprehensive; in London umbrellas were opened and then shut by people looking up at the sky. But in April such weather was to be expected…The stream of landaus, victorias and hansom cabs was incessant; for the season was beginning…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.
It it worth a quick comparison to the opening of Arlington Park to see the similarities in approach:
All night the rain fell on Arlington Park.
The clouds came from the west: clouds like dark cathedrals, clouds like machines, clouds like black blossoms flowering in the arid starlit sky. They came over the English countryside, sunk in its muddled sleep They came over the low, populous hills where scatterings of lights throbbed in the darkness…
Here and there the houses showed and orange square of light. Cars crept along the deserted roads. A cat leapt from a wall, pouring itself down into the shadows. Silently the clouds filled the sky. The wind picked up. It faintly stirred the branches of the trees, and in the dark, empty park the swings moved back and forth a little. A handful of dried leaves shuffled on the pavement. Down in the city there were still people on the streets, but in Arlington Park they were in their beds, already surrendered to tomorrow.
Side by side the resemblance is clear—but what precisely do these openings achieve? How do they inform the reminders of their respective novels? Upon somewhat closer examination, the openings of The Years and Arlington Park are precise tools used to delimit the range and interests of the narrative entity and its point-of-view methodology, as well as introduce thematic concerns via a subject that is common to all people, across time, class, gender, and age—the weather.
Both books, as we have noted, function via narrative movement between a cast of characters over a set period of time: Arlington Park studying a half-dozen thirty-something women during a single day and The Years as a much longer work, depicting a familial network over half a century. To make such an approach feasible, both Cusk and Woolf need a precise narration, one that has the freedom to move at will, both temporally and geographical, and the ability to move close to and examine the consciousness of any number of characters. The openings, then, are statements of intent; we see the narration with a great deal of range and insight, not sweeping around with a Victorian ‘omniscience’, but instead slicing from point to point, purposely establishing the goals and tactics each novel will contain. Building from these overtures, both Woolf and Cusk will rely heavily on that cunning Cerberus of literary techniques, free-indirect style.
Throughout their careers, both Virginia Woolf and Rachel Cusk take as their defining technical-mechanical method free-indirect style (Cusk, in fact, to so great a degree that she has used it in the first-person, a rather astonishing bit of narrative innovation found in her Outline series): the blending of narrative and character voice without the use of authorial tags or markers. In The Years and Arlington Park, free-indirect is of prime importance, allowing as it does (for the highly skilled writer), an efficient way of aligning the reader with a given character and proving and insight into their world while maintaining the overall narrative framework. In this way, both Woolf and Cusk are able to keep the immediate, page-to-page focus on their central characters even as they build stories of considerable and effective range.
The first of Arlington Park’s heroines that we meet is Juliet Randall, waking up on the damp morning of the novel’s fictive present. She is a bit hungover after a dinner party the night before, one in which her husband, Benedict, had not defended her against the boorish chauvinism of their host, thus inspiring a particularly horrible dream from which she wrenches free as her chapter begins. As Juliet and Benedict get ready for the day—both as teachers, with he a highly lauded inspiration to wayward youths and she merely an ordinary English instructor at a girls’ school—Cusk provides all the requisite detail about their lives via her heroine’s dissatisfied interiority.
Juliet, once a star pupil whom others had marked out for greatness, is immensely unfilled in her life as a wife and mother, and is continually somewhat surprised and dismayed at things having turned out as they have:
Juliet never thought about school until the moment she walked through its wrought-iron gates. It was Benedict who thought, in order to be extraordinary. He ran off their joint life as if it were a generator fueled by Juliet, and then he separated himself and thought…
She lay and looked at the ceiling. She could hear movements from the children’s room above her head. In a minute she would have to get up and deal with them. Benedict wouldn’t go. It was Juliet who did everything. Everything! She would put them in their uniforms and take them out into the rain.
