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So I Went to London

“There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.”
–Virginia Woolf

This is the time in which we live: Seventy-three years after the publication of Mrs. Dalloway, a writer very different from Virginia Woolf – male, for one thing; American; steeped in the late-capitalist method of book publishing (which all but requires a stint either earning an MFA or teaching in an MFA program or preferably both); with a perhaps unconscious understanding of political correctness and identity politics and the potential distance between signifier and signified – here is this writer, about seventy-three years after the publication of Mrs. Dalloway, who writes a book based on Mrs. Dalloway (or, as the inside flap on the book’s dust jacket puts it, “draws inventively on the life and work of Virginia Woolf”). I’m speaking, of course, about Michael Cunningham and his book The Hours. It’s a good book, good enough, but I will not dwell on it here because that’s not what this column is about.
So: seventy-three years after the publication of Mrs. Dalloway there comes The Hours – but first, one year earlier, in 1997, there’s Mrs. Dalloway, the movie. It’s not hard to guess what follows: in 2002, we get The Hours, the movie. Moreover, if you type “Mrs. Dalloway” into Amazon.com’s search engine, you receive a display of nearly 800 items. If you google the title, you find over 53,000 web pages about it, the first one of which is Amazon’s, and the second of which is the “official promotion site for the film [which] includes plot overview, video and audio clips, brief cast biographies...” If Mrs. Dalloway were a different kind of book (or movie), there would be, inevitably, Mrs. Dalloway action figures (a plasticine Clarissa holding a – removable! – bouquet of flowers), t-shirts, perhaps even, as with Harry Potter, a whole magazine devoted to the book, detailing paraphernalia and upcoming conferences and the lives of remarkably devoted fans.
The point being, where the hell is Mrs. Dalloway? Where can one go to find simply the book, to leave behind the postmodern cacophony of spin-offs and versions and spin-offs of spin-offs and versions of spin-offs? I wanted to clear away the images of Vanessa Redgrave and Nicole Kidman overlaid upon the book in my mind; wanted to strip the ideas back down to the book itself, the original thing, no twenty-first-century interference. Where could I go to accomplish this? London, maybe? I traveled there to find out.
Now, you might point out that Mrs. Dalloway does not exist in London; or, rather, that it no more exists there than it does in New York or Copenhagen or Kyoto or Pondicherry. In all those places it exists as a collection of carefully chosen words bound between two covers. And if it exists anywhere, maybe it is only in the rare book room of whatever elitist, liberal arts college has opted to spend a chunk of its endowment on the original manuscript in order to keep the thing buried away and inaccessible to those without special privileges and white gloves – but there are other writers you can turn to for an argument about whether or not the aura of originality surrounding a thing makes it more authentic than the mass-produced replicas of that thing. Here, I’m more interested in the relationship between the work and the place, the place and the work. Because London is the source for Mrs. Dalloway (for is the book imaginable in any other place? Could Michael Cunningham even completely separate himself from the city when he re-envisioned the story set in New York and Los Angeles?) – because London is the source for Mrs. Dalloway, I felt that in going there, I might be able to find some piece of the thing that made the book what it was, some reminder (or hope?) that place still matters, that, despite the prevalence of virtual-ness in contemporary life, despite the Web and email and wifi and global positioning systems and the isolation, the distance that it’s possible to create between the self and anyone or anything real – despite all these things, real and true places are still the subject of and material for our best modern literature.
A digression: It’s possible to argue that the whole point of literature is to remove us – as words by nature do – from the thing the literature describes. Literature is the art of replicating in words a thing which exists in time; in so doing, it allows us to consider the thing (the place, the person, the political system, the idea, the concept, the whatnot) with perspective, to come closer to an understanding of the thing by taking a step away from it. But it’s also possible to argue that, by creating distance between a thing and its description, literature instills us with a desire; there forms a gap between what our imaginations know and what our experience knows, and our experience desires that the gap be filled. This is all to say that if I was seeking some nugget of what made Mrs. Dalloway the work of genius that it is, I also bloody wanted to see London. I’d been living with an imaginary version of the place since those long-ago nights when I hid under a blanket with a flashlight and a copy of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (not exactly controversial literature, but it was post-bedtime). All through my phase of reading Victoria Holt and Phillipa Carr (who were in fact the same person; and while some writers take on pseudonyms to distinguish, say, their genre work from their “serious” literature, Victoria and Phillipa both produced the cheesiest, most formulaic romance novels possible, all set initially in nineteenth-century London, all involving a young governess/nurse/heiress who must hie away to India/Ceylon/Cork, where a mysterious man who at first seems terrible/dangerous/cruel soon falls wildly in love with her – usually, for some reason, while on horseback – just in time to save her from a fate worse than death or death itself and then marry her) – through those romance novels on up to Dickens and, yes, Woolf, to Conrad, Greene, and some writers I’ve found myself reading lately, China Miéville, Zadie Smith, Philip Pullman, through all of these the glimpses and whole dioramas of London presented to me made me long to see the real city, to find out, through the real experience of a place, what it’s like to, say, take a stroll through Regent’s Park.
So, I went to London. I visited Regent’s Park. I wandered the narrow pathways that lace their way through the impeccable, sloping lawn. I looked at the giant oaks and, at one of the adorable miniature snack stands (for, after New York, so much in London seems adorable and miniature), I purchased a box of sugary blackberry-flavored juice – Ribena it was called. I’ve had sugary blackberry juice before, but it was different there in Regent’s Park, in the ineffable way in which things are different in a foreign country. I drank the juice and watched the people and I thought of Clarissa Dalloway, tried to see her there among the Londoners, tried to see what she saw: “...how strange, on entering the Park; the silence; the mist; the hum; the slow-swimming happy ducks; the pouched birds waddling; and who should be coming along with his back against the Government buildings, most appropriately, carrying a dispatch box stamped with the Royal Arms, who but Hugh Whitbread; her old friend Hugh – the admirable Hugh!”
I walked and watched and considered. Obviously, there were no ducks; there was no mist; there was no Hugh Whitbread. No, I wasn’t really expecting to find them, but to find something, to feel a click of familiarity in my brain, a confirmation of my previous imaginary impressions of London, and at the same time a revelation of the heart of a beloved book, and yet one more thing: an understanding of how a literary work rises from the complicated material of time and place.
Did I find these things? Did I grasp anything? Was the real London anything like the strange city in my mind that I called London before I went there? No. It was nothing like it at all. I left the city with memories where there had once been only ideas, and in some ways with less than I’d had when I arrived.

Amy Rosenberg
19 May 2004


Amy Rosenberg is a senior editor at a policy research institute in New York City and a writer for Poets & Writers, Travel+Leisure, Nextbook.org, and other publications and Web sites. She is at work on a collection of short stories.

Send comments, manifestos, love letters and hate mail to:
amy.rosenberg@earthlink.net