Just as a warning to anyone who’s reading this: this is a sequel post to the last one, about Mrs Dalloway. As soon as I had finished said novel, I moved straight onto The Hours, hoping that, by still having Mrs Dalloway fresh in my mind, I’d appreciate Michael Cunningham’s answer to it. And I was so right.
The lives of three women are inextricably linked to the famous novel by Virginia Woolf – Clarissa Vaughan, a middle-aged woman living in 1990s New York, who is on her way to visit a dying friend; Laura Brown, a housewife in the 1940s, who is unhappy in her life, despite the appearance of a very happy family; and Virginia Woolf herself, in 1920s Richmond, where she is trying desperately to remain sane, and continue to write. Each of these women will be affected somehow, over the course of this one day, by both Mrs Dalloway, and the events that are about to unfold.
This isn’t just Michael Cunningham’s answer to Virginia Woolf – it is an homage in the best sense. Without resorting to sentimentality about his subjects, and most importantly, without creating a carbon copy of the work, Cunningham has written a novel that celebrates Mrs Dalloway in every sense, from beginning to end. Intricately weaved into the three plots are references to the novel, and you really felt like you are reading an extension of Woolf’s own work. While Cunningham does have his own voice, here, it is so closely matched to Woolf’s, they are barely distinguishable. He creates a more up-to-date kind of stream of consciousness that, while less ambitious that Woolf’s original work, is still a joy to read.
It is in Clarissa Vaughan, nicknamed Mrs Dalloway by her closest friend, Richard, whose story most closely resembles the plot of the original novel. From the partner who has lunch without inviting her, to relationships with her daughter, to events that occurred when she was eighteen, Clarissa is the closest to the original Clarissa. Yet the subtle differences really make this – (new) Clarissa’s parter is a woman, the lunching friend is a famous gay actor, and events at the age of eighteen are subtly reversed, so (new) Clarissa’s teenage affair is with a man – Richard, not a woman. Cunningham does not wish to be seen as a “gay” writer, and in this book, despite dealing with gay people, does not make it the focus of the narrative. Instead, they simply are, and we are to accept this without questioning. Which I assume most people do, anyway.
This is not to say that the other two characters simply fade away into the background – their struggles and hopes are just as strongly present through the book as Clarissa. Laura Brown is this kind of ‘perfect on the outside’ meek housewife, that does nothing but want to please her husband and young son, yet she clearly needs some alone time every now and then. Similarly, the portrait of Virginia Woolf herself as a tortured genius, who has so many similarities to the original Mrs Dalloway, is not too over-done, so it remains believable, and sympathetic.
I’m about to get a bit pretentious – you’ve been warned. This book is pretty amazing. Without Mrs Dalloway, it wouldn’t be anything, but, to read them in sequence, The Hours (a working title of the original) is an amazing, fragile, beautiful tribute to a writer, and novel, whose past is not perhaps the best. Understated and restrained, if all tributes and homages were like this, we wouldn’t cringe every time we heard those two words.