It is this method that Cusk uses to propel the entire novel. The slicing free-indirect, with Juliet’s subjective, idiomatic worldview colorizing the external narration, runs the scene along at a sharp clip which nonetheless offers deep characterization. She will at times will move a step closer to Juliet’s consciousness by directly relating her inner speech—in the quoted section, Everything!, along with, arguably, the sentence prior—in what is alternatively known as inner monologue, quoted monologue, or simply ‘stream-of-consciousness’, but it is the expert free-indirect that serves as the accelerant.
Likewise, we start The Years by meeting Eleanor, who begins as the oldest Pargiter child (twenty-two in 1880), and ends the book as the near-eighty-year-old matriarch. As mentioned earlier, Eleanor cannot rightly be said to be the central character—much like Juliet is not the main focus of Arlington Park—but she is the closest thing to a unifying person the book has. A notable and defining feature of both novels studied here is their lack of that true leading actor; in The Years it is time itself that plays the leading role, while in Arlington Park, the eponymous suburb.
Nevertheless, as the character we will stay with throughout all five decades and four hundred pages, Eleanor is given ample space and attention. Early on she is marked as something of a headstrong, independent type, like many of Woolf’s earlier heroines. In 1881, despite being the eldest daughter, Eleanor in the second chapter has not married or settled down, but is instead overseeing the renovations of flats she owns, sparring with her contractor to get the best deal. The atypicality of this for a woman of her age, position, and time is noted, and informs how she sees even herself:
She ran; she dodged. Shopping women got in her way. She dashed into the road waving her hand among the carts and horses. The conductor saw her, curved his arm round her and hauled her up. She had caught her bus.
She trod on the toe of a man in the corner, and pitched down between two elderly women. She was panting slightly; her hair was coming down; she was red with running. She cast a glance at her fellow-passengers. They all looked settled, elderly, as if their minds were made up…
The man on whose toe she had trodden sized her up; a well-known type; with a bag; philanthropic; well nourished; a spinster; a virgin; like all the women of her class, cold; her passions had never been touched; yet not unattractive. She was laughing...Here she looked up and caught his eye. She had been talking aloud to herself in an omnibus. She must cure herself of the habit. She must wait till she brushed her teeth. But luckily the bus was stopping. She jumped out. She began to walk quickly up Melrose Place. She felt vigorous and young.
We are given Eleanor’s interpretation of how the man on the bus sees her, an additional layer to free-indirect that, as we shall see, Cusk does as well. A bit of her nervous energy, if not quite insecurities, are seen both in her fixation on the man’s sizing her up, but also the narrations’s quick-cut panning of the street. In other words, here it is not only Eleanor’s speech and worldview that bleed into the third-person narration, but her mental state and interests help to determine in what and how the camera looks at the scene, so to speak.
These examples show both the technical and mechanical tactics and skills on display frequently in the two novels—the decisions, on the sentence-level, of how to write the story, and the actual enacting of that plan. When coupled with voice, these elements drive strong line-level prose, and in The Years and Arlington Park they are combined with narrative structures which allow Woolf and Cusk to accomplish large, difficult novelistic tasks with verisimilitude, fidelity, and coherence. It is at the sentence, in both their choices and their ability, where the relationship between these two titanic writers—the clear influence of Woolf on Cusk—or, to put it another way, the literary ancestry, is best seen.
So important a topic deserves a further look, with a specific eye towards that dogged device bestowed upon the literary world by Jane Austen. Although free-indirect style has become a staple of third-person fiction, perhaps no one has used it quite so well or as widely as Virginia Woolf, and her mastery of it is where her connection with Rachel Cusk, the most talented free-indirect (and otherwise) writer of this era, is the most profound.
