I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.
I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.
(Virginia Woolf’s suicide note left for her husband Leonard.)
In many ways Michael Cunningham’s novel, The Hours, stands as a eulogy to Virginia Woolf and for one of her most memorable novels, Mrs. Dalloway. It serves as a modern reimagining that shapes three separate stories into a cohesive course of time, skipping back and forth from Virginia writing Mrs. Dalloway, to a 50’s housewife reading the novel, to a late 20th century woman, Clarissa Vaughan, much like Woolf’s heroine, Clarissa Dalloway herself. This mixture of memorial and adaptation contributes to the longevity of Woolf’s own creative genius and the impact felt years later by readers. I have always had a deep-set fascination with the life and works of Virginia Woolf, and it is because of this fact that I have an affinity for Cunningham’s novel. The beautiful and heartbreaking story of The Hours is both an investigation into the life and mind of Woolf herself, but also an exploration of the fragility and difficulty for everyday people in choosing to live their own lives.
John Mullan of The Guardian pinpoints Cunningham’s novel when he refers to it as “an imitation – a reworking – of her novel, Mrs Dalloway.” Cunningham’s use of stream of consciousness is a masterful imitation of the writing style used throughout Mrs. Dalloway. We get other characters' perceptions, thoughts, feelings, swirled around locations; walking across a street, meeting in a restaurant, or baking in a kitchen – something like a relay race where one character takes the baton only so far before passing it on to the next racer. Clarissa Vaughan, towards the end of the novel, has a unique exchange with a friend of her daughter, Julia’s. Clarissa’s thoughts and the friend’s, Mary’s, are unkind towards each other but also capture each other’s statuses in life, and how they perceive those around them:
[...] Clarissa and Mary face each other. Fool, Mary thinks, though she struggles to remain charitable or, at least, serene. No, screw charity. Anything’s better than queers of the old school, dressed to pass, bourgeois to the bone, living like husband and wife. Better to be a frank and open asshole, [...] than a well-dressed dyke with a respectable job.
Fraud, Clarissa thinks. You’ve fooled my daughter, but you don’t fool me. I know a conquistador when I see one. I know all about making a splash. It isn’t hard. If you shout loud enough, for long enough, a crowd will gather to see what all the noise is about. It’s the nature of crowds. They don’t stay long unless you give them reason. You’re just as bad as most men, just that aggressive, just that self-aggrandizing, and your hour will come and go.
The mention of the the hour is central to the novel. The hours take place within one day of these women's lives that are separated by time, yet connected through words; proving each hour passing is another one behind us, another one survived or not, and another one to come. It places an importance on a single day, on a single hour.
The opening line of Mrs. Dalloway, starting with, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” is imitated in The Hours when Cunningham has his Clarissa off to find flowers for her own party. Mullan from The Guardian also expands on this form of imitation by saying it is “fitting because Woolf's original novel was trying to do justice to the sharpness of new experience, even as it detonates old memories, and this endeavour is always worth trying afresh.” I have always viewed the opening line, much like the book, to be about finding and believing in one’s own importance amongst the sharpness of the world and finding a way forward, when others cannot. It is also mentioned in the novel by Virginia that someone has to die, in order for others to find value in life – something I can’t help but see the truth in, no matter how cold it may seem.
Not everyone is capable of being a great writer like Woolf or a leader like Winston Churchill, but that should not dull life’s other accomplishments. Sometimes simply buying flowers is an act of self-preservation, of proving that one can accomplish something beautiful and worthwhile to oneself. That throwing a party, however trivial, can mean something; much in the same way the characters of Clarissa Dalloway and Clarissa Vaughan hold on to their own parties. They needed an accomplishment, and they needed a purpose, because, after all, there are still the hours to move through. Sometimes, I view BACKWORDS as my own sort of party. It’s given me a creative purpose outside of a job – and even a real party to throw – that others might deem trivial before getting to know the project or the mission. It can also be viewed as me, buying the flowers; writing my own words; learning fresh.
Michael Cunningham, in an interview with Bomb Magazine states, “That’s part of why we have novels—to reveal the life-affirming consciousness, or whatever, that people don’t wear on their sleeves.” This quote sums up why I am attracted to Cunningham’s novel, as well as Woolf’s. These are the kinds of work that can elevate a mind, help to interpret feelings, emotions, that sometimes you can only find meaning from in the pages of a book. These are the novels that make the hours matter.
“You cannot find peace by avoiding life, Leonard.” (Quote from The Hours, of Virginia Woolf to her husband Leonard.)