The Book Club

Victorian Kitsch

Dear Alice,

Let’s try to flesh out a few of those correspondences, because I think I’m missing the ones that make you like the book so much. I’ve just finished rereading Mrs. Dalloway–I hadn’t read it since 9th-grade English, under the guidance of one of those wonderfully kind, single, female, middle-aged English teachers who smuggle the first inklings of literary insight into their students’ minds–and I have to say that The Hours doesn’t benefit from the comparison it forces us to make. You forget, when you have last read Mrs. Dalloway in 9th grade, how wild it is, how big and raw and unpredictable. Woolf’s urgent, omniscient perspective on city life was itself a theft from Jean-Jacques Rousseau–Reveries of A Solitary Walker–and Charles Baudelaire’s essays on the flaneur. Yet everything she described felt new, or, if it was old, she seemed to be seeing as if for the first time how old it had become. Who before Woolf had written about psychosis the way she did in describing the breakdown of Septimus Smith, the shell-shocked World War I veteran? Or made you feel the incredible weirdness of monarchic pomp and circumstance in the age of the traffic jam? She was relegating Victorianism to the realm of kitsch and ushering in the fascinating, terrifying, magical, hurried, alienating, militaristic, fragmented, hopelessly lovely modern world. Fixed ideas of personhood based on birth and station and gender were giving way to much more provisional ones based on where someone happened to be at a particular moment in London’s mad ferment, and whom they chanced to meet, and what memory sprang unbidden to their minds. As you might say, everything in it is based on correspondences, everything and everybody gains meaning by its or their juxtaposition to something or someone else.

But even though Woolf’s approach is in this way the same as the Cunningham’s, her prose seems much fresher than his. Seventy-three years after publication, her connections remain so startling, so unexpected, I feel I could read and reread the book and still not have grasped the shades of meaning inherent in contrasts I haven’t spotted yet. It’s as rich as London itself. Neither the correspondences or the language in Cunningham’s novel command that kind of rapt attention, or yield up that much meaning. I feel I’ve met his characters before–not in a Woolf novel, but in Terrence McNally plays or Lifetime TV dramas or feminist biographies of Woolf. I grant you that Cunningham has fashioned out of these cliches sophisticated, thoughtful characters, and that there is lovely writing, and that the passage you quote about Richard is remarkably perceptive–you could apply it to any number of flatterers you probably know.

Also I admit that although Cunningham is borrowing from Woolf, he’s up to something else entirely. She was breaking down barriers between and within classes; he’s breaking down barriers in time. Hers is a community linked, at its edges, by nothing other than–yet profoundly affected by–the city of London. His is a community of readers, all of whom–including Woolf herself–have been affected by Mrs. Dalloway the character and Mrs. Dalloway the book. Clarissa Vaughan’s view of the world–her love of New York City and life itself, her generosity, her steeliness–could be a coincidental echo of Clarissa Dalloway’s, or she could have styled herself after that character because early on, the great love of her life, Richard, nicknamed her Mrs. Dalloway and still calls her that years later. The suicidal tendences of Mrs. Brown, who is struggling to find time to read Mrs. Dalloway, could just be a part of her personality, or they could be a gloss on what remains of something ultimately not written into that novel, but originally intended for it–Mrs. Dalloway’s suicide. And so on. All these correspondences do seem to add up to a statement about how intimately literature is interwoven into our ideas of ourselves–our sexuality, our modernity, how we choose to die. And yet…and yet…you said it yourself. For all its intelligence, The Hours is thin. Particularly next to Mrs. Dalloway.

Speaking of great loves, I agree, let’s not forget the Michael Furey problem. A friend of mine just called to ask me what we’re supposed to think these novels are telling us about the long-lost-love theory of life, especially in today’s post-therapy era. Do we still believe that loves formed in our impressionable youth haunt us into middle age? Is that an adequate explanation of our failure to be fully alive or a tired trope we ought to abolish? I don’t agree that Mrs. Brown demonstrates Cunningham’s maturity on this score, because she’s not haunted by a long-lost love–she’s driven mad by her inability to find a creative life for herself. (Although I think she ultimately becomes her son’s long-lost love.) In Mrs. Dalloway, I think we’re meant to understand that if Clarissa had chosen to marry Peter Walsh–her great love, her Richard–her life might indeed have had more life in it but would also have been quite miserable. Walsh is not that sympathetic a character. He’s a vainglorious Anglo-Indian colonialist with less charm than the other narcissists we’ve been talking about, less appealing, for instance, than the dying poet. In The Hours, Clarissa Vaughan doesn’t choose not to marry Richard–he chooses to be gay, at least as I interpret it. She still hankers after him. So when it comes to long-lost loves and the authors we’re discussing, I think Woolf may actually be the least romantic of the bunch. If that’s true, what does it mean? Have American authors lapsed into a Victorian sentimentality Woolf rigorously eschewed?