Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours is an ambitious undertaking: to retell, engage in conversation with, and illuminate Virginia Woolf’s classic novel, Mrs. Dalloway. The novel focuses on three women: Clarissa Vaughan, who unwittingly re-enacts Clarissa Dalloway’s day as she prepares to throw a party for her friend Richard, who has won a prestigious literary prize; Virginia Woolf, who is engaged in writing Mrs. Dalloway and puzzling over some of the plot points; and Laura Brown, a woman suffocating under her life in 1950’s suburban Los Angeles. Just as the stories of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith (and their loved ones and friends) coalesce at the end of Mrs. Dalloway, the stories of the three women at the heart of The Hours entwine by the end of the novel.
I first read this novel in 2003 and later watched the movie in 2005. At the time, neither resonated with me much, perhaps because I wasn’t ready for either of them. I struggle with two warring ideas a lot: we enjoy books more when we’re ready for them, but I am also an English teacher, and I teach full-class novels—and I’m fully aware that the students aren’t ready for for some of them yet. I don’t mean that they can’t understand them. I mean that the characters and their stories will not necessarily be relevant—yet. As I grow older, I believe that more stories seem relevant to me than when I was younger because I’ve lived more, and I have developed more empathy. So I am thinking all of these thoughts because I re-read The Hours in preparation for teaching it after spring break is over. My students studied Mrs. Dalloway before the break. My students proved to me much more capable than I would have been at their age of empathizing with an older woman planning a party, but I could tell the person they were really drawn to was Septimus. And why wouldn’t they be drawn to the young, doomed, poet Septimus?
In some ways, the task is so monumental that it shouldn’t work. You almost have to admire Michael Cunningham for even trying, never mind succeeding. I know he is a big fan of Mrs. Dalloway. For this book, he borrowed not only the author and plotline of Mrs. Dalloway (though with his own twist), but also the working title Woolf was considering for Mrs. Dalloway. The book speaks to the ways in which all of literature can really be seen as one big conversation, though books rarely talk to each other as directly as Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours. I feel like I understand Mrs. Dalloway better seeing it now through the lens of The Hours as well. I have to wonder what Virginia Woolf would have thought of it.
When I was in college—a freshman, in fact—I was assigned to read Doris Lessing’s short story “To Room Nineteen.” It’s impossible not to see this story’s influence on The Hours as much as Mrs. Dalloway’s influence. The couple in “To Room Nineteen” live in Richmond, a suburb of London, which is where Virginia and Leonard Woolf are living in The Hours. Much like Laura in The Hours, Susan goes to a hotel and stays in room nineteen (here the allusion is at its most assured). Both Laura’s and Virginia’s stories in The Hours can be glimpsed in that of Susan in Lessing’s story. Even when I was myself only 19, I connected to that story. It is one of the few things I read in that year that I still remember and think about. Why I was ready for the story of Lessing’s Susan at 19, but not ready for the women in The Hours at 32, I’m not really certain.
I have a theory that we should try to return to some books later because we will read different books. We will bring the experiences, the other things we have read, the person we are at that later period in life to bear on whatever we read, and the book will not be the same to us. I recall distinctly feeling annoyed by Holden Caulfield’s whining when I read The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager. I had very little empathy for Holden, and I had none at all after he hired Sunny. Years later, I read the book again when I had children, and saw in Holden a lost child who was desperately reaching out for someone, anyone, to listen to him and love him. And there was no one. A completely different book. So, The Hours is a completely different book because I have now read Mrs. Dalloway, and because I’m 44, not 31, and because I felt empathy for the characters closer to my own age now than I did when I was younger. I see myself in the women of The Hours in a way I just couldn’t 13 years ago.
One strange moment I have to mention—Clarissa is in the florist’s shop buying flowers when she hears a loud noise made by a movie production up the street. When she looks out, she think she sees a movie star—maybe Meryl Streep, but maybe Vanessa Redgrave. Meryl Streep would play Clarissa in the film version of The Hours, and Vanessa Redgrave would bring Mrs. Dalloway to life in a film that was released the same year as Michael Cunningham’s book. I’ll bet that creeped him out.Rating: