Hostile Environments, Parties, and Observation in Woolf’s “The Years”

Scarlet Clark, Southampton University

In the latest essay in the #ModernistMoments series, Scarlet Clark examines the role of auto-ethnography in countering hostile nationalist politics and encouraging collective self-scrutiny. Clark discusses Virginia Woolf’s employment of Mass Observationist theories in The Years (1937) as a literary example of such an invocation.

Virginia Woolf’s The Years (1937) spans the history of one family while focusing with often minute detail on modern English life. Sharing the same journalistic origins as Three Guineas (1938) and Between the Acts (1941), The Years possesses a clear desire to address the public directly, “with more milk skimmed,”[1] and to encourage collective self-scrutiny.

Writers in the late 1930s were working in an increasingly insular Britain. Oswald Mosley, founder of The British Union of Fascists, had reached the peak of fascist frenzy by 1939, continuing his ultra-nationalistic quest against the backdrop of an array of intolerant immigration legislation. The Aliens Act of 1919, the legislation that governed refugees from Nazism in the 1930s, grew ever more hostile with stricter visa requirements and the increased police monitoring of immigrants and refugees. Woolf’s The Years subsequently bears themes of detachment, weariness, and public duty—all of which we keenly recognise today.

The contemporaneous auto-ethnographic impulse provides a backdrop to Woolf’s urge for national self-scrutiny. The Mass Observationist (MO) movement, a Blackheath group formed in 1936, were responding to a late modernist “desperate need for anthropological study of our own situation”. With a library of around 5,000 press cuttings and 1,730 public reports in a single year, MOs recruited the public to observe and document daily life. At first glance, with their impetus to “collaborate in building museums of sound, smell, food, clothes, domestic objects, advertisements, newspapers,”[2] the MOs appear to fall into Jed Etsy’s description of a stagnant imperial modernity whose “island became one large museum” following the fracturing of the British Empire.[3] Madge’s definition of the movement, however, reveals a search for methodologies which resisted totalisation, being an

instrument for collecting facts, not a means for producing a synthetic philosophy […]. The availability of the facts will […] add to the social consciousness of the time […]. It is one part of a general deflection of emphasis from individual to collective effort.[4]

This instrument’s consciousness-raising approach is in part due to the fear that Nazism, the “force of unreason associated with humanity in the mass […] could overwhelm British people.”[5] Both Woolf and the MOs theorised that the most effective ways to guard against this were reason and self-vigilance. Woolf’s Outsider’s Society methodology in Three Guineas encouraged women (and the general public) to maintain “an attitude of complete indifference […] with a firm rooting upon fact”[6] in order to resist the nation: “a country beyond constitutional definition, whose appeal is overwhelmingly emotional.”[7] When approaching nationalism with reason and collected evidence, women become aware of how “little [they have] to thank England for in the past […] or in the present.”[8]

Leena Kore Schröder makes note of Woolf’s own description of her emotional attachment to England and its later use as self-critical ammunition in Three Guineas. Woolf describes the nostalgic English countryside and its alluring qualities preventing exactness of sound and sense: “the sound seems to fall through an elastic, gummy air; which holds it up; which prevents it from being sharp and distinct […]. The rooks cawing is part of the waves breaking.”[9] The root of this description is a self-critical passage in Three Guineas which outlines the careful mediation of indifference and attachment:

[…] if, when reason has had its say, still some obstinate emotion remains, some love of England dropped into a child’s ears by the cawing of rooks in an elm tree, […], this drop of pure, if irrational, emotion she will make serve her to give England first what she desires of peace and freedom for the whole world.[10]

In The Years, the doctor character Peggy personifies this late modernist and auto-ethnographic quandary of how one “combines detachment and sympathy” regarding English politics.[11] Peggy is a social eye, constantly watching and collecting microscopic fragments of conversation, though having clear difficulty in “grasping the sense of specific occurrences and gestures empathetically.”[12] Peggy sees everything with “extreme clearness,” is remote from others, often “drawing herself back against walls” and floors to “take notes of what people say”—most of it “nonsense.”[13] Her crippling self-reflexivity, consequent inability to act instinctively, and refusal to be “inside” contribute to her melancholia.

