The Years ed. by Virginia Woolf, Anna Snaith
There is some tension in the notion of a scholarly edition of a book by Virginia Woolf. As editor Anna Snaith and series editors Jane Goldman and Susan Sellers separately remark, Woolf valued independence in reading and was wary of both authorial and editorial guidance. But Anna Snaith’s work in her new edition of The Years steadfastly avoids a didactic stance, preferring to provide multiple possibilities rather than to assert an authoritative text or interpretation. The result is a glorious abundance of information, some closely tied to Woolf’s life and works, some garnered in a more widely cast net.
A dive into this meticulously researched edition is not for the fainthearted. Of all her works, The Years was the one that troubled Woolf most and longest. From conception to publication, it occupied the better part of six years and rested upon more than twenty years of reading. This was the last novel Woolf saw to publication, and it was also her most expansive. The narrative takes in fifty years of British history, beginning in 1880 at the height of Victorian imperialism and the patriarchal home—the two always interconnected for Woolf—and continuing through the first three decades of the twentieth century with its swath of political, technological, and ideological changes (one of Snaith’s contributions in this volume is to establish definitively the temporal setting of the final section, ambiguously named “Present Day,” as 1931–33). With its complicated and sometimes recursive composition history and its density of historical, geographical, and cultural allusions, The Years provides plenty of fodder for the attentive editor, and Snaith is certainly that. The book is mammoth, approaching one thousand pages when one includes all of the introductory and note matter. There are 143 pages of explanatory notes that range individually in length from a single line to over a page. These are often fascinating reading, as Snaith excavates the rich associations of a word or phrase. A 219-page textual apparatus identifies variants from the copy text, the first British edition, which was published in March 1937 by the Hogarth Press. Variants are drawn from all other extant states of the text, from proofs to published editions, including several versions of galley proofs, two sets of page proofs, and the first American edition (though not from the holograph or typescript manuscripts). Forty-nine pages of textual notes identify important shifts between variant texts and significant passages in [End Page 608] the holograph manuscript, taken from eight notebooks held in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library. In an appendix are transcriptions of the two substantial sections excised late in Woolf’s revisions, sections that Snaith suggests should be read in conjunction with the published novel because “they remained in play until the final hour” (xciv). This hefty volume comes complete with the lengthy text of the novel itself, a selective bibliography, and preliminary material that includes Snaith’s substantial introduction and a detailed chronology of the composition of The Years. The book is the most recent addition to the Cambridge University Press series The Works of Virginia Woolf, joining Between the Acts (edited by Mark Hussey) and The Waves (edited by Michael Herbert and Susan Sellers), both of which appeared in 2011. When complete, the series will include all of Woolf’s novels, her collected short fiction, and her long essay A Room of One’s Own, though regrettably, and without explanation, not Three Guineas.
Snaith’s sixty-page introduction is every bit as wide-ranging as its subject demands. It begins by exploring the novel’s engagements with empire, its representation of time and the material environment, and how London is “laid out through aural markers” as much as through physical landmarks (xliv). It recounts in detail the novel’s genesis and evolution, including its formal transformations from essay to novel-essay to novel (jettisoning what would become Three Guineas), and it contextualizes this process within Woolf’s political engagements in the period. Vitally, Snaith recognizes how the intellectual history of The Years is illuminated by Woolf’s three scrapbooks of quotations and newspaper clippings, which “are often mentioned in relation to the obviously fact-based Three Guineas” but are rarely connected with the novel. Yet as Snaith points out, the first of the scrapbooks was compiled between 1931 and 1933, making it “a foundation for The Years” (lii).
The extensive editorial notes are of several types. The most detailed involve complex political and cultural contexts. For example, the first reference to Charles Stewart Parnell surveys both his status in Ireland and the more general question of Home Rule and then explores Woolf’s interest in the cult of personality that arose around Parnell, revealed in part through the character Delia and her evolution from the early holograph drafts (412–13). Snaith also pays detailed attention to less familiar social history. A reference to a “muffin man [who] seemed always to be ringing his bell” elicits a lively entry on aural advertising and the business practices of street traders (402). The pervasiveness of street noises in the novel is further explored through a fascinating note on the barrel-organ and its associations with Italian immigration (404). Reverberations with other texts by Woolf are carefully documented so that the reader sees, for instance, the resemblance between Abel Pargiter’s reaction to his wife’s death, Mr. Ramsay’s response to the loss of Mrs. Ramsey in To the Lighthouse, and Woolf’s father’s reaction to the death of his wife as Woolf described it in “A Sketch of the Past” (420). London landmarks and literary allusions—from Shakespeare to nursery rhymes—are briefly glossed, while repeated phrases and images—such as those of white chalk-marks on the pavement and women looking out of windows—are noted but left for the reader to interpret. These few examples should suggest the range and interest of the material.
At the bottom of each page of the reprinted novel, the reader is directed to relevant sections of the editorial notes, textual apparatus, and textual notes. These notes sometimes point elsewhere in the book so that the reader often finds herself holding the volume open at three or four places, shifting back and forth between them and wishing for a digital edition that would allow her to see all the relevant notes at once. As Snaith herself suggests, a digital genetic edition might also make possible the integration of the holograph and typescript manuscripts, the scrapbooks, and even relevant letters and diary entries (xcv–xcvi). In truth, the only significant fault with this edition, given the inevitable limits of its technology, is its failure to use all of the tools available: namely, it lacks an index. An index thorough enough to be meaningfully useful would no doubt add a considerable number of pages to an already lengthy book, but it would eliminate the need for repetition between sections and would make the explanatory notes more [End Page 609] available to readers without specific interest in The Years. Without an index, reading this impressive volume feels at times rather like inhabiting the archive, leaving one prey to the frustrations of disorientation as well as admitted to the joys of discovery. Happily, the joys of this book are considerable. This edition represents a tremendous contribution not only to Woolf scholarship but also to the broader study of British cultural history in the period.