The Pargiters

by Robert Higney

On the evening of 20 January 1931, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary,

I have this moment, while having my bath, conceived an entire new book–a sequel to a Room of Ones Own–about the sexual life of women: to be called Professions for Women perhaps–Lord how exciting![1]

It was mid-1932 by the time she began work on this project: what she hoped would be a new literary form based in social fact, a “novel-essay” that alternated fictional scenes with interchapters of historical explanation and critical commentary. In early 1933, having apparently decided that this method of conjoining fact and vision was insufficient to both her aesthetic and her critical goals, she abandoned the experiment, compressed the fictional chapters into what would become the “1880” section of The Years and reserved her social critique for Three Guineas. Forty years later, amid a surge of interest in Woolf’s feminism and politics, the drafts of her novel-essay were edited by Mitchell Leaska and published in 1977 under Woolf’s working title, The Pargiters. Many characters familiar to readers of The Years appear here, in the aborted draft of The Pargiters, first, including members of draft’s eponymous family: Colonel Abel Pargiter; his terminally ill wife Rose; and their children, Morris, Eleanor, Edward, Milly, Delia, Robert (Martin in The Years) and Rose. (Characters’ names are somewhat fluid, no doubt due to the fact that this is an early draft; at some points a “Mary” appears, for example.)

The children’s cousin Kitty appears in the last two chapters, along with members of her family and related individuals in Oxford. Each of Woolf’s novels brought with it new stylistic innovations, and The Pargiters, though discarded at a fairly early stage and never published in her lifetime, is no exception. In its style it breaks sharply from the lyrical prose of The Waves in favor of more straightforward realism; its innovation lies in its inchoate attempt to find a narrative form sufficient to account for all the social, historical, and institutional forces that shape women’s lives. Woolf attempts to grasp, through the combination of narrative and critical commentary, every aspect of the world she portrays; at the same time, whether because of The Pargiters’ grounding in Woolf’s increasingly militant feminism or simply because of its relatively unpolished prose, the writing feels highly personal–the voice of the narrator seems closer at times to the voice in Woolf’s diaries than to that of her other novels. Then there is the novel-essay’s central conceit: that its fictional chapters are passages from a work in progress, and its interchapters a commentary on that work presented to an audience of women. In the first interchapter, which opens the work, Woolf’s narrator says that her novel

tries to give a faithful and detailed account of a family called Pargiter, from the year 1800 to the year 2032. Thus, if I select the Chapter which deals with the Pargiters in the year 1880, I ought to be able to show you what you were like fifty years ago: to provide that perspective which is so important for the understanding of the present.[2]

There appears to be no evidence that Woolf ever planned to actually write this imaginary historical/sci-fi novel spanning 232 years, though it’s fun to wonder what it might have looked like, and the subsequent scenes are all set in 1880. In the first, the sisters while away an afternoon at home; Colonel Pargiter appears for tea, then departs; the sisters squabble briefly over who will attend their bedridden mother. In the second, young Rose sneaks out alone to go to the shop down the street; in the third, we see Edward in Oxford; his lovelorn thoughts take us to his cousin Kitty, whose father is Master of a college. Scenes four and five depict Kitty at home and on a visit to the home of a friend whose father has ascended from a working-class background to become a professor.

In the chapters themselves, Woolf shows how women’s aspirations are frustrated by a culture that venerates them as “angels in the house” while preventing them from pursuing activities that would allow them to understand the world and lead fulfilling lives.[3] The Pargiter women, though obviously bright and energetic, have no outlet for their talents and desires, and achieve glimmers of recognition of this fact (Delia wants to go to Germany to study music, but knows she will never be able to because she is a woman). A claustrophobic and stultifying atmosphere pervades the entire house. Victorian culture disfigures the lives of men as well: Edward, who has no language in which to articulate his feelings for Kitty, can conceive of her only as “the loveliest, the purest, the most exalted of women” (75) while writing bad love poetry–in the process, of course, reproducing the very notions about womanhood that keep his sisters confined to the drawing room. In both cases, economics, traditional notions about gender roles, and sexual repression work together to inhibit individuals’ development.

At their most ambitious, the interchapters not only make explicit the fiction’s implicit historical critiques, but also seek to overcome what Woolf sees as the representational limits of the novel in her own cultural moment. In the second fictional chapter, for example, Rose is repeatedly accosted by a suspicious man on her trip to and from the store:

When she reached the pillar box there was the man again. He was leaning against it, as if he were ill, Rose thought, filled with the same terror again; [but] he was lit up by the lamp. There was nobody else anywhere in sight. As she ran past him, he gibbered some nonsense at her, sucking his lips in & out; & began to undo his clothes . . . (43, ellipses in text)

Later, when Eleanor asks Rose why she can’t sleep, Rose cowers mutely: “‘But I can’t tell Eleanor’ she was saying to herself” (48). The interchapter commentary glosses Rose’s experience in a passage worth quoting at length, as it draws together Woolf’s awareness of the limits and possibilities of aesthetic creation with the structures of social and sexual repression that she was attempting to represent in the novel-essay:

