Number of pages: 459. The longest of Virginia Woolf’s novels.
Number of characters: 28
Year published: 1937
I don’t usually do a list of characters in my Study Guides, however, this book had to be an exception; the number of characters is uncountable.
Colonel Able Pargiter – a retired soldier. Has a wife and seven children.
Eleanor, Edward, Milly, Delia, Morris, Rose, Martin are children of the Colonel and Mrs Pargiter. We are not clear of their ages at the start of the novel, only of Eleanor “about twenty two” and Martin, aged twelve.
Mrs Pargiter – the Colonel’s wife and mother of the above.
Kitty Malone/Lasswade – the cousin of the Pargiters. She marries Lord Lasswade part way through the novel.
Eugenie and Digby – Digby is the Colonel’s brother, Eugenie, his wife. They have two children, Maggie and Sara (Sally).
Crosby – the housekeeper and nurse of the Pargiters.
Hugh Gibbs – a friend of Edward’s at Oxford University.
Mira – mistress of Colonel Pargiter.
Réné (Renny) – husband of Maggie.
Celia – wife of Morris Pargiter. They have three children, North, Peggy and Charles, who is not mentioned until very near the end.
Nicholas Pomjalovsky – a homosexual who Eleanor meets through Maggie and Renny.
William Whatney – a man Eleanor knows from when she was young.
Ann Hillier – Kitty’s cousin.
Lucy Craddock – Kitty’s history teacher, who she visits once a week.
Nelly Robson – a friend of Kitty’s. Kitty dined with her once.
The novel first introduces Colonel Able Pargiter, a retired soldier. He is chatting with some of his friends, whom he knew whilst he was a soldier. While there, he thinks about his mistress, Mira, who calls him Bogy. The Colonel has a wife and seven children: Eleanor, the eldest “about twenty two” p.13, Edward, Milly, Delia, Morris, Rose, Martin (aged twelve), but he does not feel guilty for his affair, because he wife is ill and near death. At home, the children are preparing food and tea for their ill mother. Able comes home in a horrible mood, having fought whilst with Mira. They are all pleased when Eleanor returns home as she is the “soother, the maker-up of quarrels…” p. 13. Able leaves after drinking a cup of tea.
The sisters stand in the window nearing sunset, watching people, cars, the street. Delia goes up to her mother’s room and we meet Mrs Pargiter. She’s asleep but she soon awakes, not knowing where she is. Rose wants to go to Lamley’s shop but no one will go with her; she sneaks out. She buys a box of ducks and returns home. During her return, she comes across a strange looking man, who scares her. Morris arrives. They sit down for dinner. During dinner, Mrs Pargiter takes a funny turn and the doctor is called. Delia wishes her mother would die and she hints that her father is thinking the same thing. Mrs Pargiter recovers.
Mrs Pargiter dies that night. The children say goodbye to her one by one, but Delia does not want to.
The narrative moves to Edward in Oxford university. Gibbs, a friend, visits him and they talk about hunting. Another friend, Ashley, joins them. Edward announces he is going to bed and begins to remove his waistcoat, to “torture” Ashley, who is looking at Edward “appealingly”. It is clear that Ashley is a homosexual.
We move to the Lodge, where we see the aftermath of a party thrown by the Pargiter children’s aunt, Mrs Malone. Mrs Malone is saying goodbye to the last of her guests and her daughter Kitty, the cousin of the Pargiters, is glad to finally go to bed. The next day, Kitty goes to study with her teacher, Lucy Craddock. She moves on to visit Nelly Robson for tea. Kitty and Nelly’s father discuss history and Yorkshire over tea of fish and potatoes. Jo, Nelly’s brother, enters for food. Kitty returns home. she reads to her mother after dinner. A letter arrives announcing Mrs Pargiter’s death. Her funeral is not long after.
Kitty has become Lady Lasswade, having married Lord Lasswade. They have a little boy. Milly has married Hugh Gibbs, Edward’s friend from Oxford, and is pregnant with another child. Eleanor has a busy day in London. She helps her father out at home and does charity work to provide housing for those who can’t afford it. She visits Mrs Potter, an old, deaf woman who needs a leak in her roof replacing. Eleanor hires someone to do it for free. Eleanor returns home. Colonel Pargiter is considering telling her that he is seeing Mira again, but he cannot. Eleanor leaves to go to court, to watch her brother Morris, who is now married to Celia, argue his case. She remembers she has a letter from Martin, who is in India. He tells of his adventures in the jungle with a man named Renton.
After leaving the court, Eleanor hears the news that the Irish politician, Parnell, has died. She knows she must tell Delia, who will be devastated. Delia is not at home.
