At the beginning of the novel in question, it is a fine June day in a great city, and a fifty-two-year-old woman named Clarissa goes shopping for flowers. She is giving a party that evening, and as she walks to the flower shop, a host of thoughts tumble through her mind. Not all of them are about her party. (Her party!) She worries, for instance, that her beautiful teenaged daughter is in thrall to a humorless middle-aged woman who is, somehow, her, Clarissa’s, mortal enemy. (The woman’s fierce ideological views make Clarissa feel slightly shabby in comparison; and indeed Clarissa supposes that she is, when all is said and done, quite “ordinary.”) She is embarrassed to run into someone whom she hasn’t invited; she has reveries about a long-ago summer in a house in the country when she and some friends indulged in illicit love affairs. (As she thinks these thoughts she is glimpsed by a neighbor who sternly, but not unkindly, judges her looks: she has aged.) She thinks, often, about death. As she stands in the shop buying the flowers, there is commotion outside—a loud noise—and when Clarissa and the florist go to the window to see what it might be, they get a glimpse of a famous head emerging from a vehicle, someone everyone knows from the papers, from pictures.
The famous head, glimpsed from afar by curious, even prurient crowds, has been placed there by the author of this novel for the purpose of contrast. This head reminds us of the great world out there, and the values by which it measures things: fame, importance, power, rank, distinction—and hence stands in stark contrast to Clarissa’s head, filled as it is with a quotidian, haphazard jumble of thoughts that are of no particular importance to anyone except Clarissa herself. Clarissa’s life is meant, indeed, to be one of those existences, neither brilliant nor tragic, that moved Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, to ponder what the proper subject and style of an authentic women’s literature might possibly be. The values of novels, she argued, reflect the values of life, which novels must mirror; and it was, furthermore, “obvious” that
the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial.” And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop—everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.
Part of the proper work of women’s writing, Woolf suggested, was to recuperate for literature “these infinitely obscure lives [that] remain to be recorded.” Let men preoccupy themselves with “the great movements which, brought together, constitute the historian’s view of the past.” As Woolf grew as an artist, she experimented with ways to record and “bring…to life” another kind of experience altogether, one hitherto buried in the interstices of those great movements.
One way to do so was, indeed, to focus on the concrete minutiae of women’s everyday existences—everything that men’s literature, by its very nature, overlooked, an omission that led to yet larger gaps and inaccuracies. “So much has been left out, unattempted,” Woolf complained. “Almost without exception [women] are shown in their relation to men…not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex.” And so, she told the audiences of the lectures that would become A Room of One’s Own,
you must illumine your own soul with its profundities and its shallows, and its vanities and its generosities, and say what your beauty means to you or your plainness, and what is your relation to the everchanging and turning world of gloves and shoes and stuffs swaying up and down among the faint scents that come through chemists’ bottles down arcades of dress material over a floor of pseudomarble.
That which men’s literature dismissed as trivia must be taken up and forged into a new kind of literature that would suggest how great were the hidden worlds and movements in women’s lives; such a literature was long overdue. “There is the girl behind the counter,” she wrote toward the end of A Room of One’s Own. “I would as soon have her true history as the hundred and fiftieth life of Napoleon or seventieth study of Keats and his use of Miltonic inversion which old Professor Z and his like are now inditing.”
Hence Clarissa, with her random thoughts of flowers and parties and sewing and old love affairs: she is (for all the differences in social status) that girl, just as the famous head is a reminder of the other world, the world of great movements, of Napoleons and Miltons. And indeed the first great example of the literary project that Woolf advocates in A Room of One’s Own was Mrs. Dalloway, first published in 1925, a few years before the essay in which she explicated that project.
