Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Who's a Fan of Virginia Woolf ?; Virginia Woolf's Reputation Has Never Been Greater. but No One Can Bear to Read Her Now

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Who's a Fan of Virginia Woolf ?; Virginia Woolf's Reputation Has Never Been Greater. but No One Can Bear to Read Her Now

Article excerpt


BLOOMSBURY continues to provide a rich mine of material for gossip, memoirs, biographies and biopics. But those responsible for this ceaseless flow of secondary products appear never seem to ask if the Bloomsbury Group deserves such continued attention. Did this bunch of determined self-congratulators ever produce any first-rate art whatsoever of international importance?

The latest Bloomsbury spin-off is a little different from the usual chatter, admittedly. The Hours, a movie directed by Stephen Daldry, from a script by David Hare, adapting the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham, features an appearance by Nicole Kidman wearing a prosthetic nose to impersonate Virginia Woolf, but this is more than another slavish biopic.

Cunningham's book plays a clever set of variations on Woolf 's bestknown novel, Mrs Dalloway.

Intercutting from one timeline to another, he tells in Woolfian style three different but thematically related stories, all taking place on a single day but in different eras.

In 1923, in Richmond, Virginia Woolf is working away on Mrs Dalloway and trying to get through the day without going mad. She ends up sharing a passionate kiss with her sister, Vanessa Bell. In 1949, in Los Angeles, Laura Brown, a young wife, is longing to get back to reading her copy of Mrs Dalloway, rather than look after her small son and prepare her unsympathetic husband's birthday dinner. During the day, she, too, enjoys a kiss with a female friend, but feels suicidal nonetheless. In the late 1990s, in New York, Clarissa, a lesbian book editor, is setting out to buy flowers for a party she is holding that evening for her former lover, Richard, a gay writer, severely ill with Aids, who has just won a prize for a Mrs Dalloway-style novel he has written about Clarissa.

CUNNINGHAM artfully brings each of these stories forward to a more or less simultaneous climax with a twist in the tale. It's clear there is going to be a suicide (we've been shown Woolf 's own in 1941 as a prelude) and for most of the novel we believe it will be that of Laura Brown, back in 1949. But it turns out instead to be that of the gay writer Richard. Rather than face the party in his honour and all "the hours" after, he suddenly chucks himself out of a fifth-storey window. The party is abandoned - but one of the guests, already arrived, turns out to be none other than the elderly Laura Brown.

She's Richard's mother.

It will be seen at once that Cunningham's novel is not so much an imitation of Woolf 's streams of consciousness as a nattily plotted piece of work.

Indeed it displays what Woolf 's own novels so painfully lack: a strong story. It's more like one of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected than the original Mrs Dalloway, let alone the stupefying poeticisms of her later novels such as The Waves.

As the patron saint and martyr of gay and gender studies in the universities-Virginia Woolf now holds a more revered place in 20th century literature than ever before. Yet even Bloomsbury loyalists must admit that (leaving aside the economist Maynard Keynes) the rest of the group no longer enjoy any international reputation whatsoever. Those sarcastic essays about the Victorians by Lytton Strachey? The sploshy paintings of Vanessa Bell, the colourful daubs of Duncan Grant?

The amateurish art criticism of Clive Bell or Roger Fry? The literary reviews of Desmond McCarthy?

Leonard Woolf 's dogged memoirs?

No, no, no.

But Woolf is an icon and not to be touched. …

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