The Colonel visits his sister-in-law, Eugenie, for it is his niece’s birthday. He has two nieces, Maggie and Sara. He drops a present off. Digby, the Colonel’s brother, comes home. They discuss Parnell’s death.
Sara, daughter of Eugenie and Digby, lies in bed. She cannot sleep because of the music from a nearby party. She grabs a copy of Antigone, “done into English verse by Edward Pargiter”. She falls asleep reading it. Maggie comes home from a party and wakes Sara by accident. Sara did not attend the party became she has a funny shoulder and has been prescribed bed rest. Maggie spoke with Martin at the party, who had just returned from Africa.
Digby and Eugenie have died; their house has been sold on already. Martin, in his forties, has stopped by, but the caretaker of the house won’t let him in. He visits Eleanor next, now in her fifties. Colonel Pargiter has had a stroke. Rose also stops at Eleanor’s.
Rose is visiting her cousins, Maggie and Sara, who now own a cheap house together. They don’t want to meet Rose. They all discuss their childhood. It is announced that Delia married an Irishman. Rose notices how poor they are. She cannot believe they cook their own food. She invites them to one of Eleanor’s charity meetings. Sara agrees to go with her. Kitty also arrives at the meeting dressed ready to go to the opera. She goes to the opera that evening and notices that the Royal box is empty. She is worried the opera will be cancelled if King Edward dies. The opera finishes. The narrative shifts to Maggie and Sara at home. A man shouts from the street that King Edward VII has died.
Eleanor, now fifty-five, has been in Spain, though we don’t know for what period of time. She mentions that Colonel Pargiter has died and that the house has been shut up. She visits Morris and Celia, who have three children, North, Peggy and Charles. William Whatney is there, a man Eleanor has not seen for years: he complimented her eyes once. Eleanor reveals to Celia that Maggie is living in France, married to a man named Réné and expecting a baby. Eleanor stays over night.
Eleanor greets a House Agent; she has finally agreed to sell Abercorn Terrace. She says goodbye to Crosby, the housekeeper at Abercorn for forty years. Crosby moves to Richmond, taking the dog, Rover, with her. Rover dies within a few days after refusing to eat. Crosby visits Martin, who is still a bachelor. Martin, after saying goodbye to Crosby, tells the reader about some letters he found from a woman named Mira. He wonders why his father felt he had to keep her a secret.
Martin gets the bus to St. Paul’s. He runs into Sara and they have lunch. Sara mentions that she is soon meeting Maggie, and Martin that he is visiting Rose in prison, although still no one has mentioned what she has thrown a brick at. Sara and Martin get the bus to Hyde Park Corner. They walk through the park into Kensington Gardens where they meet Maggie with her baby. Martin leaves. He goes to a party thrown by Kitty. He is introduced to Kitty’s cousin, Ann Hillier. Kitty and the other women gossip for a while. Eventually everyone leaves. Kitty just has time to get changed and catch the train to her husband’s country home. It is clear this is some way away, as she has a train carriage with a bed, and after the train starts, she cannot believe that “so great a monster could start so gently on so long a journey”, p. 291. She does not mention where in England she is going, only that it is North England. Once there, she walks through the grounds and the sun comes up.
Eleanor dines with Maggie and Réné (Renny) in London. Because of the War, they’ve moved back to London as it is safer than France. She expected Maggie and Renny to be alone, but an openly homosexual man, named Nicholas, is staying with them. He is Polish-American. Sara is also due to arrive. They begin to eat dinner in the basement as they have no servants, only one washer-up. Sara arrives. She is angry with North, Eleanor’s nephew, who has declared he is joining the Front Line. During dinner, they move to the air-raid shelter after the siren goes off. Eleanor takes the bus home.
This section is the smallest at only four pages. Crosby hobbles home from work. Her legs are extremely painful in her old age and she is slow in her work. She has new employers who she dislikes; they are not “gentlefolk” (p.326) like the Pargiters. A multitude of guns and sirens begin to go off. Crosby is not afraid, but simply mutters about the nuisance of the guns. She hears from a person as she queues at the grocer’s that the war is over.
Present Day, Summer
In 1918, Eleanor was sixty two years old. For Eleanor now to be in her seventies, the “Present Day” must be around 1928-35. Eleanor has been entertaining in the evening. Her nephew, Morris’s son, North has just returned from Africa, but she has barely spoken to him what with so many other people to talk to as well. Eleanor has been in India. She says goodbye to North. North goes on to visit Sara who lives in a run down part of London. She is now in her fifties and lives alone in a boarding house. The last time they saw each other was when he announced he was leaving for the Front; they argued. They now reminisce over the letters they sent to each other while North was away.