Juliet Randall, preparing herself for another banal day of shepherding children at home and at work, encounters her husband in their bedroom, getting dressed and entirely unaware of his wife’s thoughts on anything at all:
Behind her, Benedict touched her hair. She shrank from the feeling of his hand. She turned around so that he couldn’t touch her anymore and his hand was left suspended in midair. There was his face, smooth and red-cheeked like a baby ’s face, with his little knowing eyes in the middle of it. In his smock, with his red cheeks and his eyes that were like the twinkling eyes of an old man, he looked like an illustration from a fairy tale. He looked like a woodcutter, or a shoemaker. She did not want to be touched by a shoemaker from a fairy tale. She was prepared to acknowledge his magical qualities, but she didn’t want him touching her.
Half a page on, Juliet reminds Benedict of another dinner party they have that evening:
Benedict looked displeased.
“Are we? Again?”
“We’re having dinner with the Lanhams.”
He frowned. He didn’t know any Lanhams. How could he be expected to know about Lanhams when another day awaited him at Hartford View, where giant sixth-formers threw tables across the classrooms and people got down on their knees before Benedict in the corridors?
Here is both a sterling example of free-indirect style and character-specific colorization, and a very similar depiction of a protagonist’s conjecture as to the inner thoughts of another, non-perspective, character, as we saw with Eleanor on the omnibus. The latter half of the quote above is Juliet’s inner synopsis of her husband’s thoughts, complete with the self-serving hyperbole she would expect him to have towards himself (and while staying in the person and tense of the narration and Juliet, a marker of free-indirect). The first part of the excerpt, meanwhile, is a quintessential example of the technique, the narration keeping in third-person past-tense while adopting the language and impressions of the focalized character. It is of course Juliet who, with so much humor and insight, sees Benedict as a fairy tale shoemaker, even as the prose maintains the diction of the narrative entity. Intermediate range third-person interiority—i.e. free-indirect style—does not get better than this.
Finally, we return to The Years to look at a fascinating moment of intersection between the narrative entity’s movement we saw in the opening with character-centric free-indirect. In 1891, the narration opens a vignette at Charing Cross, a major intersection in its own right and a fine place to see such a collision of techniques:
People on foot, people in cabs were being sucked in at the gates of the station. Men swung along at a great pace as if there were some demon in the station who would be enraged if they kept him waiting. But even so they paused and snatched a paper as they passed. The clouds parting and massing let the light shine and then veiled it…The hansoms jingled and passed; jingled and passed. At last among all the jingling cabs came one in which sat a stout red-faced man holding a flower wrapped in tissue-paper—the Colonel.
In addition to an oblique reminder of the year were are in—something that is common throughout the book, less to guide the reader (the chapters are titled 1880, 1881, and so on), than to bring to life the world as it was—the narration has, as it does, returned to a panoramic view of London. There is fantastic energy here, in addition to the colorful descriptions in which the narrative entity likes to indulge. And the end of the quote, panning around the intersection, looking at people passing by, it ‘happens ’ upon the Colonel, grabbing him off the street and jumping into his perspective. This fascinating maneuver deepens the sense of characters as embedded within their world, and is one Woolf first used in her second novel, Night and Day, where it represented her early forays into interconnected, or dialogic, consciousness, a method she would return to expertly in Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse.
A page down and we see the return of free-indirect, as well as one of the novel’s most important themes. The Colonel buys a newspaper and, in his cab, reads of the death of Irish political leader Charles Parnell:
How had he died? Had he killed himself? It wouldn’t be surprising...Anyhow he was dead and that was an end of it. He sat holding the paper crumpled in one hand, the flower wrapped in tissue paper in the other, as the cab drove down Whitehall...It would make no difference, Parnell’s death, coming now, he thought. Had he lived, had the scandal died down—he looked up. The cab was going the long way round as usual. “Left!” he shouted, “Left!” as the driver, as they always did, took the wrong turning.