And yet the novel I began this essay by describing is not, in fact, Mrs. Dalloway. Or, I should say, is not only Mrs. Dalloway. It is, rather, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, the 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner which is at once a homage to and an impersonation of the earlier work of fiction. (Woolf had long planned to call her novel “The Hours,” but decided on Mrs. Dalloway in the end.) In it, three narratives about three women, each connected in some way to Mrs. Dalloway, are intertwined; in each of the three, numerous elements from Woolf’s novel—characters, names, relationships, tiny details of phrasing, individual sentences, whole scenes (not least, the world-famous head poking momentarily from the big vehicle)—are reincarnated with almost obsessional devotion. But perhaps the most remarkable achievement of The Hours is to preserve Woolf’s project—to avoid the banal ways in which male novelists often see women, either dramatizing them or trivializing them, and thereby making them more comfortable for consumption by men.
“The design is so queer & so masterful,” Woolf wrote in her journal, in June of 1923, of the book she was struggling to write; the same words, with additional overtones, could well be used of Cunningham’s reinterpretation of it. Cunningham takes his Woolfian donnée and splits it into three narratives, each a kind of riff on some aspect of Mrs. Dalloway. Each takes place, as does Mrs. Dalloway, in the course of a single day: each focuses on the inner life of one woman. The sections called “Mrs. Dalloway,” set in the 1990s, are about a lesbian book editor in New York City named Clarissa Vaughan (whom her best friend and one-time lover, a poet now dying of AIDS, enjoys calling “Mrs. Dalloway”; she’s giving a party to celebrate the prestigious literary award he’s won). The sections called “Mrs. Brown,” set in 1949, recount one fraught day in the life of an LA housewife, Laura Brown, who’s torn between reading Mrs. Dalloway for the first time and planning a birthday party for her husband. And the “Mrs. Woolf” sections envision Virginia Woolf herself on a day in 1923 when she conceives how she might write Mrs. Dalloway. In each section, Cunningham ingeniously uses Woolf’s novel as a template: like Woolf’s Clarissa, each of his three heroines plans a party, has an unexpected visitor, escapes, in some sense, from the house, and tries to create something (a party, a cake, a book).
The central story is the story of Clarissa Vaughan, the woman whose preparations for a grand party, like those of Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, are the vehicle for a stream-of-consciousness narrative that suggests a contemporary, wryly self-aware Everywoman: “an ordinary person (at this age, why bother trying to deny it?)” While this Clarissa prepares for her party, the dying poet, whose name is Richard (the given name of Mr. Dalloway, in Woolf’s story) worsens: just as the Great War and the Spanish flu gave poignancy and weight to Clarissa Dalloway’s musings about the essential goodness and beauty of everyday existence (“life; London; this moment in June”), so too does AIDS give substance to the similar thoughts of Cunningham’s Clarissa (“What a thrill, what a shock, to be alive on a morning in June…”).
Both Clarissas, for all that they are haunted by thoughts of death, are strong. In Cunningham’s novel, as in Woolf’s, it is the men surrounding the women who keep falling apart. In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa’s old flame, Peter Walsh, disintegrates in tears when he shows up for an unexpected visit. (He’s having an affair with a much younger married woman; sensible Clarissa knows she was right to refuse his offer of marriage, long ago.) In a different part of town, meanwhile, the mad poet Septimus Smith disintegrates and flings himself from a window. Cunningham’s novel reproduces these elements while updating them. His Clarissa lives in Greenwich Village with another woman, Sally (the name Woolf gave to the girl her Clarissa once kissed, long ago, in a country house); in his novel, it’s an old flame of Richard’s—his one-time lover, Louis—who shows up for an unexpected visit and, while Clarissa is preparing for the party, dissolves into tears. Like Woolf’s Peter Walsh, Cunningham’s Louis is foolish in love: he’s having an affair with a male theater student who “does the most remarkable performance pieces about growing up white and gay in South Africa.”
