I first read Michael Cunningham’s The Hours several years ago, and of late have been itching to reread it – partly, I think, because I am focusing upon Woolf in my PhD thesis. Although The Hours is (sadly) not thesis applicable, it still felt as though I was researching by picking up my beautiful Harper Perennial copy – always a bonus. Whilst I very much enjoyed it the first time around, I got so much more out of it during my 2017 reread; so much so that it is now firmly nestled amongst my favourite novels.
Beautifully written from the very beginning, The Hours weaves together the stories of three women – Virginia Woolf herself, as she nears the end of her mortality; young wife Laura Brown, living in a Los Angeles suburb in the 1940s, who is yearning to be able to read her copy of Mrs Dalloway away from her motherhood duties; and Clarissa Vaughan, residing in the New York of the 1990s, who steps into the city in order to buy some flowers for a party which she is hosting, thus echoing Woolf’s eponymous character. These stories are at once separate and connected; a clever technique which gives a marvellous flow to the whole.
Cunningham’s writing is sublime, and the imagery which he presents is immediately vivid, particularly in those instances where he portrays movement: ‘It’s the city’s crush and heave that move you; its vibrancy; its endless life’. The characters which he presents are vibrant and realistic; his embodiment of Woolf herself as a character has been sensitively and cleverly wrought. In the single following description, for instance, an ageing Woolf is brought to life: ‘She is still regal, still exquisitely formed, still possessed of her formidable lunar radiance, but she is suddenly no longer beautiful’. Cunningham captures some continuation of Woolf’s breathtaking prose too, particularly with regard to his presentation of characters: ‘This is one of the most singular experiences, waking on what feels like a good day, preparing to work but not yet actually embarked. At this moment there are infinite possibilities, whole hours ahead. Her mind hums’. When discussing lost housewife Laura, too, Cunningham shows the utmost understanding of her, and her place in the world: ‘… and when she glanced over at this new book on her nightstand, stacked above the one she finished last night, she reached for it automatically, as if reading were the singular and obvious first task of the day, the only viable way to negotiate the transit from sleep to obligation’.
Everything in The Hours loops around Mrs Dalloway; Cunningham’s approach is startlingly simple, yet remarkably clever. The Hours is, in fact, nothing short of phenomenal. The prose throughout is exquisite, the characters fully formed, and the sense of place as real as if one was standing in it themselves. The singular diurnal structure, reminiscent of Mrs Dalloway, is a clever touch. Cunningham handles everything marvellously, and the flow to the whole is flawless. Indeed, much of his writing is rather profound: ‘She thinks of how much more space a being occupies in life than it does in death; how much illusion of size is contained in gestures and movements, in breathing. Dead, we are revealed in our true dimensions, and they are surprisingly modest’.
In The Hours, Cunningham essentially presents a love letter to the utterly splendid novel that is Mrs Dalloway. At times, it is rendered almost painfully vivid, for instance in those passages which describe the suicide of Woolf. I shall leave you, dear reader, with Cunningham’s musings upon death: ‘It might be like walking out into a field of brilliant snow. It could be dreadful and wonderful.’