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Not Afraid of Virginia Woolf

The Hours

a film directed by Stephen Daldry, based on the novel by Michael Cunningham, with a screenplay by David Hare


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.

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    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).”

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