"Virginia Woolf - The Will to
Create as a Woman"

Published by: Carroll & Graf Publishers
ISBN: 0786715340

Reviewed by: Lys Anzia

Genre: Lit Crit

Charting a New Map Seventy Years Later —
Ruth Gruber in the Quest for Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf aficionados take note. Award-winning author and journalist, Ruth Gruber, has given us a gift. In her new book, Virginia Woolf - The Will to Create as a Woman, Gruber dives deep into the vast cavern of Virginia Woolf's literary existence. This was the day-to-day world of a brilliant and often volatile woman.

By way of discovery and exposure, Gruber gives us a definitive map to Virginia's life. Mapping the hallways of Woolf's inner drives, this was a world that changed as Virginia herself changed, in the face of a shifting society in England at the beginning of the 20th century. It examines the inner motivations of a woman at odds with her place inside a masculine world. How a talented woman's dreams of fitting in can sometimes turn against her. This was the society of English literary perfectionism that haunted Virginia Woolf her entire lifetime.

Recently out by Carroll & Graf Publishers, Virginia Woolf - The Will to Create as a Woman is a new re-released, improved and annotated re-creation of the book Ruth Gruber wrote over 70 years ago. The first version was authored when Gruber was a young brilliant exchange student at Cologne University in Germany. It was this original publication that enabled Ruth to return to America, in 1932, at the age of 21, as the youngest doctorate in the country.

In an introduction called "My Hours With Virginia Woolf", Ruth tells an amazing story of finding three surprising letters. In 2004, these letters were discovered stuck in the back of Ruth's filing cabinet. Found behind a bunch of old tax returns, the letters were still as crisp and white as the day they were written. On them were the words of Virginia Woolf to Ruth Gruber dated 1935 and 1936.

"The past lit up", wrote Gruber as she began her new project. It was the beginning of the process, the birth of a brand new look at VW. In it the story of Ruth's personal visit with Woolf could finally be told. How Ruth had decided to send a copy of her book to Virginia in 1935. How she wrote a letter to Woolf through Hogarth Press. And how, surprisingly, she did receive an answer back.

Before this, before Ruth had even finished her book about Virginia, she wrote a letter to Hogarth asking for any information on Woolf. At first the communication was hesitant, from VW's secretary, Peggy Bolsher. The answer that came was swift and formal. "Miss Woolf has always preferred to let her readers decide for themselves as to the meaning of her books."

This didn't stop Ruth, though, from forging ahead. Later, on May 8, 1935, she sent a letter directly to Virginia via the Hogarth home at 52 Tavistock Square. This time it was sent with a fresh copy of Gruber's book. On the last line of her letter Ruth added a kicker. It was a request for VW stating, "I shall be deeply interested in your opinion of the book." Ruth figured then she would either be accepted or rejected by her favorite author. It was really anyone's guess.

On June 21, 1935, a miracle happened. Ruth did receive that direct answer from Virginia. This answer was one of the crisp, white letters lost in the Gruber file until fairly recently. An exact facsimile of this can be found on page 44 of Gruber's new book. In the letter, Virginia writes, "I found your book waiting for me on my return from Italy the other day... It was very good of you to send me a copy. But I must confess, frankly that I have not read it, but I am sure you will believe that this is not through laziness or lack of interest in the subject. But the fact is that I try to avoid reading about my own writing."

This still did not slow Ruth down in her quest to have Woolf read her book. The prize of Ruth someday actually meeting VW was also a distinct possibility. Virginia Woolf - The Will to Create as a Woman is clearly the story of a writer in search of her mentor.

When Ruth finally met Virginia, she wrote, "Everything seemed magical to me. The rain, which had fallen all day, had stopped, and the air was as clean as if it had been scrubbed in a huge washing machine." Ruth goes on to describe a Virginia very different from today's Hollywood version. "She was a study in gray: short gray hair cut like a boy's, a flowing ankle-length gray gown, gray shoes, and gray stockings. In her fingers she held a long silver cigarette holder, through which she blew smoke into the parlor."

It was this same attention to detail, seventy years later, that carried Gruber, at the age of 93, to write her detailed memory of Woolf. Ruth Gruber was still fascinated. No other woman in the history of writing had ever taken the qualities of the literary masters and adapted them with such sharp insights of feminine wisdom like Virginia Woolf. Over the span of seventy years, Ruth still understood the desperate need Virginia had to gain approval from such a changing world.

