Ahead of Review’s book club on The Hours, Michael Cunningham explains how discovering Virginia Woolf as a teenager inspired him to write his novel about her life – and how his mother provided a surprising solution when he got stuck
Virginia Woolf was great fun at parties. I want to tell you that up front, because Woolf, who died 70 years ago this year, is so often portrayed as the Dark Lady of English letters, all glowery and sad, looking balefully on from a crepuscular corner of literary history with a stone lodged in her pocket.
She did, of course, have her darker interludes. More on that in a moment. But first I’d like to announce, to anyone who might not know, that she, when not sunk in her periodic depressions, was the person one most hoped would come to the party; the one who could speak amusingly on just about any subject; the one who glittered and charmed; who was interested in what other people had to say (though not, I admit, always encouraging about their opinions); who loved the idea of the future and all the wonders it might bring.
And, fearless feminist though she was, she could be reduced to days of self-recrimination if someone made a snide remark about her outfit. She had some difficulty putting herself together and, like many of us, suffered from a dearth of fashion sense. She was also enormously insecure about her work. She suspected, more often than not, that her “tinselly experiments” in fiction would be packed away with the rest of the artefacts and curiosities, all the minor efforts that occupy various archives and storage rooms.
That’s not a new story: the under-appreciated artist, vindicated by time. But still. Woolf, an often charming but always delicate creature, prone to fits of depression, sexually frigid, never dressed quite right, most likely did not strike many as a figure heroic enough to withstand the gale force of history. Not compared to someone like James Joyce, the other great modernist, who blustered about his own genius to anyone who’d listen, who planned for his immortality as carefully as a general plans an attack.
Among the reasons Woolf drowned herself, 70 years ago, at the age of 59 was her conviction that her final novel, Between the Acts, was an utter failure. There are relatively few significant writers who were, in their lifetimes, quite so uncertain about their accomplishments.
Since the publication of my own novel, The Hours, in which Woolf figures as a character, I have unexpectedly become some sort of acknowledged, if peripheral, expert on her life and work. I’m surprised at how often someone will say to me: well, yes, Woolf was wonderful, but she was no Joyce, was she?
She was no Joyce. She was herself. She had her limits. She wrote only about members of the upper classes, and she wrote not at all about sex. Her entire body of work contains two romantic kisses – one in The Voyage Out, another in Mrs Dalloway – and after those two relatively early books, no erotic episodes of any kind.
But really, I suspect that whatever reservations some people may harbour about Woolf, as opposed to Joyce, have to do with the fact that she wrote about women, and about the domestic particulars that were, at the time, women’s primary domain. Joyce had the good sense to write mostly about men.
As a woman, Woolf knew about the sense of helplessness that can afflict women given too little to do. And she knew – she insisted – that a life spent maintaining a house and throwing parties was not necessarily, not categorically, a trivial life. She gave us to understand that even a modest, domestic life was still, for the person living it, an epic journey, however ordinary it might appear to an outside observer. She refused to dismiss lives that most other writers tended to ignore.
That may have had something to do with Woolf’s own precarious mental condition, and her fear that she herself was one of the figures likely to be dismissed and forgotten. If she took on too much, if she became overly excited, she could tumble into a state of despair for which the term “depression” seems rather mild. In her lucid periods, she was great at parties. In her other state she was inconsolable. She hallucinated. She lashed out at those closest to her, her husband Leonard in particular, with the deadly accuracy available to a genius and which, it seems, she retained even when reason had deserted her. That Virginia was no fun at all.
The black spells always passed, usually in a matter of weeks, but Woolf not only lived in terror of the next onset, she worried she was too mentally unbalanced to sustain a career as a writer. Her fear of her own madness led her, when she started writing novels, to write two relatively conventional ones: The Voyage Out and Night and Day. She wanted to prove to herself and others that she was sane enough (most of the time) to write novels that were like those of other novelists; that were not the ravings and rants of a madwoman. She was further driven in her ambition to appear healthy by the fact that her editor was George Duckworth, her half brother, who had molested her when she was 12. It’s not difficult to imagine that, with those first two books, Woolf wanted to show Duckworth that he had not done her any lasting harm. It is also not difficult to imagine that few male writers of the period found themselves in similar situations.
