Vanessa Redgrave as Clarissa Dalloway coming down the stairs (opening of film)
Dear friends and readers,
I’ve carried on reading Virginia Woolf, and feel I am moving more deeply into what is valuable in her, and seeing what does not quite come up to high excellence: though all she writes has integrity, she can seem to nod. She mirrrors her class, her era, is not sufficiently widely read in women’s writing because they were not available to her, or to most of us, until the 1970s — and then many do not avail themselves of earlier women’s art and books. That’s what I have my Austen Reveries blog for — to call attention to great art by women whose work is not sufficiently known (as well as Austen and 18th century art).
So the last 4 weeks I’ve reread her Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse & (after a long hiatus) A Room of One’s Own. I’ve watched the 1997 film adaptation of Mrs Dalloway, directed by Marleen Gorris, scripted by Eileen Atkins (who used to enact a one woman virtuoso couple of hours of Virginia Woolf for an evening’s theater); the (to me misogynist) very bad 2002 The Hours film (based on Michael Cunningham’s post-text to Mrs Dalloway, directed by Stephen Haldry, screenplay David Hare), and now the 1983 TV film (as it’s called) To the Lighthouse (screenplay Hugh Stoddart, directed by Colin Gregg). Only in Mrs Dalloway had any major roles in the making of the film been taken by women. As I watched To the Lighthouse, I found myself remembering my childhood watching the film To the Lighthouse:when I was young my family had a house on Long Island where we’d spend long weekends on a beach. Alas I don’t know that now nor will probably again — I’d be the grandmother …
I’ve been taking my first course as a student or class member at the OLLI at AU, where we are called “fearless readers” for studying Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own, and essays from The Common Readers and a few other places. It’s been an enjoyable and stimulating experience (not least because the professor doing it is such a confident relaxed and serious teacher (all at once) and I’m learning how to teach better too. The central themes of her mature fiction are feminist, deeply empathetic towards what is not institutionalized, individual liberty, how we are caught up in time, history, the spaces we find ourselves in. At least in these early works.
Mrs Dalloway was not “covered” on our group reading of Woolf (as just too well-known, as already read by all of us), nor A Room of One’s Own (ditto). Despite or maybe because of the surface conventionality of Clarissa’s day, Mrs Dalloway questions the bases of that conventional life, filled with much despair, injustice loneliness, so many people as puzzled wanderers on the earth going about routines. It’s an artfully controlled counterpart to Joyce’s Ulysses a day in the life and world of Clarissa, which takes in remembered past time, deep time before that (before Clarissa was a possibility), such an array of imagery capturing life’s smallest and biggest things. Mostly upper class people: the snobbery of the characters is seen in everyone’s apologizing to a vicar’s wife, so Woolf does see that. The question of the novel is how to take Clarissa: is it as ironic as Austen’s Emma, or are we to enter truly empathetically into Clarissa’s consciousness. Probably we are to see Clarissa’s limitations and yet bond with her. The central idea uniting the story of the traumatized (permanently shattered) Septimus Smith and the self-sheltered Mrs Dalloway is that (as she thinks) you must not “force the soul.” Septimus killed himself to save his soul from the unscrupulous morally moronic Dr Bradshaw.
In the film Septimus and Rezia (Amelia Bullmore) cornered as the doctor and his “aides” demand entrance — his crime, he said he wanted to kill himself
Life is made “intolerable” for those inner lives demand, need individual liberty in their outer ones. The professor took us through a lesbian reading of Mrs D which brings us a parallel underlying structure. Sally and Clariss’s kiss is a rare depiction of lesbian orgasm (and therefore famous):
It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush, which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world come close, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cacks and sores. Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus: an inner meaning almost expressed. But the close withdrew; the hard softened. It was over — in a moment.
She suggested that Georgia O’Keefe’s art is a visual equivalent. The imagery of the crocus, the inner soft vulnerable part of the flower occurs repeatedly in the novel in erotic places. Here is O’Keefe’s Autumn Trees: The Maple:
Atkins and Gorris’s Merchant-Ivory Mrs Dalloway carries itself so lightly and yet reaches down to the depths of distraught terror (Rupert Graves is superb as Septimus); the use of younger actors and switching back and forth brought out how layers of time are woven into the book’s angles of narration.
The young Clarissa and Peter — in the novel Clarissa continually remembers a love courtship many years ago
The film feels fluid, unforcedly symbolic. The iron gates are everywhere and they are what Septimus falls upon. The haunted nature of everyone’s experience through pained and joyful memory creates the tone of piece which is meditative — and comic because of the asinity of Lady Bexborough (Margaret Tysack) and Hugh Whitbread (Oliver Ford Davies). Michael Kitchener managed to convey Peter Walsh as someone who had his heart genuinely broken. Yet at the end resigned with Sally (Sarah Badel as the aging lesbian love, now respectabily Lady Rossiter):
Redgrave plays Woolf as someone who embraces life, not fragile, keeps people from intruding. Dropped is her detestation of Miss Killman in the book. Miss Killman resented far more fiercely than Austen’s Emma resents Miss Bates because Miss Killman shows up Clarissa’s privileged existence and seems to be stealing her daughter, Elizabeth; this parallel between the two books shows how closely Mrs Dalloway also “comes out of” Austen’s art (as did Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out).