As interested as it is in time and aging, The Years is a novel charged through with death. That the Colonel’s rather trite reflection on Parnell is cut off by trivial concerns of daily life is no accident. At first glance it is hard to see the point of a paragraph such as this one; why not simply move directly to the Colonel’s meeting with Eleanor, an important scene which comes directly after the excerpt? But moments like this, which are embedded throughout and makeup a core element of The Years’ structural-technical approach, are central to the book’s artistic and aesthetic philosophy. In more than any of her novels, Woolf in The Years is painting a series of portraits of London and Londoners, of England from the late Victorian up to the beginning of World War One. It is in these swift, dense passages, enriched by her precise use of free-indirect to give life to these passing characters—often, as in the quoted example, quotidian moments juxtaposed against larger themes of death, marriage, careers, and relationships—that Woolf is able to fill out her most vast and narratively ambitious work. With her efficient point-of-view at the fore, she is able to offer an encyclopedic look at an entire nation across fifty years of massive change and upheaval without the book collapsing on itself.
When free-indirect is used with a series of characters, their individual perspectives, and the slight differences in how they see the world, become of prime importance, allowing for a narration to bleed from one into the other without having to resort to inelegant and inefficient expository aside—in short, it is voice that emerges as the foundational fictive element.
Voice is the aspect of fiction easiest to define and hardest to teach—it is what the narration and the characters sound like, and its effective use is an innate talent either possessed or not. This is perhaps why, should someone ever undertake the impossible and thankless task of cataloging elements of fiction and tracking them like sports statistics, voice would surely be the strongest determinate for the most powerful writing. All ‘great’ writers possess it, but for our purposes we are concerned with how voice in The Years and Arlington Park is used, in coordination with the other aspects discussed above, to make best use of those sterling technical-mechanical tools and sound structural decisions and infuse the narrative with deep, dynamic characters.
While Rachel Cusk’s most striking device is her mechanics, in Arlington Park her voice is not far behind. Many examples could be used, but the most notable comes at the end, when our novelistic day is at its close. A majority, but not all, of the heroines featured are at a dinner party hosted by one of them, Christine Lanham, who is completely disillusioned with the demands placed on her by life and with her rather oafish husband, Joe. To survive the dinner—which she made on her own while dealing telephonically with her demanding mother—Christine has befriended the wine. Late in the proceedings, she finds herself speaking with Juliet’s husband, Benedict, who earlier was a forgetful shoemaker unaware of this very dinner party and now, in Christine’s ongoing internal observations, has the bandy legs of an elf.
This description evolves from initially being Christine’s observation of “old bandy legs Benedict,” to her internal characterizing of him as a “funny little bloke. He looked like a little elf, with his pointy ears and his red cheeks and his sparkling eyes.” From here, the narration fully adopts Christine’s view, her (perhaps a bit tipsy) voice coming to dominate the scene:
But what you did get from Joe was a feeling a certainty, she thought. She didn’t know what it was like the be married to a little bandy-legged elf—but with Joe you got certainty, straight up…
“Look at that,” said Christine, in admiration [of a poem Benedict recites]. “Aren't you clever, knowing all that off by heart?”
The elf acknowledged her with a nod and a little smile.
“What does it mean?” she said.
“It’s about what’s beautiful being destroyed,” said the elf.
“Is it? Oh.”
“Specifically England,” said the elf. “But I suppose it could be anywhere.”
Christine considered it, there in the revolving room.
“I never understand why people get so worked up about that,” she said.
“You don’t?” The elf seemed surprised.
“You can’t live in the past, can you? Your happiness can’t depend on things staying the same. You’ve got to embrace change! You’ve got to embrace the future!”
“In that case,” the elf said, “I suppose you are the future.”
Christine liked that. He really put it in a nutshell for her. She wanted to give him her vision then and there. She wanted to explain to him the importance of steering a course. It was a combination of stewardship and navigation. You had to protect what was worthwhile, while at the same time moving forward. You had to look after what you had, while at the same time getting everything you could out of life…
She wanted to explain it to him, but she couldn’t be bothered. She was too drunk.