After the publication of Night and Day, in an effort to ameliorate Woolf’s black spells, to lessen her agitation, she and Leonard moved to the suburban quiet of Richmond, and set up a printing press in the basement of their house. This was the birth of the Hogarth Press, and one of its first publications was Woolf’s highly unorthodox novel Jacob’s Room. Publishing her own books, in concert with Leonard, made the crucial difference. Woolf was, rather suddenly, answerable to no one, and she had already demonstrated her capacity for writing novels that resembled other novels. And so began her period of great work, which continued until her death. She no longer needed to prove anything, to anyone.Jacob’s Room was followed by Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse,Orlando, and on from there.
This new freedom was essential to Woolf as an artist, but did not have much effect on her periodic lapses into depression. They plagued her throughout her life. Psychiatry was not even in its infancy at the time – Hogarth eventually published early books by Freud – and there was no remedy available to Woolf. In the 1920s it was thought that mental disorders might stem from infections in the teeth, which by some means worked their way into the brain. She had several teeth pulled. It didn’t help.
And yet. If Woolf was better acquainted with profound sorrow than most, she was also, by some mysterious manifestation of will, better than almost anyone at conveying the pure joy of being alive. The quotidian pleasure of simply being present in the world on an ordinary Tuesday in June. That’s one of the reasons we who love her, love her as ardently as we do. She knew how bad it could get. And still, she insisted on simple, imperishable beauty, albeit a beauty haunted by mortality, as beauty always is. Woolf’s adoration of the world, her optimism about it, are assertions we can trust, because they come from a writer who has seen the bottom of the bottom. In her books, life persists, grand and gaudy and marvellous; it trumps the depths and discouragements.
I read Mrs Dalloway for the first time when I was a sophomore in high school. I was a bit of a slacker, not at all the sort of kid who’d pick up a book like that on my own (it was not, I assure you, part of the curriculum at my slacker-ish school in Los Angeles). I read it in a desperate attempt to impress a girl who was reading it at the time. I hoped, for strictly amorous purposes, to appear more literate than I was.
Mrs Dalloway, for anyone unfamiliar with it, concerns a day in the life of one Clarissa Dalloway, a 52-year-old society matron. In the course of the novel she runs an errand, meets an old flame in whom she is no longer interested, takes a nap, and gives a party. That’s the plot.
We are not, however, confined to Clarissa’s point of view throughout the novel. Consciousness is passed from character to character, like a baton passed from runner to runner in a relay race. We enter the mind of Peter Walsh, the old suitor; we go on a shopping trip with Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth; and we spend considerable time with one Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked veteran of the first world war who is mentally unhinged. We also enter, more briefly, the minds of entirely incidental figures – a man who passes Clarissa on Bond Street, an elderly woman sitting on a bench in Hyde Park. We return, always, to Clarissa, but we see as well that as she goes about her unextraordinary day she is surrounded by the various comedies and tragedies of those around her. We understand that Clarissa, that everyone, in the course of performing their daily business is in fact walking through a vast world, and is ever so slightly altering that world simply by appearing in it.
In Mrs Dalloway, Woolf asserts that a day in the life of just about anyone contains, if looked at with sufficient penetration, much of what one needs to know about all human life, in more or less the way the blueprint for an entire organism is present in every strand of its DNA. In Mrs Dalloway, and other novels of Woolf’s, we are told that there are no insignificant lives, only inadequate ways of looking at them.
I did not, at the age of 15, understand any of that. I couldn’t make sense of Mrs Dalloway, and I failed utterly in my attempts to appear intelligent to that girl (blessings on her, wherever she is today). But I could see, even as an untutored and rather lazy child, the density and symmetry and muscularity of Woolf’s sentences. I thought, wow, she was doing with language something like what Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar. By which I meant she walked a line between chaos and order, she riffed, and just when it seemed that a sentence was veering off into randomness, she brought it back and united it with the melody.
My only experience with sentences before then had been confined to the simple declarative. Woolf’s sentences were revelatory. It seemed possible that other books might contain similar marvels. And, as I discovered, some of them did. Reading Mrs Dalloway transformed me, by slow degrees, into a reader.
Decades after that first reading, which rendered me both baffled and awed – which converted me, if you will – I attempted to write a novel about Woolf and Mrs Dalloway. I approached the idea with appropriate nervousness. For one thing, if one stands that close to a genius, one is likely to look even tinier than one actually is. For another, I am a man, and Woolf was not only a great writer but is a feminist icon. There has long been a certain sense that she belongs to women.
Still, I wanted to write a book about reading a book. Mrs Dalloway, despite my general incomprehension of its larger purposes, showed me, at a relatively early age, what it was possible to do with ink and paper. It seems that for some of us, reading a particular book at a particular time is an essential life experience, and so every bit as much a part of our writerly material as the more traditional novel-inspiring experiences – like first love, the loss of a parent, a failed marriage, etc.
With my misgivings firmly in place, I decided that it was better to risk going down in lurid blue-green flames than to write the book one knows one is able to write. And so, I set out.
My novel The Hours originated as a contemporary retelling of Mrs Dalloway. I wondered how much, or how little, Clarissa Dalloway’s character would be altered by a world in which women were offered a broader range of possibilities. That quickly proved, however, to be merely a conceit, and not an especially compelling one. We already have Mrs Dalloway, a fabulous Mrs Dalloway. Who in the world could possibly want another?
Being dogged (doggedness is an essential quality for any novelist), I was reluctant to abandon the book entirely. I tried rewriting it as a diptych, in which I would alternate between chapters that concerned a contemporary Mrs Dalloway and chapters devoted to the day in Woolf’s life when she began writing the book. When she, ever doubtful and insecure, set down the opening lines of a book that, as it turned out, would live for ever. I even tried writing the Woolf story on the odd pages and the Clarissa story on the evens, so that they would kiss every time one turned a page. Ideas like that tend to make better sense in the solitude of one’s study than they do in brighter light.
Still, even with the inclusion of a second strand, the book wasn’t right. It refused to shed its aspect of literary exercise. It stubbornly remained an idea for a novel, rather than an actual novel.
At that point, I pretty much decided to let it go, and write another book instead. But one morning, sitting at my computer, I allowed my mind to wander into questions about why Woolf meant so much to me, enough that I’d spent the better part of a year writing a doomed novel about her and her work. OK, sure, I loved Mrs Dalloway, but every novelist has loved any number of books, and few of them have felt the need to write new books about the older ones (the only exception that comes to mind is Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, which is, of course, a retelling ofJane Eyre from the point of view of Bertha, Mr Rochester’s first wife).
What, then, was the matter with me? Sitting at my computer, I pictured Clarissa Dalloway, and pictured Woolf, her creator, standing behind her. And then, unbidden, I imagined my mother standing behind Woolf.
As I thought about it, I began to realise that my mother was, in certain ways, the legitimate third party. My mother was a homemaker, the sort of woman Woolf referred to as “the angel of the house”, who, like many such house angels, had given herself over to a life that was too small for her. She had always seemed to me like an Amazon queen, captured and brought to a suburb, where she was forced to live in an enclosure that could not contain her, and yet ineluctably did.
My mother managed her frustrations by obsessing over every conceivable detail. She could spend half a day deciding on cocktail napkins for a party. She planned every meal exquisitely, and still worried that they were failures. Germs decided eventually to cease entering the house entirely, because they knew they’d find no purchase there.
Sitting before my computer, I began to wonder . . . If you removed the ultimate object – for one woman, a novel, for another, a home so perfectly created and maintained that nothing rank or dolorous could ever take root there – you had, essentially, the same effort. That is, the desire to realise an ideal, to touch the supernal, to create something greater than the human hand and mind can create, no matter how gifted those hands and minds might be.
It seemed that in some fundamental way, my mother and Woolf had been engaged in similar enterprises. Both were pursuing impossible ideals. Neither was ever satisfied, because the end result, be it book or cake, did not, could not, match the perfection that seemed to hover just out of reach.
That equivalency felt true to the spirit of Woolf’s legacy. She who had insisted so adamantly that no life could be dismissed, and that the lives of women were more prone to dismissal than were the lives of men.
And so, with my mother renamed Laura Brown (after an essay of Woolf’s entitled “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown”), the book became a triptych, and I went on from there.
