Autumn at Last: Virginia Woolf’s The Years & Peter S. Beagle’s Summerlong

Finally autumn.

Finally autumn.

It has been a warm green autumn.  The leaves are finally changing, or at least some of them are.


Still greener than usual, but it’s lovely.

These days I try to grab the beauty of the moment. I try not to think much about the future. The climate has changed so quickly.  We’ve known about climate change since–when?–the ’50s?

Still greener than usual on the trails, but I admit it’s lovely.  Very warm, though.


Here’s what I’ve been reading:  Peter S. Beagle’s Summerlong, Virginia Woolf’s The Years, Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper (to be reviewed later, or tbrl), Anita Brookner’s Visitors (tbrl), Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen (tbrl), and Winston Graham’s Jeremy Poldark.

summerlong-beagle-474760Tonight I’m writing about Peter S. Beagle’s Summerlong and Virginia Woolf’s The Years.

Seasonally appropriate and socially pertinent is Peter S. Beagle’s new novel, Summerlong. Beagle, the winner of the Locus, the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Myythopoeic awards, is best-known for his ’60s fantasy classic, The Last UnicornI also very much enjoyed his novella, Lila the Werewolf, and I See By My Outfit, a travel memoir of his cross-country motorcycle trip in the ’60s.

His strange new urban fantasy, a retelling of the Persephone myth, set in Seattle and on an island on Puget Sound, is about climate change:  it explores fertility, flowerings, harvest, and death.  He portrays a magical spring and summer, caused by a divine contretemps between Persephone and Hades.  Persephone has left her husband Hades, is hiding out in Seattle, and is working as a waitress. As you can imagine, both Hades and her mother Demeter are searching for her.

But the gods are in the background, beings from another world.  Beagle focuses on the human protagonists who mirror the gods:  Abe, a retired history professor and a blues fan, and  Joanna, a fiftysomething flight attendant who loves basketball and is tired of flight.  The two have been lovers for decades.  Abe lives in a house on Gardner Island while restless Joanna has an apartment in Seattle.  Her dream?  To go kayaking and camping, even though she cannot swim. She also worries about her daughter, Lily, a lesbian who makes bad decisions about relationships.

Botticelli's Primavera

Botticelli’s Primavera

One night, when Abe and Joanna are eating dinner at the Skyliner diner, Abe is struck by the resemblance of Lioness, their smart, savvy, beautiful waitress, to Botticelli’s Primavera. Before you know it, Abe has invited Lioness to move into his garage, and  the beautiful spring on the island is magically extended into summer and fall, with flowers from all seasons blooming at the same time. Abe and the neighbors observe some odd scenes:  Lioness talks to a lost baby orca; she also teaches the neighborhood children how to pick flowers from different seasons out of a hole in the earth.  (Then she tells them they cannot.)  Some wonder if she is a witch.

Abe and Joanna bloom, too.  Abe begins to play harmonica with a blues group, and Joanna takes kayaking lessons.  But Lily falls in love with Lioness, and Joanna meets Lioness’ mother at the market and a mysterious man who rides the ferry back and forth…

Here is a beautiful description of the magic climate.

Even stranger than having their  own exclusive climate was the fact that Joanna had no sense at all of the summer passing. Well into June and early July, the air still kept the soft green taste of April, and the constant smell of damp grass and earth, even when there had been no rain. The rain came as regularly as in Seattle, but on Gardner Island it fell at dawn, leaving the day glittering behind it, or in the night, steadily, but so lightly that the mist had all evaporated by morning. Leaves that should have begun to change color by now, and even to drop, showed no such inclination; the rhododendrons framing the Yandells’ house were blossoming more explosively than ever, and Joanna’s own new-planted fuchsia bush already looked as maturely established as they.

This book is very slight but lovely.   Occasionally Abe and Joanna’s encounters with the gods  are jarring,  but the blurring of boundaries between the triangle of gods and humans is very sophisticated.  I think this is worth a second read.  I am adding it to my collection of retold fairy tales and myths.

Here are a few impressions of Virginia Woolf’s The Years.

virginia-woolf-the-years-penguin-51g4k2w4c5lPublished in 1937, it was Woolf’s most popular novel, but unpopular with the critics.  More conventional than many of her books, it is a family saga, yet also a vivid, searching exploration of the vicissitudes and significance of everyday life. The narrative is broken up by  stream-of-consciousness and painterly descriptions of London.

Some critics consider it a failure.  What exactly is a failure when Woolf writes? Woolf questions the conventional trajectory of life through her characters’ impressions and soliloquies. I consider The Years a cross between the well-plotted realism of John Galsworthy  (much criticized by Woolf in her essay “Modern Fiction”) and D. H. Lawrence’s lyrical radiance and brilliance.  (This makes it both deliciously readable and offbeat.) And Woolf suggests the sense of the passage of time, as she does in To the Lighthouse.

It tells the story of fifty years in the life of the Pargiter family in London. Each chapter is headed by a year.  In the first chapter, “1880,” Colonel Pargiter’s wife is dying:  he goes to the club and visits his mistress, Mira.  And while his daughter  Eleanor, a  vibrant spinster who keeps the family together and works for a charity, deals with her mother’s illness and death, her father and siblings are repulsed by the smell of decay and try to go their own way. (The Colonel and the teenage Delia are glad when Mrs. Pargiter is finally dead.)  But family life is cheerful:  they have a kettle that won’t boil, and there is much humor over waiting for the kettle.  Milly tries to fix the wick with a hairpin; Delia crossly says it will do no good.  One by one the others trickle in.  Martin sits in his father’s armchair, and gets up hastily when the Colonel come s in. Rose has a dirty pinafore, and is rebuked:  after dark she sneaks off to a shop by herself and is terrified.

the-years-woolf-51vuxnu0fplThe years pass.  One by one the Pargiters leave home, but through the years Eleanor stays and looks after her father.  She is very independent, though, volunteering to help the poor and organizing charities.  Throughout her life she has a strong connection to her siblings, cousins, and their offspring, though they fled the nest as soon as possible.  They are a diverse bunch: Edward, a classicist at Oxford, Rose, a feminist and political activist who goes to prison, Martin, a banker, Morris, a barrister.  Then there is their cousin Kitty, who escapes the burden of growing up in Oxford and the pressure to be a female scholar by marrying a rich lord but continues to meet with Eleanor about charity. Cousins Sara (Sally) and Maggie are a generation younger than Eleanor and are poor after their parents’ deaths. Rose is shocked when she visits their cheap rented rooms.  Maggie eventually marries.

There are many, many more Pargiters.

One of my favorite passages is in the chapter “1914”:  Kitty rides a train to the country after hosting a stressful dinner party.

…One’s not a child, she thought, staring at the light under the blue shade, any longer.  The years changed things; destroyed things; heaped things up–worries and bothers; here they were again.  Fragments of talk kept coming back to her; sights came before her.  She saw herself raise the window with a jerk; and the bristles on Aunt Warburton’s chin.  She saw the women rising, and the men filing in.  She sighed as she turned on her ledge.  All their clothes are the same, she thought; all their lives are the same.  And which is right? she thought, turning restlessly on her shelf.  Which is wrong?  She turned again.

The years in the novel are 1880, 1891, 1908, 1910, 1911, 1914, 1917, 1936.  I am sure some have studied the significance of these years.  Not I!

It ends with a family party.  Woolf obviously loved parties. She wrote about them so well.  I loved the book.

12 thoughts on “Autumn at Last: Virginia Woolf’s The Years & Peter S. Beagle’s Summerlong

  1. I don’t think Woolf *ever* produced a failure. She could write a relatively linear story and she could write pure stream of consciousness and there’s room for both in the world. I’ve only read The Years once I think – maybe the Woolfalong will be a good time to revisit it!


  2. Thanks for your insightful review of The Years. I’m reading it for the first time and find it hard not to compare to To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and Orlando, my favourite Woolf novel. One cannot honestly say it’s a failure. Its shimmery, ephemeral quality reminds me a bit of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. Since there is so much emphasis on the seasons, I’m curious to see what the Woolf biographer Alexandra Harris has to say about it in her recent book, Weatherland.


    • You know, I thought of Richardson, too, but it has been so long since I read her. The writer of the intro to my edition kept talking about the “ugliness” in The Years. I thought, hm, she was talking about ordinary city life.


  3. My first “Woolf” was “To the Lighthouse” in French when I was ten (my Mother’s choice to cheer me up), the second was “Mrs Dalloway”, the third, “The Years”. I have always associated “The Years” with the seasons, the smell of a bonfire, that of the hay in summer, the feeling of coolness and shade when coming from the heat outside into the house… I think of it as a very sensual novel, meaning it does not seem aridly intellectual but calling upon the senses of the reader.
    And the slow sliding of seasons and time – like a balm, a lull.


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