While fine technique and mechanics are on display here as well, it is voice that truly drives this moment, and the longer one from which it is excerpted. Christine’s entire worldview and philosophy—distinctive in its antagonism to Joe’s earlier-stated xenophobia, humorous in her Bacchanalian vision of Benedict-as-elf, perspicacious in its melancholic determination—bleeds through to the point of saturation. It is impossible not to at least understand, and likely to sympathize with, Christine in this passage, an effect that Cusk achieves throughout and a foundational reason for Arlington Park’s immense success.
As with all her novels, Virginia Woolf in The Years weaponizes voice until each page is dripping with the lifeblood of her characters, and thus as they change we can see their past selves coming through the age. This nostalgic vein transforms from undercurrent to tidal wave as the book progresses, the characters grow old, and the world smashes itself through war.
Eleanore, now in her late fifties, is visiting her niece, Maggie, during an air raid in 1917. As bombs fall on London, the group finishes dinner in the cellar, Eleanore’s mind pinging between the devastation outside and Maggie’s husband Nicholas, whom she’d first met that night:
He took out his watch. The silence was profound. Nothing happened. Eleanor looked at the blocks of stone arched over their heads. She noticed a spider’s web in one corner. Another gun boomed. A sigh of air rushed up with it. It was right on top of them this time.
"The Embankment," said Nicholas. Maggie put down her plate and went into the kitchen.
There was profound silence. Nothing happened. Nicholas looked at his watch as if he were timing the guns. There was something queer about him, Eleanor thought; medical, priestly? He wore a seal that hung down from his watch-chain. The number on the box opposite was 1397. She noticed everything. The Germans must be overhead now. She felt a curious heaviness on top of her head. One, two, three, four, she counted, looking up at the greenish-grey stone. Then there was a violent crack of sound, like the split of lightning in the sky. The spider’s web oscillated.
“On top of us,” said Nicholas, looking up. They all looked up. At any moment a bomb might fall. There was dead silence. In the silence they heard Maggie’s voice in the kitchen.
“That was nothing. Turn round and go to sleep.” She spoke very calmly and soothingly [to her children].
One, two, three four, Eleanor counted. The spider’s web was swaying. That stone may fall, she thought, fixing a certain stone with her eyes. Then a gun boomed again. It was fainter—further away.
A few pages on, in the same progression, we come to a section that serves admirably as a raison d’être of Woolfian fiction.
When, she wanted to ask him, when will this New World come? When shall we be free? When shall we live adventurously, wholly, not like cripples in a cave?…We shall be free, we shall be free, Eleanor thought…
That is the man, she said to herself, with a sudden rush of conviction, as she came out into the frosty air, that I should like to have married. She recognised a feeling which she had never felt. But he’s twenty years younger than I am, she thought, and married to my cousin. For a moment she resented the passage of time and the accidents of life which had swept her away—from all that, she said to herself…A broad fan of light, like the sail of a windmill, was sweeping slowly across the sky. It seemed to take what she was feeling and to express it broadly and simply, as if another voice were speaking in another language.
Here, in 1917, is the emotional central not only of The Years as a novel but of Virginia Woolf as a novelist. It is impossible to read this passage—which features not only an mastery of voice, but precise technical-mechanical usage of repetition, free-indirect discourse, and internal speech, along with another example of the narrative lens reacting to the mind and spirit of the character in choosing what to notice—without thinking of Woolf’s dismay over the coming of yet another cataclysmic conflict, writing in the mid- to late-1930s. Much like with the death of Parnell earlier, but more vividly and deeply now, the daily nature of war is apparent—even as Eleanor and her friends shelter in the cellars, they go on finishing dinner and she continues to observe small details about the room. There is presented here a broken promise, remembered by Woolf and captured by Eleanor, of a new world, a new way of living after the seemingly-unparalleled devastation of World War One, which is closing towards an end in this chapter, 1917.