Although a great writer is always, first and foremost, a great writer, regardless of his or her life or subject matter, Woolf is quite possibly the greatest chronicler of the lives of women. Her women are rarely figures of fame or notoriety. Their skills tend to be the traditional womanly skills. Mrs Dalloway, like Mrs Ramsey in To the Lighthouse, is an immaculate hostess. Both are more than able to manage a dinner party, they are adept at helping everyone feel comfortable and included, they make certain that the food and the centrepieces are exactly right. We have, in the decades since, largely discredited those abilities, and favour – as well we might – women who take on the more global concerns that are still, even in 2011, more generally granted to men.
Part of Woolf’s genius, however, resides in her refusal to condescend to her women, without ever aggrandising them. If anything, it’s the men in her novels who feel ever so slightly ridiculous: Richard Dalloway with his smallish job at court, Mr Ramsey with his constant need for reassurance about his brilliance, his potency, his potential. As the men work and fret and bemoan their places in the world, the women infuse their men, their families, their homes, with life. The women are the electric currents that run through the rooms. The women are the sources not only of comfort but of vigour and amplitude. The women know that in the end, we will still need food and love, after our jobs have been taken over by younger people and our earthly works have been put away on their shelves.
Woolf was, not surprisingly, unsure about all that, even as she wrote so brilliantly about it. She believed that her sister Vanessa, who had children and lovers and a general air of reckless abandon even as she applied herself to her painting, was the truer artist. Woolf acknowledged that her sister was not necessarily the brightest of all intellectual lights, but still felt that Vanessa was the incandescent spirit, and that she, Woolf, was a stick, a barren and gaunt maiden aunt (her marriage to Leonard was companionable but not passionate), who spent her life producing books, an admirable pursuit but ultimately fairly dry when compared to the raising of a family.
She felt that way even as she wrote A Room of One’s Own. The old feminine imperatives, it seems, are harder to shed than one might imagine. You could probably say that one of the measures of greatness is an artist’s ability to transcend his or her personality, insecurities and peccadilloes. Woolf demanded equality for women and, at the same time, worried that her childlessness meant that her life had been a failure.
The Hours (which had been Woolf’s initial title for Mrs Dalloway), to the surprise of its author, agent and editor, somehow escaped what had seemed so clearly to be its destiny – to be read (probably disapprovingly) by a handful of Woolf fans and then march, with whatever dignity it could muster, straight to the remainders table. It sold well (if modestly by bestseller standards), and then – the biggest surprise of all – it was made into a movie. Which proved to be popular. With none other than Nicole Kidman playing Virginia, Meryl Streep as Clarissa, and Julianne Moore as Laura. Any number of people have asked me what I suspect Woolf would have thought of the book and the movie. I feel certain she’d have disliked the book – she was a ferocious critic. She’d probably have had reservations about the film as well, though I like to think that it would have pleased her to see herself played by a beautiful Hollywood movie star.
My mother, the one living person who appears in the book, was not pleased by it, though she bravely maintained that she was. I, foolish creature, had thought she’d be happy about the fact that I considered her life important enough to portray in a novel. It didn’t quite occur to me that she’d also feel exposed, betrayed and misinterpreted. Mothers, don’t raise your children to be novelists.
Several years after the novel had been published, while the film was in production, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. It had long gone undetected, and by the time it was found, was quite far along. She lived for a little less than a year after the diagnosis.
I was in Los Angeles with her, my father, and my sister during her final days. I called Scott Rudin, the producer of the movie, and said, I don’t think my mother is going to be able to see the movie, could you possibly arrange for her to see whatever you’ve got of it already? Rudin had 20 minutes’ worth of dailies, on video, brought by messenger to my family’s house. I inserted it into the television, as the messenger waited discreetly in another room.
And so I found myself sitting with my mortally ill mother, on the sofa we’d had since I was 15, watching Julianne Moore play her, as if she were being reincarnated while she was still alive.
It was a small enough incident, in the general scheme of things. It was one of the minor mercies. And yet, 10 years later, I’m still struck by the way in which at one end of a time spectrum we have Woolf, starting a new novel, worried that it will prove to be a mere curiosity, another of humankind’s failed experiments, wrought by someone who was more an eccentric than a genius, a writer-manqué who concerned herself with ordinary women’s lives in a world beset by battles and tortures, the murder of entire populations. At the other end of the spectrum, over 70 years later, we have my mother, a woman about whom Woolf might in theory have written, seeing herself portrayed by a brilliant actress, knowing (at least, I hope she knew) that her life had mattered more than she’d allowed herself to imagine.