Woolf at the Door

In January 2009, Great Britain’s National Archives released the 1911 census online. Among those listed in the data is the late Virginia Woolf. The then-29-year-old writer is listed under her maiden name of Adeline Virginia Stephen, living in Fitzroy Square London with her brother. Her occupation is listed as a journalist.

Most know Woolf as one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century. Mrs. Dalloway is often heralded as one of her greatest masterpieces and one of the greatest novels ever written.

The book follows protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway as she plans a party she will host later that evening. While she runs errands in London, the beautiful day and several encounters she has with people from her past prompt her to reminisce about the choices she’s made in life. Among these people are her husband Richard; her mysterious ex-lover Peter Walsh; her daughter Elizabeth; Sally Seton — a woman she alludes to once having been in love with; and a troubled World War I veteran named Septimus Smith.

Woolf builds a multi-dimensional world many say was inspired by the stream-of-consciousness technique James Joyce used in Ulysses. The action takes place in the heads of the characters and the reader is forced to piece the story together by taking into account each character’s contemplations. In addition,

Woolf also moves forward and backward in time, despite the emphasis on the present moment.

Seventy-three years after it’s publication in 1925, the influential book would become the inspiration for a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham, titled The Hours. The 1998 novel is built around Woolf’s book and its title is taken from Woolf’s working title for Mrs. Dalloway.

Like Mrs. Dalloway, The Hours takes place within a 24-hour period while using flashbacks to create emotional depth. By placing the action within the space of one day, like Woolf, Cunningham highlights the importance of each day in a person’s life despite how ordinary that day may seem. As the title suggests, every hour is momentous. Small tasks like buying flowers and baking a cake are deeply significant.

The novel follows one day in the lives of three women living in three separate eras, yet all three are inspired by Woolf’s novel. One woman is writing it, one is reading it, and one is living it. The characters in The Hours act like literary matryoshka dolls.

The smallest doll at the heart of the novel is Virginia Woolf and her book. Cunningham imagines her final day before her suicide in 1923 as she is writing Mrs. Dalloway. She is also struggling with mental illness. Her husband Leonard has moved her from London to the suburbs where it’s quiet and there are fewer things to trigger her mood disorder. Despite Leonard’s best intentions, Woolf desperately wants to move back to London. Soon after, Woolf comes to realize she’s trapped in a life she doesn’t want to lead.

Woolf is nested inside the second biggest doll, Mrs. Brown. Brown is a 1950s housewife who is pregnant with her second child. She begins her day reading Mrs. Dalloway, peeking at the novel whenever she can. However, her responsibilities remain with her small son, Richie, and the birthday cake she is baking for her husband’s birthday. When she receives a surprise visit from her neighbor, Kitty, she finds herself locked in a kiss with her, which makes her realize she may be living a lie.

After her encounter with Kitty, she leaves Richie with a neighbor and drives to a hotel in order to read Mrs. Dalloway. While she’s there, she toys with the idea of ending her life as she, like Woolf, comes to realize she is trapped and must escape.

The last doll, which hosts Woolf and Mrs. Brown, is Clarissa Vaughan — a lesbian living in New York City in the 1990s with her partner, Sally (no doubt a reference to Mrs. Dalloway’s Sally Seton). Vaughan is a modern Mrs. Dalloway. Not only does she share Dalloway’s first name, but she is also planning a party.

The party is in honor of her friend and ex-lover, Richard, who lovingly refers to Vaughan as “Mrs. Dalloway” – a nickname from their college days together. Richard has just won a major literary award and is dying of AIDS. It is a beautiful June day and like Mrs. Dalloway, Vaughan is in a reflective mood. A visit to Richard’s dim, shabby apartment reveals a very sick man whose mind is slipping away. The contrast between the beautiful weather and the dark apartment is apparent, as is the fact that Vaughan and Richard are living for each other and not for themselves.

In 2002, The Hours was made into an Oscar-nominated film by British director, Stephen Daldry. At the time, I hadn’t yet read the book and didn’t want to see the film because I worried it might be too “chick flick” or “Lifetime movie”. I was eventually seduced into seeing it by first hearing the Philip Glass score. Every time a commercial came on advertising the film, I couldn’t get the gorgeous, minimalist theme out of my head. It wasn’t surprising that the soundtrack was later nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Original Music Score.

There is nothing “chick flick” about The Hours (there are no shopping spree montages or Cosmo consumption) nor is there anything “Lifetime movie” about it (it’s far more cerebral than anything Lifetime would ever air). The only thing it has in common with “chick flicks” and “Lifetime” is the fact that its main characters are women.

Daldry brings The Hours to life on the screen with poignant clarity and follows Cunningham’s novel faithfully. Stephen Holden of the New York Times called it “an amazingly faithful screen adaptation”.

David Hare wrote the screenplay, adding drama to the already emotional plot by upping the ante in a few scenes. For instance, instead of just going to a hotel to read her book and later think about suicide like she does in Cunninham’s novel, in the film Laura Brown packs her purse with pills with the intention of killing herself at the hotel. As she drives away from her screaming son, it’s as if he knows she’s intending to end her life.

The accolades the film received are deserved, not only due to Daldry’s direction and David Hare’s screenplay, but also in part to the outstanding acting. Meryl Streep plays Clarissa Vaughan, summoning the modern-day bohemian effortlessly. Her constant bouncing between exaggerated merriment and hand-wringing anxiety is believable and true to the character in Cunningham’s book.

Likewise, Julianne Moore is convincing as Laura Brown. Her restrained unhappiness and privately pained facial expressions do justice to the torn character who feels she’s living a life that was forced upon her. One scene in particular highlights her reality. As she sits in the bathroom while her husband (played by John C. Reilly) asks her to come to bed, tears roll down her cheeks as they have a seemingly chipper conversation through the bathroom door. Then out of nowhere, she whispers to herself, “I wish you could disappear”.

Nicole Kidman does a brilliant job of resurrecting Virginia Woolf. For the film, she was fitted with a prosthetic nose to make her look more like the writer and less like the gorgeous Nicole Kidman. The result makes her almost unrecognizable. But her appearance isn’t the only device used to conjure Woolf. Kidman’s acting chops convey Woolf’s unhappiness and battle with manic depression so brilliantly that her performance won her the 2002 Oscar for Best Actress.

The cast is rounded out nicely by the male actors in the film, including the aforementioned John C. Reilly as Dan Brown, Jack Rovello as Richie, Ed Harris as Richard, and Stephen Dillane as Woolf’s husband, Leonard.

The film is a beautiful complement to Cunningham’s book as Cunningham’s book is a lovely accompaniment to Woolf’s book. All three fit together in a seamless fashion like the characters at the heart of The Hours. Ultimately, both Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours are an illuminating look at the choices we make, the roles we play, and the hours that hinge our lives together.