This instinct to turn away and hide the true nature of the experience, either because it is too complex to explain or because of the sense of guilt that seems to adhere to it and to make concealment necessary, has, of course, prevented both the novelist from dealing with it in fiction–it would be impossible to find any mention of such feelings in the novels that were being written by Trollope, Mrs Gaskell, Mrs Oliphant, George Meredith, during the eighties. . . . In addition, there is, as the three dots used after the sentence “He unbuttoned his clothes. . .” testify, a convention, supported by law, which forbids, whether rightly or wrongly, any plain description of the sight that Rose, in common with many other little girls, saw under the lamp post by the pillar box in the dusk of that March evening. All the novelist can do, therefore, in order to illustrate this aspect of sexual life, is to state some of the facts; but not all; and then to imagine the impression on the nerves, on the brain; on the whole being, of a shock which the child instinctively conceals, as Rose did . . . and is also too ignorant, too childish, too frightened, to describe or explain even to herself, as Rose again was. (51)

Woolf thus attempts to account both for what is in the fiction and for what cannot appear there, not by naming the experience itself but by explaining why it can’t be named. It’s not difficult, then, to see why she became frustrated with The Pargiters: the explanations constantly threaten to obscure more than they reveal, as each layer of meta-commentary moves further away from its object. In the fourth interchapter essay, which analyzes the historical and institutional transmission of Edward’s ideas about women, Woolf’s narrator repeatedly stresses the impossibility of understanding Edward’s emotions, even if their genealogy can be described: “nobody who was not first at Rexby or St. James’s and then at Benedict’s in the summer of 1880 could possibly understand the force of the traditions and influences” (76); “to give the full effect of all this . . . would be entirely impossible” (77); “A highly educated foreigner failed completely to understand . . . a working man would be equally at a loss” (78). And indeed, the comprehension of character is inhibited rather than enabled in passages like the following, which occur with greater and greater frequency as the draft progresses:

That scene, though it may possibly throw some light upon the problems that worried Edward’s younger brother Bobby when he first went to a public school and therefore indirectly explain his sister Rose’s anger in the bathroom, and her consequent refusal to go “beetling” with Bobby in the Round Pond, is inevitably imperfect[.]

The commentary is overwhelmed at moments like this, in which Woolf’s imperative to “give a faithful and detailed account” risks producing an exercise in the accumulation of contextual detail. Indeed, passages approach Woolf’s own parody of socially-conscious Edwardian novelists in her 1924 essay “Character in Fiction,” whose writerly advice she imagined as the imperative to

[b]egin by saying that her father kept a shop in Harrogate. Ascertain the rent. Ascertain the wages of shop assistants in the year 1878. Discover what her mother died of. Describe cancer. Describe calico. Describe–[4]

As Leaska notes in his introduction to the drafts, the OED defines a “pargeter” as “a plasterer; a whitewasher,” and if Woolf’s aim in her novel-essay is to bring to light through the Pargiters all the aspects of the modern world which they themselves cannot or will not recognize, then she is frequently tripped up by her own ambition.[5]

The Pargiters is interesting in its own right for the insight it offers into Woolf’s politics, which she expresses more bluntly in the novel-essay than she ever had before; for its ambition as a formal experiment; and for the failure of that experiment, which, of course, is related to its ambition. While some of the project’s shortcomings hint at why Woolf abandoned it when she did, it’s not entirely fair to evaluate the aesthetic quality of what is, after all, a draft (and a rough one at that–the published version preserves Woolf’s typos and many, many additions and modifications). The Pargiters is equally valuable, though, as a window into Woolf’s process of composition, as she incorporated the bulk of its fictional material, substantially revised, into The Years. Of particular note in this regard are passages that deal with characters from the lower classes: in the first chapter, Eleanor mentions the Levys, a poor Jewish family she has met through her volunteer work; later, Kitty has tea with the Hughes/Brook family (Woolf apparently changed their name about halfway through the section). Both are among the most heavily revised and least successful portions of the draft, falling prey to a rhetoric of noble poverty that is not clearly confined to the opinions of Woolf’s characters; it isn’t clear whether this romanticized view of the poor is something that the narration participates in or wants to set up for critique. When these passages reappear in The Years, the presence of the Levys and the Robsons (as they finally come to be called) is muted, but their portrayal is much more successful–further evidence of Woolf’s awareness of her own imaginative and artistic limits. While The Pargiters marks a more forceful conjunction of formal innovation with politics than Woolf had ever before attempted, the process of revision would become increasingly important as she discarded the novel-essay form, carrying its claims for representation and description into the modernist realism of The Years.

  1. ↑ Woolf, diary entry of 20 January 1931, in The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 5 vols., ed. Anne Olivier Bell (New York: Harcourt, 1984), 4:6.
  2. ↑ Woolf, The Pargiters, ed. Mitchell Leaska (New York: Harcourt, 1977), p. 9. Subsequent quotations cited parenthetically. The scene that follows is headed “Chapter Fifty-Six,” chapters 1-55 having presumably brought us from 1800 to 1880.
  3. ↑ Woolf discusses “the angel in the house” in her “Speech to the London/National Society for Women’s Service,” which was incorporated into the first interchapter of The Pargiters. Woolf said this lecture had inspired the project, and its full version is included in the published volume.
  4. ↑ Woolf, “Character in Fiction,” in Selected Essays, ed. David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008), p. 49.
  5. ↑ See The Pargiters, p. xiv.