Peggy’s indifferent observations are an antidote for feeling adrift, of needing to “drug [herself] into a state of comparative insensibility” in order to act. Differently to the co-creation of the auto-ethnographers, she prescribes herself the solitary and self-soothing activity of observation, repeating: “take notes and pain goes. Take notes and the pain goes” (323). Woolf here may well be criticising a detached writing ethic which is beneficial to the self, rather than the public.

In Three Guineas, indifference is figured as a relentless utilisation of critical thought that disrupts habitual, national life. Peggy’s role in The Years, seen most clearly in the “Present Day” party section, is to lay the cornerstone for the total defamiliarisation of ingrained English social custom and post-colonial nostalgia.

In Woolf’s late fiction, the Conradian “horror” of the English home is established in drawing rooms or village greens. Her use of the auto-ethnographic becomes useful in dramatising the nation’s failure to re-stage English identity as “autonomous of colonial heritage.”[14] Woolf’s gaze in The Years is truthful when it shows “we know nothing, even about ourselves” (394), and when Peggy’s ethnographic lens goes on to render familiar customs unfamiliar, she shows anthropology to be inoperative.

Peggy’s auto-ethnographic view of the party from the ground is a challenge to the autocracy of aerial narrative perspective. Her documentation unusually renders the private family home a port of imperial trade and knowledge:

[F]rom her seat on the floor she had a queer view of people’s feet; feet pointing this way, feet pointing that way, patent leather pumps; satin slippers; silk stockings and socks. They danced rhythmically, insistently, to the tune of the fox trot. And what about the cocktail and the sea, he said to me, said he to me—and the tune seemed to repeat over and over again. And voices went on over her head. Odd little gusts of inconsecutive conversation reached her […] down in Norfolk where my brother-in-law had a boat […] oh compete washout I agree […] people talking nonsense at parties. (355)

In this passage, Peggy does not privilege one detail over the other. She remains on the floor, widely noting down all information as it “flies over her head”, unable to see from above the partygoers and fragmentary conversations as a meaningful totality. Noticeable in this passage is the total lack of uniformity (even with the insistence of the fox trot), its dynamism and multiplicity. The Years instructs its reader to, like Peggy, “construct meaning based on indeterminacy, multiplicity, and connections, and to face the possibility that there may be no final pattern.”[15]

Peggy’s on the ground, outsider disengagement allows her to scrutinise her own nation’s chronic national decline without emotional attachment or comforting synthesis. However, she feels the allure of British nationalism after she tunes into the sounds of London and the harsh

suggestion they brought in of other worlds, indifferent to this world, of people toiling, grinding, in the heart of darkness, in the depths of night […]. How can one be ‘happy’ […] in a world bursting with misery […] tyranny; brutality; torture; the fall of civilisation; the end of freedom? (358)

Peggy next asks “why do I notice everything?”, before submitting to failure, forcing “her mind to become blank and lie back, and accept quietly, tolerantly, whatever came” (358).

Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII

Peggy’s passivity is interrupted twice, firstly by group laughter over a dream-like, animalistic drawing of Queen Alexandra during a party game. The picture is created collectively, each body part drawn by a different person. The head resembles the Queen’s, but the body is comprised of different animals. Sensing a shared feat of critical, anti-imperial representation, Peggy attempts to impart her vision, asking others to relieve her of the auto-ethnographic duty which leaves her “feeling like a person whose blood had been sucked” (333). Peggy implores her audience to “look here… she began […]. Look here…,” but her vision “hung before her, the thing she had seen, the thing she had not said” (360-61). Soothing her anxieties, Peggy tells herself that at least she’d tried: “her eyes half shut; it seemed to her that she was on a terrace, in the evening; an owl went up and down, up and down; its white wing showed on the dark of the hedge; and she heard country people singing” (361).

Earlier, Peggy’s patience is interrupted when an elderly patient reminisces about the “fine old days” and the English, a “faded snapshot of […] some country mansion” (324). Peggy’s vision at the party dredges up this comforting nostalgic illusion of rural English insularity, of the white, unthinking movement and slumberous vigilance ‘up and down, up and down’ the dark borders, as the comforting substitution for giving up on endeavours to improve social consciousness.  Nevertheless, her narrative sharpens, losing its “gummy” quality as new feet approach her, beginning once more to “note” conversation and positively resolving to try again, to accept her duty towards difference, and deciding that “you have to pick up the pieces, and make something new, something different, she thought, and joined the foreigner” (362).

Just as the mass observationists emphasised the importance of “collective effort” when re-building a self-critical nation in the context of global xenophobia, Woolf makes clear through these public interruptions that Peggy, originally believing her auto-ethnographic duty towards others to be solitary and draining, realises it must include others to be valuable. Despite her exhaustion, Peggy retains her critical eye, but this time admits hope and shared public responsibility.

A December 2021 “Kill the Bill” protest against the PCSA Act (Steve Eason/Creative Commons)

Just as late modernists were responding to their own hostile environments, an overview of Britain’s immigration and asylum bills today paints a similarly bleak picture. For recent Ukrainian refugees, the emergency British visa process was marked by bureaucratic and logistical hostility, while the new Nationality and Borders Bill now possesses the ability to strip British citizenship without notice. Its details of offshore processing and indefinite detention are set to deepen the criminalisation of asylum seekers and immigrants already in the UK. In addition to these xenophobic administrative processes, the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Act criminalises the right to protest this oppression.

In the face of such despair, to continue “trying again”, mobilising, and moving towards an anti-fascist Britain feels like an insurmountable task. Virginia Woolf’s Peggy, though feeling this pain and exhaustion, recovers energy in the collective, moving towards the co-creation of a better England. Woolf instructs us to observe what’s happening within, but then to extend our self-observations into active, hopeful directions: picking up the pieces, making something new, and joining the foreigner.


[1] Virginia Woolf, “Saturday 23 November, 1940”, Selected Diaries (London: Vintage, 2008), 495.

[2] Charles Madge, Mass Observation (London: Fredrick Muller, 1937), 35.

[3] Jed Etsy, A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 44.

[4] Madge, 47.

[5] James Buzard, “Mass-Observation, Modernism, and Auto-ethnography,” Modernism/modernity 4, no.3 (1997): 108.

[6] Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (London: Vintage, 2000), 205.

[7] Leena Kore Schröder, “‘A Question is Asked which is Never Answered’: Virginia Woolf, Englishness and Antisemitism”, Woolf Studies Annual, 19 (2003): 33.

[8] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas (London: Vintage, 2001), 206.

[9] Virginia Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past”, in Moments of Being, ed. Jeanne Schulkind (York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976): 66.

[10]  Woolf, Three Guineas, 207.

[11] John Marx, The Modernist Novel and the Decline of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 60.

[12] Carey Snyder, British Fiction and Cross-Cultural Encounters (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 5.

[13] Virginia Woolf, The Years (London: Vintage Classics, 2016), 323. Subsequent references to this text are in parentheses within the body of the essay.

[14] Simon Gikandi, Maps of Englishness (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 4.

[15] Jessica Evans (ed.), The Camerawork Essays: Context and Meaning in Photography (London: Rivers Oram Press, 1997), 76.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlet Clark is a Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar working on the Intelligent Oceans Project at Southampton University. Her research is at the intersection of American law and literature, investigating contemporary Southern literature, counter-archives, and petro-colonialism, with a particular juridical focus on legacy litigation. She also writes and publishes on modernism, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner, and has a forthcoming article out in a special edition of The Faulkner Journal, edited by Ahmed Honeini, this Autumn.  

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