It is a striking moment, and as in Arlington Park, we can see the utility and power of voice in The Years, especially when combined with the other elements discussed here. Via the employment of idiomatic language to align the reader with each character, the technical decision-making of using free-indirect style as the primary narrative engine, the actual mechanical ability to execute such a plan, and then the global structural blueprint, both Woolf and Cusk are able to fully realize the opportunities their talents allow and thereby achieve their novelistic goals. On either side of the twentieth century, we have two preeminent examples of artistic virtuosity and theoretical command as found anywhere in English literature. However, style alone does not a talented writer make; a great novel requires the blood of life to fill the bones and tissue of mechanics, technique, and structure.
As engaging as the dissection of the craft may (hopefully, for our purposes) be, any essay worth its digital ink would keep at the heart of the discussion the endgame to all this maneuvering. The literary novel is an art form, and as such any critical analysis is only useful in how effectively it can explain the fictive methods behind the poetic madness. Too often criticism and theory offer merely Delphic answers, providing blind facts with no coherent utility. There are the elements discussed here, alongside innumerable definitions of innumerable others, but what do they accomplish, why are they used in the manner they are, by these surely great practitioners of the craft?
Much of this is done via voice, which is a far more elusive skill and one that sheds light on inner lives and experiences. But there is more needed, too—sensibility, instincts, esprit. In Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk brilliantly captures a group of women hurling themselves against the everyday realties of life. By that final dinner party, with Benedict Randall’s transformation from shoemaker to elf complete, much more than a representative twelve hours have been witnessed. The close third-person approach driven by free-indirect style allows for easy and organic temporal movement via memory, something with which Cusk is very comfortable, mechanically, and thus a great deal of the rest of the women’s lives, beyond the damp Friday itself, are revealed. This is a common approach in temporally compressed fiction, typical of High Modernism—Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway—and like those writers, Cusk has the combination of skills and tactics to make such a strategy work.
Arlington Park is an under-appreciated novel from an under-appreciated writer, one that speaks to the sophistication and talent of her work while reinforcing the depth of her oeuvre. While it does not have the renown of her Outline series—and, unlike that trilogy, does not feature the same level of innovation or invention in technique—Arlington Park is the most perfectly executed of Cusk’s novels, the one that most fully realizes on the page the promise of its ambition. It is a masterclass in free-indirect style and close third-person narration, a searing study of modern motherhood and gender roles, and a supremely entertaining novel, the type of work most writers attempt their entire careers to produce—and of which the ‘great’ ones have a number.
Unlike Rachel Cusk (for now, at any rate), Virginia Woolf does not require any starry-eyed essayists to advocate for her fixture within the canon; her greatness is well known and universally accepted, and for a number of reasons. As a feminist writer, a literary critic, an early speaker on mental health, she is held in suitably high regard. For our purposes, it is her place as, along with Joyce, the alpha and omega of High Modernist literature that is the most pertinent—her groundbreaking style and skill. Much like her early work, her later career is overshadowed by the titanic middle, and her last completed novel is a marvelously ambitious study of that tumultuous age in which she lived.
Woolf was deeply affected by World War One, a conflict that is far too often lost in its magnitude and destruction when seen by a twenty-first-century audience. It was an event totally unlike anything that had ever happened up until that point, and left profound scars on the generation that endured it. The Years’ most poignant moment comes at the end of the chapter titled 1914, in the English spring, a few months before the August implosion to come.
Maggie’s mother, and Eleanor’s cousin, is Lady Kitty Lasswade, who has married into the gentry and thus is an apt vehicle for an exploration of the transition out of the late Victorian into the twentieth century. Having just hosted a party for friends and family, she slips of out of London and onto a train taking her north to her husband’s family estate. Upon arriving at the station, she is greeted by their chauffeur, who drives her to their home in the new car Kitty’s husband has purchased.
On they swept again. Now they were passing the grey stone house where the mad lady lived alone with her peacocks and her bloodhounds. They had passed it. Now the woods were on their right hand and the air came singing through them. It was like the sea, Kitty thought, looking, as they passed, down a dark green drive patched with yellow sunlight. On they went again. Now heaps of ruddy brown leaves lay by the roadside staining the puddles red.