And in Cunningham’s novel, too, it’s a mad poet, Richard (to whom the author gives some of Septimus’s lines: both characters believe they hear animals speaking ancient Greek), who kills himself toward the end of the book. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf hinted that behind the empire-building noise that men made, women were strong, too; that because of the patriarchal economy, their creations were more often than not children, households, families; but they did create, and could of course create art, too, if they had the means. It was just that no one had written of this strength, this creativity. In Mrs. Dalloway, she wrote of it—and of men’s weakness; and in The Hours, Cunningham does too.
Indeed, the other two strands of Cunningham’s tripartite narrative recapitulate this important if subtle motif of Woolf’s story in various ways. His “Mrs. Woolf” section is a fantasy of what might have gone through Woolf’s mind on the day that Mrs. Dalloway took shape. On that summer’s day, she wakes up in Richmond (the suburb to which she and her husband, Leonard, had retreated for the sake of her fragile mental health), thinks about her book, entertains her sister, Vanessa Bell, and “Nessa”‘s children to tea (they come unexpectedly early), and tries, unsuccessfully, to run off to London, whose noise and bustle she misses. (A frantic Leonard catches up with her outside the train station and fetches her home.) It is no easy or safe thing for a contemporary novelist to ventriloquize a great author who was a novelist herself, but Cunningham approaches his task with great delicacy—and no little erudition: much of the “Mrs. Woolf” section of his book is based on careful reading of Woolf’s journals. The “escape” scene, for instance, is based on an episode that Woolf records in an October 15, 1923, diary entry.1 Cunningham transforms it into a parable about Woolf’s artistry, and her bravery—her yearning to have a full life out of which to create her art, whatever the risks.
But the real delight of the “Mrs. Woolf” portions of Cunningham’s The Hours is its delicate, detailed, and sometimes witty suggestions about how Woolf might have come up with some of the material that appears in Mrs. Dalloway. In The Hours, Vanessa Bell’s children find a dying bird in the garden, and the youngest, her daughter, Angelica Bell, makes an elaborate bier for it out of grass and roses. Peering at the tiny dead thing in its improbable nest, Virginia thinks to herself that “it could be a kind of hat. It could be the missing link between millinery and death.” Readers of Mrs. Dalloway will remember that the wife of Septimus Smith is an Italian girl who makes hats; she is, indeed, making one just before her shell-shocked husband flings himself out the window. The hat-like bier gives Cunningham’s Virginia an even more important idea: that it is not Clarissa who must die (she loves life, the world, too much), but the mad poet. “Clarissa,” Virginia thinks, “is the bed in which the bride is laid.” Clarissa’s life, that is to say—and her love of life, the quotidian thoughts and feelings that suggest how good she finds life, and how strong she is—must be the surround, the context, in which the death of the poet, the young man, will stand out as anomalous, impossible to integrate, “other.” Another way of putting this is that Virginia will do to her male characters what so many male authors do to their female characters.
It is the third of Cunningham’s three women who has no clear referent in either Mrs. Dalloway or the life of its author. But this is not to say that Laura Brown, the housewife whose reading of Woolf’s novel, one summer’s day in 1949, transforms her life, has no basis in Woolf’s work. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf wryly comments on the ironic way in which (as was the case in ancient Athens, she thinks; one recalls that she worked on her Greek every day) woman is “imaginatively”—i.e., in the works of male writers—“of the greatest importance,” while being “completely insignificant” in real life. Hence what one must do to create a fully real woman is
to think poetically and prosaically at one and the same moment, thus keeping in touch with fact—that she is Mrs. Martin, aged thirty-six, dressed in blue, wearing a black hat and brown shoes; but not losing sight of fiction either—that she is a vessel in which all sorts of spirits and forces are coursing and flashing perpetually.
