Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not Michael Cunningham, that's for sure.
Virginia Woolf—the celebrated English modernist who is read and remembered today for her literary innovation, her insight, her feminism, and her struggles to convey the depths of human experience—appears as a fictionalized character in The Hours. In fact, she's one of the novel's three protagonists.
Although Cunningham's Virginia is based in historical fact, The Hours creates dialogue, thoughts, feelings, and impressions that may never have existed in the real woman's real life. With that in mind, we'll focus on the Virginia Woolf that Cunningham creates for us, and we'll leave it to you to check out the historical author's real biography.
The Hours begins by imagining Virginia's death scene. The real Virginia Woolf died in late March, 1941, through willful death by drowning in England's River Ouse (source). Cunningham's Virginia does the same. After slipping out of her house and walking down to the river, Virginia puts a rock in her pocket, steps into the water, and lets the current carry her away.
The Hours doesn't dwell very long on Virginia's death, but instead gets it over with quickly in a short, six-page Prologue. The first true chapter that deals with Virginia's life is set eighteen years earlier, in 1923, where a younger and far less desperate Virginia has started to draft the novel that'll eventually become Mrs. Dalloway.
In 1923, Virginia is forty-one years old, which makes her roughly a decade older than Laura Brown and about a decade younger than Clarissa Vaughan. Because Virginia doesn't like to look at herself in the mirror (2.5), our best impression of her physical appearance comes filtered through the eyes of her husband, Leonard. Here's what Leonard sees when he looks at her:
She stands tall, haggard, marvelous in her housecoat, the coffee steaming in her hand. […] She is Virginia Stephen, pale and tall, startling as a Rembrandt or a Velázquez, appearing twenty years ago at her brother's rooms in Cambridge in a white dress, and she is Virginia Woolf, standing before him right now. She has aged dramatically, just this year, as if a layer of air has leaked out from under her skin. She's grown craggy and worn. She's begun to look as if she's carved from very porous, gray-white marble. She is still regal, still exquisitely formed, still possessed of her formidable lunar radiance, but she is suddenly no longer beautiful. (2.26)
If Leonard's characterization of his wife seems harsh to you, rest assured that what he admires most about Virginia is her talent and intellect, not her beauty. As the novel's narrator tells us: "He is still, at times, astonished by her. She may be the most intelligent woman in England, he thinks. Her books may be read for centuries. He believes this more ardently than does anyone else" (2.26).
Virginia may have lost some of the beauty that she possessed when she was younger, but, as the indomitable Carrie Fisher would say: "Youth and beauty are not accomplishments!" (source). We'll take the enduring loveliness of Mrs. Dalloway over plump cheeks any day.
When we first meet the forty-one-year-old Virginia, she's living in Richmond, England, in 1923, and she's asleep in bed and dreaming. In fact, she's dreaming of the words that will eventually become the opening line of Mrs. Dalloway. Virginia wakes up momentarily but then drifts off again into a dream that contains some of the lush imagery that will soon find its way into her novel—and into The Hours, too. What does she see?
It seems, suddenly, that she is not in her bed but in a park; a park impossibly verdant, green beyond green—a Platonic vision of a park, at once homely and the seat of mystery, implying as parks do that while the old woman in the shawl dozes on the slatted bench something alive and ancient, something neither kind nor unkind, exulting only in continuance, knits together the green world of farms and meadows, forests and parks. (2.3)
These dream scenes tell us quite a bit about the artistic temperament that Cunningham has imagined for his Virginia. This Virginia dreams deeply and richly and draws from those dreams when she wakes. That tells us that she's attuned to the unconscious life of her mind, and she values the insights and intuitions that burble up from those mental depths.
This Virginia has learned to trust her mind in other ways, too, though it takes some willpower for her to do it. She doesn't try to force her writing when it doesn't want to come, for example; instead she waits to see how she feels each morning when she wakes (2.4). Then, when the mood is on her, the writing comes first and foremost. Trivial things like breakfast and household management will just have to wait.