“It's been raining?” she said. He nodded. They came out on the high ridge with woods beneath and there, in a clearing among the trees, was the grey tower of the Castle. She always looked for it and greeted it as if she were raising a hand to a friend. They were on their own land now. Gateposts were branded with their initials; their arms swung above the doorways of inns; their crest was mounted over cottage doors. Cole looked at the clock. The needle leapt again.
Too fast, too fast! Kitty said to herself. But she liked the rush of the wind in her face. Now they reached the Lodge gate; Mrs Preedy was holding it open with a white-haired child on her arm. They rushed through the Park. The deer looked up and hopped away lightly through the fern.
After having breakfast, Kitty takes a morning walk about the grounds.
The wind seemed to rise as she walked under the trees. It sang in their tops, but it was silent beneath. The dead leaves crackled under foot; among them sprang up the pale spring flowers, the loveliest of the year—blue flowers and white flowers, trembling on cushions of green moss. Spring was sad always, she thought; it brought back memories. All passes, all changes, she thought, as she climbed up the little path between the trees. Nothing of this belonged to her; her son would inherit; his wife would walk here after her. She broke off a twig; she picked a flower and put it to her lips. But she was in the prime of life; she was vigorous. She strode on. The ground rose sharply; her muscles felt strong and flexible as she pressed her thick-soled shoes to the ground. She threw away her flower. The trees thinned as she strode higher and higher. Suddenly she saw the sky between two striped tree trunks extraordinarily blue. She came out on the top. The wind ceased; the country spread wide all round her. Her body seemed to shrink; her eyes to widen. She threw herself on the ground, and looked over the billowing land that went rising and falling, away and away, until somewhere far off it reached the sea. Uncultivated, uninhabited, existing by itself, for itself, without towns or houses it looked from this height. Dark wedges of shadow, bright breadths of light lay side by side. Then, as she watched, light moved and dark moved; light and shadow went travelling over the hills and over the valleys. A deep murmur sang in her ears—the land itself, singing to itself, a chorus, alone. She lay there listening. She was happy, completely. Time had ceased.
This is the prime example of narrative and textual functions—the book as a story and the book as a book—uniting in The Years. As Kitty, a recent addition to the upper class, walks about the estate she knows will one day belong to her son and his wife, she reflects on the natural beauty of England and its storied past on an idyllic May morning in 1914. The fact that she arrives by train and then car, emblematic of the evolution in technology and transportation that was so significant in the period between the Industrial Revolution and the First World War, is no accident. Kitty seems to be, and sees herself as, something of an anachronism a decade-plus into the twentieth century. She represents a Victorian England that was, in many ways, a few months from death. It is, of course, no mistake either that the quite moving moment at the end of the excerpt—which closes the 1914 chapter, and thus is the last pre-war moment in the book—is rendered via expert free-indirect, a bleeding of the Kitty and the old world and a narration plunging into the new.
The Years is a challenging book to review, summarize, or critique, as it is perhaps Woolf ’s most ambitious and delicate novel. The pathos achieved by following this rather ordinary group of people from the end of the nineteenth century up to the edge of the Second World War is immense, and the very nature of the book’s focus and propulsion demand that the reader consider their own mortality, their own encounters with time. The fact that nothing very extraordinary happens to the characters—a fixture, of course, of Woolf ’s work—makes their time-lapsed portraits, brought incredibly to life with the elements analyzed here, all the more compelling, relatable and poignant. The Years is nothing less than a study of time itself, of the terrible beauty poised by memory and aging, of the ways the world and its players tumble and tumult and transform as it all thunders on, through life and death and war and sun and rain.
Virginia Woolf, The Years. Harcourt, London, 1939. 435pp.
Rachel Cusk, Arlington Park. Faber and Faber, London, 2006. 245pp.