Sally is a "pale, gray-haired woman" who is "harsh-faced, impatient," and "ten pounds lighter than she ought to be" (8.1). She is also a "lovely" (8.1), "devoted, intelligent woman," "a producer of public television" (1.29), and Clarissa Vaughan's partner of nearly eighteen years.
Sally is one of the novel's most fascinating characters, and that's because she's the intertextual counterpart of not one, but two very different characters from Virginia Woolf's own Mrs. Dalloway. Those characters are Sally Seton, a childhood friend of Clarissa Dalloway, and Richard Dalloway, Clarissa Dalloway's husband.
To give you a sense of how Michael Cunningham brings these two characters together, we'll start with this passage from one of the "Mrs. Woolf" chapters in The Hours. As Cunningham's Virginia mulls over the backstory that she's going to create for her heroine, she thinks:
Clarissa will have had a love: a woman. Or a girl, rather; yes, a girl she knew during her own girlhood; one of those passions that flare up when one is young—when love and ideas seem truly to be one's personal discovery, never before apprehended in quite this way […]. Clarissa Dalloway, in her first youth, will love another girl, Virginia thinks; Clarissa will believe that a rich, riotous future is opening before her, but eventually (how, exactly, will the change be accomplished?) she will come to her senses, as young women do, and marry a suitable man. (7.1)
The girlhood love that Virginia creates for Clarissa Dalloway is Sally Seton: a wild, carefree girl who, in Cunningham's apt words, is "brash and captivating" (7.4). Clarissa and Sally do share a kiss, and their friendship is totally charged with currents of infatuation and romance, but, just as Cunningham's Virginia imagines, nothing ever comes of it.
Not only does Clarissa "come to her senses" and marry a man, but so does Sally. When the formerly brash and captivating girl returns at the end of the novel as Lady Rosseter—a middle-aged, married woman with five sons—she seems like a totally different person.
By pairing Clarissa Vaughan with a woman named Sally in The Hours, Cunningham seems to be saying: Why should young women have to "come to their senses" and marry men? Why shouldn't they end up with the girls who make them feel like rich, riotous futures are blossoming before them? By rewriting a version of Mrs. Dalloway in which Clarissa and Sally do end up together, Cunningham creates an alt-universe where Clarissa Dalloway can live out the life that Virginia Woolf chose not to give her.
As if that weren't awesome enough, Cunningham also takes care to make Sally's movements on the bright June day of Clarissa's party mirror the movements of Woolf's own "Mr. Dalloway." Just as the original Mrs. Dalloway devotes a lengthy section to a lunch appointment that Richard Dalloway attends and then follows Mr. Dalloway home as he walks out in search of flowers to bring home to his wife, so too do we see Sally go to lunch with colleagues in the afternoon, and then make her way home to Clarissa, roses in hand.
Just in case you're wondering if Cunningham manages to give his Sally a unique personality of her own in the midst of all of these intertextual connections, rest assured that this character is more than just a literary cardboard cutout. Sally's unique personality comes through strong and clear in The Hours. Like Clarissa, she is sensitive, thoughtful, and caring; however, unlike Clarissa, she can also be scathing and unkind.
Sally's less-than-kind personality traits come through most clearly in the brief moments when she finds herself walking around with Walter Hardy, whom she dislikes. As she follows Walter into a high-end clothing store, she thinks:
Yes, Walter is ridiculous, but along with her disdain Sally seems to feel an awful and unavoidable tenderness for the poor f***, who has spent the last few years expecting his pretty, brainless boyfriend, his trophy, to die and now, suddenly, is faced with the prospect (does he have mixed feelings?) of the boyfriend's survival. (16.67)
Crikey. You can be sure that we never see Clarissa thinking about other people in such frankly negative terms. Sally seems to share Richard Brown's preference for rude, incisive analysis, no matter how scathing it may be. Maybe that's why Clarissa—with all of her sweetness and optimism—is drawn to them both.