Laura Knight, Lamorna Cove, or On the Cliffs
On Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I now wonder how much Woolf had in mind Johnson and Boswell in the Hebrides, Skye as a refuge (from Culloden literally), shifting is the mode — mostly deeply recognizably Cornwall, St Ives, but what are we to do with the Scottish sublimity of the Antiquary (read by Mr Ramsay), the sea in which William Cowper “perishes all alone,” the dark memories of Westmorland (where Wm Bankes and Mr Ramsay once walked), the killing fields of WW1 (written about by the quietly gay poet of the piece, Mr Carmichael). The sounds of the sea, the moon, the lighthouse itself, geology back in time, replace the music, contemporary green parks and flowers and killing fields of Mrs Dalloway’s everyday life. The middle section of Time Passes is stream of consciousness detached from any recognizable character: the time of aeons for the 10 years between Mrs Ramsay’s death and the longed-for reaching of the Lighthouse. It is a work of mourning, griefstruck meditation using stretched out time in the way of Proust, while Woolf is killing Mrs Ramsay as the angel in the house preventing her from living the life of a writer. I recommend Su Reid’s memories of her many summers in Cornwall applied to To The Lighthouse (in Cornwall: The Cultural Construction of Place, ed Ella Westland).
I’ve been watching the film To the Lighthouse this evening. Again, it put me in mind of when I was young and my parents and family had a summer house on Long Island and we did have joy on the beach. And now I have no chance for such experiences,as no ties to such a family group. To the Lighthouse is nostalgic (like the Dalloway film). I didn’t cry just thought of what once was — as the screenplay, the words are astonishing. They are an amalgam of passages from other works by Woolf which suggest connections between the sea of To the Lighthouse, and the “waves” of all her other works. Rosemary Harris delivers a contemplative monologue about the nature of Woolf’s verbal creativity in effect.
An iconic moment: Rosemary Harris as Mrs Ramsay, holding James’s hand, catering to him
As to actors, there’s a very young Kenneth Branagh playing Charles Tansley, the serious student, Suzanne Bertish a wise Lily Briscoe. Each of the Ramsay children is given a moment of characterization and individualized actor. In the film Mrs Ramsay’s death come on slowly, not the sudden collapse of the book (suggesting the world drained the life out of the woman)
Rosemary Harris is the angel on the beach, in the house, Michael Gough the rough well-meaning Mr Ramsay (having Oedipal struggles with James)
I’ve gained a couple of new rich source books: A small neglected superb book for its rich assortment of suggestive black-and-white photos of Woolf and Leonard, their houses, streets, the Hogarth Press, countryside around Monk House, Cornwall, and concise intelligent readings of her novels is Monique Nathan’s Virginia Woolf, and there is now a Mrs Dalloway Reader, ed Francine Prose, filled with relevant writings on the Dalloways by Woolf herself (including her sections on the couple in Voyage Out and Between the Acts), wonderful letters, brief appreciations.
A Room of One’s Own is problematic: There is too much exaggeration for lack of knowledge of women’s literature. Woolf will say there is no writing about mothers and children until the 20th century. Not true. We now know there were many women writers around Shakespeare’s time: most of the learned lady kind, but they wrote thoughtful political treatises, poetry, translations. She also diminishes and lambasts earlier women’s achievement far too much: in the last 100 years we have found a tradition of women’s writing in all spheres of life, not all their novels were dreadful (except of course those by the in this treatise paragon Jane Austen), her demand for an “incandescendant approach to writing is unreal. Woolf is writing several decades earlier than the 1970/80s when women’s literature before the 19th century came back in print and the writing of women in the 19th multiplied dramatically. She also makes such a paragon of Austen: it’s absurd the way she attributes to Austen perfection; there is the idea that Bronte (Charlotte) had the greater genius, but Woolf never explains what she means by this. It does feel like nagging at moments too. I have an idea why it is no longer read. Three Guineas is preferable, the much more mature work.
That said, it’s startlingly a propos at the moment: it explains to you why Trump, a cunning corrupt moron was preferred to Hillary Clinton, utterly reputable, highly intelligent and capable. So much she asserts is true of most women until the 19th century, still true of women in traditional cultures today. There for men to have sex with, give babies to, and obey authorities. Stay indoors much of their lives, or kept away from larger public world for long stretches. The brother and heir comes first. Deep shame over sex inculcated. Reading A Room of One’s Own makes me so sorrowful for those women and books, whose art is still thwarted, stymied, stigmatized, and rejoice for those who have stuck it out and achieved a measure of self-fulfillment. Clarissa chose the safe kindly Richard Dalloway; many women today can choose the daring career, but the treatise demonstrates amid much push back and at crucial points lack of empathy. A Room of One’s Own does end very well: Mary Carmichael can at long last try a novel, and she does; she has around her so much pressure not to, and what we can do for her is work for her so she shall have space, money, time, self-esteem and liberty even if it means to do this in the present circumstances for most of us means working in obscurity and poverty.
I will jump to the later Woolf soon, and read Between the Acts next ….
A photo from a French staged play reading of Virginia Woolf’s writings