Virginia feels that the household servants resent her single-minded devotion to her writing. When she checks in on her cook, Nelly Boxall, to see what Nelly is planning for lunch, her thoughts take a pretty self-critical turn:
If Virginia had performed properly and appeared in the kitchen that morning to order lunch, the pudding could be almost anything. It could be blancmange or a soufflé; it could, in fact, be pears. Virginia could easily have walked into the kitchen at eight o'clock and said, "Let's not bother much about the pudding today, pears will suit us perfectly." But instead she skulked straightaway to her study, fearful that her day's writing (that fragile impulse, that egg balanced on a spoon) might dissolve before one of Nelly's moods. (7.19)
"Nelly knows this," Virginia thinks, "of course she knows, and in offering pears she reminds Virginia that she, Nelly, is powerful; that she knows secrets; that queens who care more about solving puzzles in their chambers than they do about the welfare of their people must take whatever they get" (7.19).
Still, despite feeling like an inadequate mistress of the house, Virginia doesn't go so far as to let these anxieties keep her from her work. Books before cooks, are we right? Which is kind of the point, in a way—despite her insecurities, Virginia Woolf isn't really all that interested in traditional women's roles, like manager of a household. She wants to break out of that mold.
If you read up on the real-life Virginia Woolf, you'll probably find lots of people coming up with diagnoses of the mental illnesses that she lived with: depression, manic depressiveness, bipolar disorder, nervous breakdown, the traumatization that comes from childhood sexual assault—you name it.
Cunningham himself has said that the term "depression" "feels too mild" to be an accurate label for Woolf's experiences, and he has also suggested that "it's been impossible to sort of psychoanalyze her posthumously, and what she suffered doesn't exactly match any of the clinical diagnoses that we know about" (source).
Basically, he's saying that even if we try really hard, we're not going to be able to pinpoint what was going on with Virginia Woolf exactly. And diagnosing her may not even be the point.
As someone with self-identified, firsthand experience with depression, Cunningham has gone on to say this about Woolf:
[Virginia] would go way, way, way down, and then would sort of come back again, and one of the things that I so love about her is the fact that it's difficult to imagine anybody better acquainted with how dark and dreadful and intolerable consciousness could be, and yet it would be difficult to name another writer who has written so movingly and convincingly and precisely about the simple pleasures of the world. (source).
In The Hours, Cunningham works to find the appropriate words and imagery to describe Virginia's worst periods. Some of it, like this passage, is terrifying: "She does not look directly into the oval mirror that hangs above the basin. She is aware of her reflected movements in the glass but does not permit herself to look. The mirror is dangerous; it sometimes shows her the dark manifestation of air that matches her body, takes her form, but stands behind, watching her, with porcine eyes and wet, hushed breathing" (2.5).
Sometimes, it's almost like we're watching Poltergeist and The Ring—that's how intense Virginia's experiences can be. At other times, she goes through what seem like extraordinarily intense headaches:
Everything glows and pulses. Everything is infected with brightness, throbbing with it, and she prays for dark the way a wanderer lost in the desert prays for water. The world is every bit as barren of darkness as a desert is of water. There is no dark in the shuttered room, no dark behind her eyelids. There are only greater and lesser degrees of radiance. When she's crossed over to this realm of relentless brilliance, the voices start. (5.4)
The most important things to notice about the words and imagery that Cunningham uses to depict Virginia's mental health in The Hours is that they draw on Woolf's own descriptions of Septimus Warren Smith's "nervous breakdown" in Mrs. Dalloway. On top of that, they also echo and foreshadow (depending on the chapter) the words and imagery that Cunningham uses to depict the HIV/AIDS-related mental deterioration of Richard Brown.
By drawing such clear parallels between these three characters, Cunningham invites us to consider the extent to which the mental illness depicted in Mrs. Dalloway was informed by Woolf's own experiences. Likewise, just as Cunningham's Virginia thinks of Septimus Smith not only as a "deranged poet," but also as "a visionary" (20.13), Cunningham suggests that those terms apply to both Virginia Woolf and Richard Brown as well.
As they say, the line between genius and madness is a thin one. The Hours shows us just how complicated and scary it can be to live with that.