Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sara Pargiter

Sometimes “something came to the surface, inappropriately, unexpectedly, from the depths of people, and made ordinary actions, ordinary words, expressive of the whole being.” Virginia Woolf’s The Years (1937) is made up of these moments in the lives of a large extended family, showing many ways of being British in the early part of the Twentieth Century, from a titled lady who would rather be a farmer, to an African farmer returned home. Spanning fifty years, it is so full of life it is hard to hold it all at once as you read. Of the characters in it, I found Sara most deeply fascinating.

Sara is the daughter of Colonel Pargiter’s brother Digby. Dropped as a baby, Sara has a slight deformity, a hunched shoulder which doesn’t affect her high spirits. We meet her as a child, dancing wildly around a bonfire in the middle of a London garden with her sister. A few years later we see her at home in her attic room, looking out the window at the people coming and going from parties. “The dotted square of green was full of the flowing pale figures of women in evening dress; of the upright black and white figures of men in evening dress.” She watches a couple and imagines what they are saying to each other. “A fragment of my heart, my broken heart.”

As she grows older, Sara (sometimes called Sally) lives in reduced circumstances, but this doesn't affect her spirits either. Her cousin Martin, seeing her on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral takes her to a chop house and then goes with her to Hyde Park, where they meet Sara’s sister with her sleeping baby at the Round Pond. As Martin and Maggie talk, Sara falls asleep under the trees, “netted with floating lozenges of light from between the leaves.” Martin’s sister Rose is in prison for participating in a suffragette march and throwing a brick.

Sara always seems to be “balancing herself on the arm of a chair, sipping coffee and swinging her foot up and down,” making sharp, incisive comments about what she observes. Or, alternately, spinning what she sees into imaginative stories, usually with the ring of truth. I adored Sara’s insouciance, kept reading the book over and over to try to see her whole. I am sure Virginia was describing her young self in Sara.

But another aspect of Virginia is depicted in Eleanor, the practical eldest of the Pargiter children. Some composite of Vanessa Bell [Virginia’s sister] and Virginia, Eleanor energetically moves about London, working with charitable organizations, hopping on buses and using the telephone in the final chapter. Eleanor, fresh from the country is glad to be back in London, breathing in the soft air, expanding in “the uproar, the confusion, the space of the Strand.” This London, in which many of Virginia’s friends live within walking distance of each other, and of the reading room at the British Museum, is terribly attractive.

In the final chapter of the book, all the Pargiters meet at a party. Eleanor is in her 70’s. She has never married but remains interested in everything. Her nephew North says “Old Eleanor, with all her rambling and stumbling, was worth a dozen of Peggy [his sister who is a doctor] any day.” Sara is attached to Nicholas, a Pole who “loves those of his own sex.” She dances with him and later falls asleep. When she wakes the dawn is breaking. “There against the window, gathered in a group, were the old brothers and sisters. ‘Look, Maggie,’ she whispered, turning to her sister. ‘Look!’”

Virginia Woolf made several attempts to write the book that eventually became The Years. She thought originally that she would set factual essays describing what conditions for women were like beside the stories she envisioned. She soon gave that up, as she believed that the truth of fact and the truth of fiction would “meet and destroy each other.” Her initial attempt, published as The Pargiters, is also wonderful.

In the 1970’s, as biographies of Virginia Woolf began to be written and excerpts from her letters and diaries appeared, I felt her almost as an intimate. In common with her I had powerful parents, a large number of siblings who remain close, and a great love of place. I didn’t suffer the early losses she did, or have the chemical imbalances. But I do feel that when sane, Virginia Woolf was saner than most.

Virginia did not believe artists were different than other people. “In your modesty you seem to consider that writers are of different blood and bone from yourselves; that they know more of Mrs Brown than you do,” she writes. “Never was there a more fatal mistake. It is this division between reader and writer, this humility on your part, these professional airs and graces on ours, that corrupt and emasculate the books which should be the healthy offspring of a close and equal alliance between us.”

Note to Readers: Before I was thirty I had set up a canon of “five books” which were to be my education. The women in each of the books excited me as much as the intellectual adventures detailed in them. One of the five books was The Years, by Virginia Woolf. After meditating on these books for almost fifteen years, I wrote an essay called “Stone Books: An Education,” 1990. In it, it is easy to see the preoccupations of the five books reflecting off one another. Since it is too long to post in a blog (nine pages), I offer it to anyone who requests it (in a .pdf format) from lightlyheldbooks at gmail dot com.

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