North’s sister, Peggy visits Eleanor. Eleanor is still travelling a lot; Peggy notices her aunt’s skin is burnt and her hair looked whiter than ever. Peggy gets fed up with Eleanor; she is interested in her aunt’s past while Eleanor wants to talk about the modern age: showers, telephones, etc. The two get into a cab and they pass Abercorn Terrace. Peggy wants to hear all about it, but Eleanor claims the present us so much more interesting. Charles, Peggy’s brother, is mentioned for the first time. He died in the war.
Delia is throwing a party for her family. Delia is married to an Irishman, has been for a long time. She’s in her sixties. All the remaining characters attend the party and they discuss the past: Parnell, Edward being in love with Kitty before she married Lasswade, Africa, Crosby, William Whatney, Abercorn Terrace. Even Edward reappears for the party, the reader having not seen him since 1880. The party lasts all night, and when the guests leave, the sun is rising again.
The narrative flits very smoothly and freely between characters, giving us perspectives from various characters at the same time. This example comes from Edward in Oxford, when he is visited by two friends, Ashley and Gibbs who dislike each other: “Gibbs was taken in by [Edward]; but Ashley saw through him. He often caught Edward out in small vanities like this; but they only served to endear him the more. How beautiful he looks, he was thinking…He ought to be rescued from brutes like Gibbs, he thought savagely.” This is all from Ashley’s point of view. Within a paragraph we switch to Gibbs’: “He did it to insult him, Gibbs felt. Ashley, he knew, thought him a great hulking brute; the dirty little swine came in, spoilt the talk, and then began to give himself airs at Gibbs’s expense.” P. 57. The way Woolf can switch between characters to demonstrate their thoughts towards one another is extremely interesting.
Woolf is also very clever in her treatment of characters and plot. She does not narrate the main actions, but rather the characters reactions; we are told that Colonel Pargiter has had a stroke, but Woolf does not narrate the action, we are simply told about it; “He had grown inert and ponderous after his stroke; there were red veins in his nose and in his cheeks. His stroke is almost mentioned as a side note, like it is not important. Similarly,me are not given a narrative of the War beginning,m yet Eleanor briefly mentions how she came to hear the was to be a War: “She was sitting on the same terrace; but now the sun was setting; a maid came out and said, “The soldiers are guarding the line with fixed bayonets!” That was how she had heard of the war – three years ago”.
Each chapter begins with a paragraph about the weather; if it’s Winter, the snow is described, if it is Spring, the rain is described. Woolf could be doing this for a number of raisins but it is a very visual technique that allows us to visualise the scene we are about to read.
“Lamps were being lit; a light glowed in the drawing room opposite; then the curtains were drawn, and the room was blotted out…Above the roofs was one of those red and fitful London sunsets that make window after window burn gold. There was a wildness in the spring evening; even here, in Abercorn Terrace the light was changing from gold to black, from black to gold.” P. 18.
Rain: “It was raining…Was it worth while to shelter under the hawthorn, under the hedge, the sheep seemed to question; and the cows already turned out in the grey fields, under the dim hedges, munched on, sleepily chewing with raindrops on their hides. Down on the roofs it fell – here in Westminster, there in the Ladbroke Grove; on the wide sea a million points pricked the blue monster like an innumerable shower bath”. P. 49. The use of rain appears to symbolise death and possibly new beginnings. It rains the night Mrs Pargiter dies in London, but also on the same night in Oxford, where Edward studies at the university. The rain also helps to connect the character’s narrative; it is raining when Mrs Pargiter dies, it moves to Edward where it is raining in Oxford and it is raining where the ladies stand in the party at the Lodge.
Wind: “It was scraping, scourging. It was so cruel. So unbecoming. Not merely did it bleach faces and raise red spots on noses; it tweaked up skirts; showed stout legs; made trousers reveal skeleton shins.” P. 157.
Cloud: “The moon which was now clear of clouds lay in a bare space as if the light had consumed the heaviness of the clouds and left a perfectly clear pavement, a dancing ground for revelry. For some time the dappled iridescence of the sky remained unbroken. Then there was a puff of wind; and a little cloud crossed the moon.” P. 147.
“When the wind was in the right direction they could hear St Paul’s. The soft circles spread out in the air: one, two, three, four – Eleanor counted eight, nine, ten. She was surprised that the strokes stopped so soon. “There, it’s only ten o’clock you see,” she said”. P. 43. Woolf often uses clocks and chimes as a symbol of mortality; they remind us that eventually, we all die. Very cleverly, Woolf has put the chimes in just before the death of the girls’ mother. The children are extremely aware of their mortality at this time of their lives.
“One after another the bells of Oxford began pushing their slow chimes through the air. They tolled ponderously, unequally, as if they had to roll the air out of their way and the air was heavy. He loved the sound of the bells.” Edward. P. 52