Thursday, 16 May 2013

Thinking (As Ever) about Mrs. Dalloway & The Hours

If there is a novel from which I will never recover (in terms of its beauty as well as its anguish), it's Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. And perhaps not unrelatedly, if there is a film from which I will never recover (in terms of its beauty as well as its anguish), it's "The Hours," based on the novel of the same name by Michael Cunningham, which is based on Mrs. Dalloway

Nicole Kidman plays Virginia Woolf so movingly and memorably in "The Hours" that her performance retains its magnificence in my mind year after year. Meryl Streep, typically, also becomes her character, a modern-day Clarissa Dalloway in New York City (as opposed to London). Julianne Moore is likewise astonishing. The three of them juxtaposed transcend everything we've ever come to expect or understand about what is possible in film.

I'm rereading the novel, of course, in Women's Literature this spring. And we're in London. And we're approaching June. It's all too perfect--and a bit too much. 

I open the novel and reread the line, "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself," and the beautiful, anguishing world of the novel pops instantly back to life; takes me in (1). The city and its people are somehow the same city and people Clarissa (and Woolf) knew in 1917, in spite of the various wars and years between us. 

Clarissa and Septimus feel and see and rejoice and hurt with the same intensity as anyone today--anyone, that is, who experiences life with extraordinary intensity, the highs and the lows. (Is this, some readers wonder, manic depression or bipolar disorder?)

"Arlington Street and Piccadilly seemed to chafe the very air in the Park and lift its leaves hotly, brilliantly, on waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved. To dance, to ride, she had adored all that," Clarissa feels, on one hand (4). Yet it is just as real and just as intense when she feels that "often now this body she wore [...] this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing--nothing at all." Woolf continues, "She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street..." (7-8). 

Somewhat similarly, Septimus feels everything, too. was plain enough, this beauty, this exquisite beauty, and tears filled his eyes as he looked at the smoke words languishing and melting in the sky and bestowing upon him in their inexhaustible charity and laughing goodness one shape after another of unimaginable beauty and signaling their intention to provide him, for nothing, for ever, for looking merely, with beauty, more beauty! Tears ran down his cheeks. (17-18)
Sometimes the beautiful and the anguishing merge into one, so that life and death are intertwined in one gorgeous, painful feeling. Though I do not suffer from mental illness (as far as I know), all of this seems incredibly poignant and real to me as a reader. Woolf captures how it feels to be in the wild, bustling, lonely, wonderful world: "life; London; this moment of June" (2).

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