In Cunningham’s novel, Laura Brown is, in fact, just this combination of prose and poetry. Her life is an ostensibly ordinary one—her day consists of sending her husband Dan, a former war hero, off to work, and then baking a birthday cake for him with her little son Richie—but she is not, nor has she ever been, the homecoming queen type. Cunningham goes to considerable lengths to make sure we understand how starkly she stands out against her bland background, “the foreign-looking one with the dark, close-set eyes and the Roman nose,” with her Polish maiden name and her passion for books. Privately Laura thinks she could be “brilliant” herself. Tormented by inner demons, seething with inchoate creativity, striking-looking, she is clearly meant to bring to mind Woolf herself; her tragedy, the author suggests, is that her time, culture, and circumstances provide no outlets for her lurking creativity other than domestic ones. Baking cakes, for instance: as Laura sets about her day’s work, “she hopes to be as satisfied and as filled with anticipation as a writer putting down the first sentence.”
It’s really Laura who’s the fulcrum of the novel, a hybrid of Clarissa, with her everyday bourgeois preoccupations, and Virginia, the dark, half-mad high priestess of art. And indeed, in the novel’s deeply moving conclusion, we get to see how Laura is the bridge that connects Woolf, in 1923, to Clarissa Vaughan, in the 1990s: little Richie, it turns out, grows up to be Clarissa’s friend Richard. It is Laura who, through her reading of Woolf (she flees to a hotel in order to finish the book in peace and quiet), understands that the life she’s living is somehow terribly wrong for her: she feels she’s going mad. And it is Laura who finds reserves of terrible strength to preserve her own sanity, her authentic self. By the end of The Hours she’s decided to abandon her family after the birth of her second child; we learn later that she moves to Toronto, where she becomes a librarian—another position that places her midway, as it were, between literature and life. Throughout The Hours, as throughout Mrs. Dalloway, it’s the women who are strong, who choose life, who survive.
And so Cunningham’s novel is a very interesting form of “adaptation” indeed: much more than being merely a clever repository of allusions to its model (although these are many and dazzling, and make The Hours a kind of scholarly treasure hunt for Woolf lovers), it transposes into a different key, as it were, the constituent elements of Woolf’s novel, for the purposes of a serious literary investigation of large (and distinctively Woolfian) themes—the nature of creativity, the role of literature in life, the authentic feel of everyday living. Cunningham has, indeed, found just the right equivalents in today’s world for many of the elements you find in Mrs. Dalloway. Take that famous head, for example—the apparition, in Woolf’s book, that serves as symbol, in a way, for the world that is made by men, for men’s literature and men’s values—the great world, with its preoccupation with importance and fame and status. In Woolf’s novel, people wonder who that briefly glimpsed head could belong to—“the Queen’s, the Prince of Wales’s, the Prime Minister’s?” In Cunningham’s book, the scene is replicated, but this time the VIPs come from a slightly different milieu. “Meryl Streep?” they wonder. “Vanessa Redgrave?”
By a bizarre coincidence that the author of The Hours cannot have foreseen, the invocation of Streep’s and Redgrave’s names invites us to consider another kind of adaptation altogether. As it happens, Vanessa Redgrave was the star of the film adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway, which appeared in 1998, the same year that Cunningham’s novel was published; while Meryl Streep is the star of the film that seems poised to win this year’s Best Picture Oscar, Stephen Daldry’s recent adaptation of The Hours. Daldry’s film is, like its model, a grave and beautiful work, and an affecting one, too; like its model, it goes to great lengths to suggest how literature can change the way we lead our lives. For those reasons, it deserves the acclaim it has gotten. And yet elements of the adaptation suggest that it has done to The Hours what The Hours would not do to Mrs. Dalloway.
Stephen Daldry’s film adaptation of Cunningham’s book shows a good deal more visual imagination than did—which is to say, is a good deal more cinematic than was—his 2000 film Billy Elliot, a sentimental Cinderella fable about a working-class boy who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer. The new film is still, essentially, mainstream moviemaking; it saves its energies for communicating, as clearly as possible, the shape of its three narratives, which as in the book are interwoven, episode by episode. (You wouldn’t want Daldry to make a film of Mrs. Dalloway itself. Indeed, the adaptation of Woolf’s novel that starred Vanessa Redgrave, from a script by the actress Eileen Atkins, who played Woolf onstage in her Vita and Virginia, failed to convey the fragmented stream-of-consciousness that was Woolf’s great achievement in the novel—her new way of “bringing to life” the experience of her ostensibly ordinary heroine.) And yet there are many effective, and affecting, visual touches that reproduce, in filmic terms, the tissues in Cunningham’s novel that connect its three female figures. I am not talking here so much of the recurrent images—of eggs being broken, of flowers being placed in pots, of women kissing other women—that appear in each of the three narratives in the film, as I am of smaller but very telling touches, such as the ingenious cross-cutting between the Woolf, Vaughan, and Brown narratives. At the beginning of the film, when it is morning in all three worlds, we see Virginia bending down to wash her face; the head that rises up again to examine itself in the mirror is that of Meryl Streep, as Clarissa Vaughan.
Daldry and his screenwriter, David Hare, have, moreover, clearly thought hard about how to represent elements which, in the book, seem not to be of the highest importance, but which in the film convey the book’s concerns in sometimes ravishing visual language. Early on in the novel’s presentation of Laura Brown, Cunningham describes the young woman’s feelings as she allows herself to be swept away by Woolf’s fiction:
She is taken by a wave of feeling, a sea-swell, that rises from under her breast and buoys her, floats her gently, as if she were a sea creature thrown back from the sand where it had beached itself.
Daldry and Hare transpose this minor moment to Laura’s visit to the hotel, where it becomes an image that reminds us, in a complex way, just how “carried away” a woman can get by writing: in one of the film’s most original moments (one spoiled, for the audience, by its inclusion in the theater trailers and television commercials for the film, which has resulted in a deadening of its impact in the theater), we see the pale, beautiful Julianne Moore, who plays Laura, lying on her hotel bed when suddenly the rushing waters of a river—the Ouse, surely—flood the room, buoying and then submerging her and the bed. It’s just after the striking fantasy sequence involving the river waters that Laura realizes she can’t kill herself. (In Daldry’s film—but not in the book—the young mother has brought a number of bottles of prescription pills with her to the hotel, and we’re meant to understand that she intends to take her life there.)
More of a problem, inevitably, was the film’s representation of Woolf herself. Much has been made of the prosthetic nose used to transform Nicole Kidman into Woolf for the purposes of the film, but while the fake nose has the virtue of making Kidman look less distractingly like an early-twenty-first-century movie star, it also coarsens the Woolf that we do see; the frumpy creature we see on screen, clumping around in a housedress, breathing heavily through a broad, flat, putty-colored nose, bears little resemblance to the fine-boned, strikingly delicate woman that you see in almost any photograph of Woolf, whose mother was a famous beauty, and who herself was memorably described by Nigel Nicolson, who knew her, as “always beautiful but never pretty.”2 Without the prosthesis, Kidman is pretty without being beautiful; with it, she is neither.
The physical appearance of the film’s Woolf is only worth mentioning because it may be taken as a symbol of the ways in which the film’s attempts to invoke Woolf herself, or her work, have the effect of flattening or misrepresenting her—not only Cunningham’s carefully researched, if idiosyncratically reimagined, character, but also the real person. In Hare’s script, for instance, Virginia announces that she’s not going to kill off Mrs. Dalloway, as she’d originally intended; instead, she says, she’s going to kill off the mad poet. (This is the bit that corresponds to Woolf’s insight about the “bride of death” in the novel.) After Vanessa and the children have left, Leonard asks Virginia why she has to kill the poet. Because, Virginia announces, “someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more. The poet will die. The visionary.” It is true that you can go back to Mrs. Dalloway and find there a climactic passage in which Clarissa Dalloway muses, on hearing of Septimus’s suicide (it turns out that the young man’s doctor is a guest at her party, and so she hears, as a piece of idle gossip, what has happened to him), that “she felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away…. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.” But this is an implied comment on Clarissa, and how she thinks about things; the scene in the film, by contrast, suggests that it’s a philosophical statement by Virginia Woolf herself: that poets must die so that the rest of us will appreciate the beauty of life, and so forth.
It is true that the film, like the book, focuses on a small sliver of Woolf’s life: the moment in Richmond immediately prior to her return to London. But it is still a serious problem that little about this frumpy cinematic Woolf suggests just why she loves London so much; you get no sense of Woolf as the confident, gossip-loving queen of Bloomsbury, the vivid social figure, the amusing diarist, the impressively productive journalist expertly maneuvering her professional obligations—and relationships. (There’s a lot more of the real Virginia Woolf in her Clarissa Dalloway than this film would ever lead you to believe.) If anything, the film’s Woolf is just one half (if that much) of the real Woolf, and it’s no coincidence that it’s the half that satisfies a certain cultural fantasy, going back to early biographies of Sappho, about what creative women are like: distracted, isolated, doomed.
There are other shifts from the novel to the film that distort the female characters in Cunningham’s book just as much, and to similar ends. It is strange, coming directly from the novel to Daldry’s movie, to see the central element of Clarissa Vaughan’s story—the unexpected visit from Richard’s old lover Louis, who bursts into tears; a canny reincarnation of the scene in Mrs. Dalloway in which Clarissa’s old flame Peter Walsh comes to see her and weeps uncontrollably—turned inside out. For in the film, it’s Clarissa who goes to pieces in front of Louis. “I don’t know what’s happening,” Meryl Streep says as she stands in her kitchen, cooking for her party. “I seem to be unraveling…. Explain to me why this is happening…. It’s just too much.” Her voice, as she says these lines, cracks on the verge of hysteria. Cunningham’s (and Woolf’s) book places Clarissa at the center of her story: she is the subject of ruminations about objects that are male—surprisingly weak or emotionally fractured males. Daldry and Hare’s film may look as if it’s putting Clarissa at the center of her story—Streep’s the star, after all, or one of the three gifted stars—but what the makers of the film are doing, it occurs to you, is exactly what Woolf worried that men did in their fictional representations of women: seeing women from the perspective of men.
In the film these men include, indeed, not only Louis, who in the scene just mentioned sympathetically comforts the helpless Clarissa, but Richard too. In Cunningham’s novel, there’s a passing moment in which Clarissa Vaughan ruefully thinks to herself that she is “trivial, endlessly trivial” (she’s fretting because Sally, a producer of documentaries, hasn’t invited her along to lunch with a gay movie star); but in the film, she’s worried what Richard thinks. “He gives me that look to say ‘your life is trivial, you are trivial,'” Streep says, her voice quavering. For Hare and Daldry, a woman’s story must, it seems, involve the spectacle of women in danger of losing their self-possession in front of their men. An old-fashioned “woman’s drama,” that is to say.
This is even clearer in the Laura Brown portions of the film. Gone are Laura’s darkness, her hidden “brilliance,” her foreign looks and last name: here, she is transformed into the exceedingly fair Julianne Moore, who has made a name for herself in a number of films about outwardly perfect young women who are losing their inner balance (as in this year’s Far from Heaven, and the 1995 film Safe). But to make Laura into a prom queen inverts the delicate dynamic of the novel—the structure that makes you aware of Laura’s latent poetic qualities, her latent similarities to Woolf. In the book, her madness is that of a poet who has not found a voice; in the film, she’s yet another Fifties housewife whose immaculate exterior conceals deep, inchoate dissatisfactions. (I found it interesting that in the film, the date for the Mrs. Brown sections has been moved from 1949, as in Cunningham’s novel, to 1951; I suspect it’s because the latter dovetails better with our own cultural clichés about the repressed Fifties. Laura’s maiden name has been changed, too, from Zielski, as it is in the book, to McGrath.) And in the film, we should remember, Laura goes to the hotel for the day not to read, but to commit suicide, whereas in the novel the idea of self-annihilation occurs to her only once she’s in the hotel, and then only fleetingly.3
And so this Laura, rather than being unusual and complex, is closer to a cliché of domestic repression than she is to Cunningham’s character. No wonder that, in a key scene in the film—one that gives away its creators’ prejudices, you suspect—this Laura gets Mrs. Dalloway so wrong. When she has a visit from her neighbor Kitty (whose vibrancy and seeming good health are intended by Cunningham to suggest those of Vanessa Bell, whom the real Virginia Woolf thought “the most complete human being of us all”), Kitty—clearly not a great reader—asks about the copy of Mrs. Dalloway she sees lying on the kitchen counter. Laura replies by describing it as a story about a woman who’s giving a party and “maybe because she’s confident everyone thinks she’s fine, but she isn’t.”
