If Mrs Dalloway were a diamond it would be almost as big as the Ritz, priceless, and kept under lock and key in a national museum. Visitors would gape at it, experts celebrate it, soothsayers develop all sorts of legends around it. Most of all it would inspire awe in those who looked upon it, for no one could quite conceive of the gargantuan forces needed to bring about its creation. And yet, for all this immense beauty it would remain shut up in its case, impractical, and with grains of carbon imperfection at its core.
What Michael Cunningham does in The Hours is akin to the master jeweller who takes this unwieldy diamond and from it creates a series of smaller, perfectly crafted gems which sparkle in the light and can be placed within rings and pendants and worn in public for all to enjoy. His skill is in knowing exactly where to cut and where to shave so that none of the original beauty is lost. The result is a precious reworking of a great novel, simplified, purified, and with an engaging plot which augments, comments upon, and replies to the themes of Woolf’s original text.
The story unfolds through the interweaving narratives of three women whose lives are linked by and constantly refer back to Mrs Dalloway. It is the 1920s and having been forced to retreat from literary London after a breakdown, Mrs Woolf is tentatively beginning to write her new novel. Occasionally she catches a glimpse of inspiration, but fears it will fade like a dream the moment she wakes up. It is the 1940s and Mrs Brown is pregnant with her second child, savouring a few extra minutes in bed with her book before she has to go downstairs and play the role of wife and mother. And it is the end of the twentieth century and Clarissa Vaughan steps out of her New York apartment to buy flowers for the party she is throwing in honour of her friend Richard Brown, a celebrated poet who is dying of aids.
It is all of these three times at once, for life, like great literature, is timeless. The characters experience similar hopes and fears, similar passions and constraints, and, just occasionally, those moments of exquisite happiness which makes each of these books such a rare treat. What changes is the world around them: the material freedoms of different ages and the social mores which govern what one can and can’t be. As in Mrs Dalloway, the focus is on the beauty and wonder of individual moments, but more fundamentally than its predecessor, The Hours is about their transience, the irrevocable march of time which ensures that everything will ultimately fade and decay. On top of this Cunningham takes many of the sub-plots from Mrs Dalloway – privilege, parenting, homosexuality and mental illness – and looks at them through the lenses of different decades. What is impossible, almost unthinkable, in Virginia Woolf’s 1920s and hidden behind suburban façades in the 1940s is gloriously possible in the 1990s. This is most clearly the case when it comes to homosexuality. In Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa cherishes one moment in her life above all else, the kiss she shared with her friend Sally Seton. Here the inspiration for this passage comes from Woolf’s own life, and a simple sisterly kiss shared with her sister. This moment is developed through Mrs Brown stolen moment of solidarity with a sick neighbour, and then fully achieved in the New York of the 1990s, where instead of marrying Richard Dalloway, Clarissa is living happily with Sally.
“It had seemed like the beginning of happiness, and Clarissa is still sometimes shocked, more than thirty years later, to realize that it was happiness; that the entire experience lay in a kiss and a walk, the anticipation of dinner and a book…What lives undimmed in Clarissa’s mind more than three decades later is a kiss at dusk on a patch of dead grass, and a walk around a pond as mosquitoes droned in the darkening air. There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other.”
The Hours is packed with these sorts of triptych moments, where biographical fact and classic fiction blur together to create something new. Special moments from Mrs Dalloway are revisited and updated; reflected upon in an atmosphere of nostalgic illumination which only serves to heighten their poignancy. By portraying Virginia Woolf, meticulously researched and brought to life, Cunningham is able to add to the mix an investigation on the nature of writing. Through his elegant, haunting prose, he explores the pain and trauma of creativity and the immutable relationship between writer and reader. While Mrs Woolf is shocked to discover that she can still think clearly and write capably, Mrs Brown is overwhelmed by the clarity of her expression and ascribes almost mythical significance to her words. And while Richard Brown is preparing to be honoured as one of the greatest living poets, he muses repeatedly on the impossibility of it all:
“What I wanted to do seemed simple. I wanted to create something live and shocking enough that it could stand beside a morning in somebody’s life. The most ordinary morning. Imagine, trying to do that. What foolishness.”
These moments of heartbreaking honesty are what make The Hours such a great read. For all the beauty of Woolf’s prose, it remains an acquired – and even then challenging – taste. Not so Michael Cunningham. He has a clarity of expression which is dreamy, emotive, and a joy to read. Where Mrs Dalloway is hard work, dense and over punctuated, The Hours is understated and with a beautifully lilting flow. What Michael Cunningham understands is that spectacular prose cannot be overdone. For a passage to shine with its full power it cannot be crowded with dense prose on all sides. Great art is about knowing where to stop – not layering the paint too thick, repeating the motif too often, or attacking the notes with too much bravado – and letting what is already created speak for itself. The Hours may owe its most powerful passages and images to Virginia Woolf’s literary genius, but in taking them out of the Mrs Dalloway context and making them the centrepiece of all which takes place, they become even more beautiful to the eye, like a single flower blossoming in the middle of a lawn.
It is impossible to say which I prefer: the elegant and rewarding Mrs Dalloway which can be peered at in awe through a microscope for hours on end, or The Hours, masterly crafted and perfectly paced. It all comes down to personal preference and I cannot recommend them each highly enough. Ultimately they are each better for the existence of the other. Each captures the beauty in individual moments and the fragility of time. There is one moment near the end of The Hours which sums it all up and captures perfectly that very human experience which they are each about.
“Yes, Clarissa thinks, it’s time for the day to be over. We throw our parties;…we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep – it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.”
9 out of 10