How to hide anti-feminism

Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda

Issue 5 Easter 2003

The magazine of

Women's Union

How to hide anti-feminism

Clare Campbell

Two successive films about British writers are subtly but profoundly derogatory to the memory
of their subjects. Iris was a good film about Alzheimers’, but it travelled straight from
Murdoch’s courting days to her disintegration without mentioning a single one of her
publications except (repeatedly) the last novel which did not make sense because she was
ill. One may not care for her later books but earlier ones especially The Bell are all-time

The film The Hours claims indebtedness to Mrs Dalloway, arguably Virginia Woolf’s best novel,
and the boffins must have managed to read its first sentence since they quote it. For the rest
they probably had a sort of Readers’ Digest summary of the plot alongside Michael Cunningham’s distortion of it. A friend of mine was a protegee of Virginia’s for a time so I can set her first-hand memories against the film. It is nothing new for the media to falsify real people, but one must act the watch-dog.

Characters the film takes from real life not from the novel are Leonard Woolf, used as a weak
substitute for the hated Harley St doctor who drives the novel’s male suicide over the brink,
and Virginia’s sister Vanessa, who is portrayed by the film as 100% maternal with no hint that
she was a noteworthy painter. There are four young children in the film, none in the book. In
both film and novel Sally Seaton represents Vita Sackville West. In the novel she is portrayed
cigars and all as a vivid, beautiful, warm-hearted to both sexes (Peter Walsh remembers “a
rush of that enthusiasm which he used to love her for”), who bore sons after marrying beneath
her which Clarissa blames herself for minding (as V.W. minded the bourgeoisie of Vita’s
in-laws). In the film Sally/Vita becomes a lesbian frump, whose hair-style mimcs the libellous
photograph of Peter Ady in Conradi’s biography of Iris (I was at college with Peter Ady,
despite the Christian name she seemed a man’s woman, smart and well groomed and
self-assured). No mention in the film that Vita was a distringuished poet and novelist
(creative people tend to flourish in groups); the poetry prize she won, the Hawthornden, is
transferred by the film to Clarissa’s husband! This transsexual device enables it to be hinted
without risk of a charge of sexism that the poetry wasn’t worth it, any more than the
husband’s “unreadable” novel. The woolly-minded (or perfective?) public will transfer that
epithet to Mrs Dalloway, of which no explicit Literary Criticism is risked.
Sally in the film is found in bed with the middle one of the three hostesses, Laura, and
diverts her from a boring marriage to such a degree that she deserts her infant children. So
her son grows up badly wrped, to marry the film’s third and nicest hostess Clarissa (its first
and nastiest is V. W. herself) and to produce bad literature which wins prizes, to contract
AIDS and finally to commit suicide. Obvious moral: if woman would know their nature and be
100% maternal, their sons could grow up to make a go of it both in their sex lives and in the
properly masculine preserve of writing great literature. (Was there “Pro Life” – so called –
money behind this film?)

By contrast, the novel’s diagnosis of its suicide is that he breaks up mentally when his close
friend and senior officer Evans is killed in the first world war (which cannot be blamed on
unmaternal women) and what finally pushes him over the window-sill is the threat of being sent
to a lunatic asylum. (This undoubtedly weighed with V. W.). The novel calls suicide “that act
of supreme dignity”. But couriously enough Septimus and his suicide is the dullest part of the
book: the writer tries for empathy but it eludes her or becomes laborious as it never does in
her other character sketches.

The most adorable of these is Peter Walsh, whom I cannot identify anywhere in the film (unless
it means – oh dear – that Richard the suicide is Peter). “An oddity, in a sort of sprite, not
at all an ordinary man”, who fell in love long ago with Clarissa and that “spoilt his
life” (” ‘One could not be in love twice’ he said”). He bursts into tears suddenly when they
meet again (incident trans-sexualised in the film) but he has a charm and life-affirming
courage and insouciance which outweighs the book’s death-wish motif. Sally says Clarissa
should have married him, for both their sakes. Peter full of generosity towards her present
husband protests no! Clarissa is unsure to the end whether it was cold and worldly of her to
choose the man who was safe and kind.

As to Clarissa herself (in the novels) she is only partly a self-portrait by V. W., and that
part is often self-critical. But for both of them party-giving was existential, a real
outgoing of spirit and caring concern into other people, and my friend who knew V. W. confirms
that. “She felt often, as she stood hestitating one moment on the threshold of her
drawing-room, an exquisite suspense, such as might stay a diver before plunging while the sea
darkens and brightens beneath him.” She knows her debt to her servants (sends her love to her
cook; beastly of the film to substitute a scene of hate between V. W. and servants). She has
the out-going will to understand her guests and everyone she comes across, granted that her
wit can be ruthless as well as compassionate. Of Hugh, “He’s read nothing, thought nothing,
felt nothing…afloat on the cream of English society for fifty five years.” Of poor Miss
Kilman “Never would she come first with anyone” (that is soliloquy, so is V.W. not
Clarissa). Of Lady Bruton, with her “angular grim smile”: she is “debarred by her sex and some
truancy of the logical faculty” from the military destiny which would have suited her best
until she finally lay “noseless under a shield in a church.” (Lady Bexborough Clarissa
hero-worships: she had opened a bazaar with the telegram in her hand telling of the death in
the war of her favourite son.) On the human condition the author (her father once a cleric
became an agnostic) is sometimes bitter – “the Gods who never lost a chance of…spoiling
human lives were seriously put out if all the same you behaved like a lady” – sometimes
touchingly simple: “It is a thousand pities never to say what one feelts”; “which perhaps was
the reward for having cared for people, that they came back in the middle of St James’s
Park.” Peter Walsh can make me laugh out loud, when he remembers “the power, as she came
across the room, to make the moon, which he detested [author italics], rise at Bourton on the
terrace in the summer sky.”

Don’t expect to meet any of this lovely language in the film. Film about musicians and
painters don’t recompose their works, why should writers suffer it? And it is a shame to ask
fine actresses to portray characters which are so wet, so wet, so wet.
I don’t want to sound merely sexist about this. Human society tends to treat creative artists
very badly whichever sex they are. Van Gogh never sold a picture during his lifetime, Mozart
ended in a pauper’s grave. But at least after they are dead and can’t profit financially the
men sometimes get just assessment. Women creators seem to risk the opposite fate, acclaim
while they are felt to be at least wishfully available on the casting cough, but afterwards
only a warning sign which reads “Dead End”. The film says there was no party. A lie, there was
a grand party. The Prime Minister was its least distinguished guest. The two dearest friends
from Clarissa’s past both turned up unexpectedly.




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