The Woolf Pack: Michael Cunningham's the Hours Put the Spotlight on One Virginia Woolf Novel, but Don't Overlook the Others

By Kramer, Jerome V. | Book, May-June 2003 | Go to article overview

The Woolf Pack: Michael Cunningham's the Hours Put the Spotlight on One Virginia Woolf Novel, but Don't Overlook the Others


Kramer, Jerome V., Book


THESE DAYS, IT SEEMS, THE ANSWER to Edward Albee's question is: No one--no one's afraid of Virginia Woolf. Her fourth novel, Mrs. Dalloway, is being snapped up by more readers than at any time since it was published three-quarters of a century ago. This is largely due to the attention paid to Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1998 novel The Hours and its Oscar-winning film adaptation. An exquisite riff on Woolf's novel, Cunningham's book offers stories of three women at three times, connected, in one way or another, by Mrs. Dalloway.

"Virginia Woolf is, purely and simply, one of the most important writers in the English language," Cunningham says, likening the revolution brought about in fiction by Woolf and James Joyce to that brought about by Picasso in painting. Both writers jettisoned the notion that a great novel must concern itself with "great" subjects, Cunningham says, believing instead that every human life was an "epic journey, full of mythic resonances."

The explosion of attention Woolf received from The Hours had, in fact, been building for years. According to Mark Hussey, the author of Virginia Woolf A to Z, Woolf's writing was championed by pioneering feminist writers in the 1970S, who made her an icon of the women's movement. "Now," says Hussey, a professor of English, women's studies and gender studies at Pace University, "she crops up in all kinds of work."

Psychological rather than conventionally plot driven, epic in intimacy rather than in actions, Woolf's novels combine experimental prose and sharp humor to reward readers who truly invest themselves in a book. Woolf never attended either public school or university but was a voracious reader who had the run of her father's library. "That was her education," says Vara Neverow, the president of the International Virginia Woolf Society and chair of the English Department at Southern Connecticut State University. So which of her novels should be in your library? Here's some advice from Cunningham, Hussey and Neverow.

The Voyage Out (1915)

Woolf, along with her husband, Leonard, was part of the Bloomsbury Group, an intellectually and sexually progressive collective of writers and artists; she was an essayist and reviewer when she published her first novel. A coming-of-age story about an Englishwoman on a voyage from London to South America, it is not experimental but does introduce themes prevalent throughout her career, including imperialism and sexual politics. Comparatively accessible; not the most characteristic

Night and Day (1919)

An unusually formal work ("really a novel of manners," says Hussey), this was the last book Woolf wrote in a traditional style. The story centers on Katharine Hilbery, who struggles to choose between two suitors. It was so conventional--more like a Jane Austen novel--that for many scholars, Neverow says, it "fell out of the canon." An enjoyable read, the last conventional novel until The Years

Jacob's Room (1922)

In 1921, Woolf published a book of "sketches," Hussey says, "experimenting with narrative forms in ways that reflect the incredible ferment of ideas around 1910 on," including those in painting and music. (Incidentally, Woolf's short fiction, available in several collections, is under-appreciated.) The next year, Woolf-turned those experiments into a novel, the first she would publish with her own press. The protagonist, young Jacob Flanders, is dead before the novel begins. Hussey calls it an "elegy for the generation lost in World War I." The novel, says Neverow, is "much more experimental because no one's telling her how she should write." Groundbreaking experimentation; tough but rewarding

Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

Hussey explains that by this point Woolf was "writing confidently in what she described as her `own voice.'" Hussey says the stream-of-consciousness narrative about one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a proper Englishwoman considering the course her life might have taken as she prepares for a party, is "about power, about madness and about the fact that war does not end when the guns stop firing. …

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