The problem is that Woolf’s Cla-rissa is fine; as are Cunningham’s Clarissa and his Woolf, and even his Laura, three women who understand, in their different ways, that, as Clarissa Vaughan realizes on the last page of the novel, “it is, in fact, great good fortune” to be alive. “Everyone thinks she’s fine, but she isn’t” is, on the other hand, a perfect description of Laura as she appears in this film: flawless, the American dream, on the outside, but unraveling on the inside. Which is to say, a character in a film we’ve seen many times.
At the conclusion of A Room of One’s Own, Woolf summed up her reasons for thinking that women should have a literature of their own: “The truth is, I often like women,” she wrote. “I like their unconventionality. I like their subtlety. I like their anonymity. I like—but I must not run on in this way.” I think Michael Cunningham likes women, too; his book’s female characters are unconventional and subtle—the “anonymous” housewife more so, if anything, than the others. I also think that, at one level, the makers of the new film of Cunningham’s book like women, too. Rarely has a mainstream film offered three more interesting roles for three more accomplished actresses, each of whom makes the most of an admittedly rare opportunity: there are moments—not least, a climactic encounter in Clarissa Vaughan’s apartment between Clarissa’s young daughter, Julia, and the now aged Laura Brown—that will make you cry. (I did.)
But I think these filmmakers like women in the way Virginia Woolf feared that male writers liked, and used, women: these female figures are, in the end, more conventional, less subtle than what either Cunningham or Woolf had in mind. They are, in other words, more like the women we already know from the books and films that men make about women: the self-destructive, glowering, mad poetess; the picture-perfect Fifties housewife slowly cracking up in her flawless mid-century modern décor; the contemporary lesbian frazzled by the effort of caring for her best friend with AIDS, a woman who goes to pieces on her kitchen floor while wearing rubber gloves.
Still, The Hours is a serious and moving film, one that achieves many of its goals; among other things, it will presumably have many, many more people reading Mrs. Dalloway than Woolf could ever have dreamed of. That is no mean accomplishment. Perhaps it was inevitable that, of all the elements you find in her great novel, the one that the film should have reproduced most successfully is Mrs. Dalloway’s sense that what is truly strange, unconventional, and subtle must be sacrificed so the rest of us might feel the beauty, feel the fun.
“I felt it was intolerable to sit about, & must do the final thing, which was to go to London…. Saw men & women walking together; thought, you’re safe & happy I’m an outcast; took my ticket; and 3 minutes to spare, & then, turning the corner of the station stairs, saw Leonard, coming along, bending rather, like a person walking very quick, in his mackintosh. He was rather cold & angry (as, perhaps was natural).” ↩
Nigel Nicolson, Virginia Woolf (Lipper/Viking, 2000), p. 4. ↩
That Laura may have more dire intentions is possibly suggested by an abstruse literary allusion on Cunningham’s part that has nothing to do with Woolf. Laura checks in to Room 19 at the Normandy Hotel—the same room and hotel where the heroine of Doris Lessing’s story “To Room Nineteen” commits suicide. ↩