Virginia Woolf grew up in a house where regular invitations to lunch were given to the likes of George Meredith, Henry James, Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, and George Eliot. This was a family legacy passed down from William Makepeace Thackeray. It included an almost exclusive world of masculine literary icons.

Three Guineas, by Virginia Woolf, original cover art by her sister, Viriginia Bell, Hogarth Press, 1938
Three Guineas, by Virginia Woolf, original cover art by her sister, Viriginia Bell, Hogarth Press, 1938.
Find the Harvest Book edition on Amazon:

A Writer's Diary : being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, original cover art by her sister, Viriginia Bell, Hogarth Press, 1953

A Writer's Diary : being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, original cover art by her sister, Viriginia Bell, Hogarth Press, 1953.
Although out of print, this book is available used on Amazon:

In Gruber's earlier work, she examines the chart of Virginia's self-discovery. She describes as VW begins to leave her favorite writers. As VW finds her own distinct style.. This discovery of reference is astonishing in its accomplishment for such a young scholar like Gruber. Following the style of Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Burke, and Sir Thomas Browne, Virginia began bit by bit, moment by moment, to create her own special room in the writer's field.

"There is a feminine delicacy of associations, a word, a repetition, which sets into motion the desired thoughts," says Gruber of Virginia. It is this association, made through the feminine act of absorption and creation, that Gruber identifies. Ruth clearly understood the feminine equation that is still today the algebraic formula for all women writers.

Whether a woman writer admits this or not, the great effects of the force of the feminine exist. In a world where women writers now outnumber men, today's media MTV world would have us think this does not matter, but it does. As Ruth describes Virginia she says, "It is she (Virginia) who creates and satisfies the human need for a room, for a setting of rested fulfillment. All the incongruent shapes in the room, its people, its chairs, its reflecting mirrors, are given significance and design by the presence of a woman."

Through her discoveries, Gruber predicts the vast literary change, the volatility of mood and timber that constantly haunts Woolf throughout her life. Ruth said in 1935, "A law of polarity, of conflicts as irreconcilable, as endless as night and day, reverberates through all of Virginia Woolf's writing." Perhaps Ruth was wise enough, then, to give us her own clear warning of VW's dark future.

As Ruth speaks of VW's book, Orlando, she speaks, too, of Virginia's irrepressible girl humor and silly laughter. What Woolf called herself the "Rattigan Glumphoboo" of survival. "Her (Virginia's) ability to laugh at herself has saved her from destruction," said Gruber. Little did Ruth know then, in the 1930s, that Virginia Woolf would finally succumb on the long way home to fall toward her own morbid self-destruction. VW's suicide was to happen only six years after Ruth met Virginia in person in that house on 52 Tavistock Square.

It was only a few years later, while Virginia Woolf stayed in her retreat house with Leonard, near Rodmell, Sussex, England, that Virginia let herself be taken finally in death by the waters of the Ouse River. The effects of discouragement upon the soul of the artist had finally won over any laughter. This is an ongoing struggle that still hovers today in the lives of so many writers and artists.

Gruber tells us that Woolf pointed out in her book, A Room of One's Own, "Surely, it is time that the effect of the discouragement upon the mind of the artist should be measured." Later, in the fields of psychology, the lives of many outstanding writers were charted as their struggle with bipolar conditions led to self destruction. Some of these suffering women writers include Dorothy Parker, Mary Shelley, Sarah Teasdale, Ann Sexton, Mary Wollstoncraft, Charlotte Bronte, and Sylvia Plath. There is talk that even Emily Dickinson, like Virginia Woolf, suffered horribly from the ravaging swings of bipolar disorder.

Gruber finds this struggle rising in VW as she quotes Woolf saying, "Not in solving conflict but in the very struggle, life fulfills its meaning." The path of the artist, the poet, the writer is so many times crossed with one obstacle that comes after another and another. In knowing this it is certain only the will to create keeps the creator creating.

In 1935, Ruth Gruber called Virginia Woolf the "Woman of Today." She said Virginia had made a way for all "women of the future." We can only guess now whether or not VW herself ever agreed. Or whether Woolf, in 1935, ever mused for hours about such wise, exposing insight coming from a young girl, named Ruth, who came visiting for only one short day.

A mention of "Miss Gruber" can be found in Virginia Woolf's 1930s diaries and letters published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. In February 2006, I met Ruth Gruber in person myself and found the same charm I know Virginia Woolf must have found. Twenty-nine years Virginia Woolf's younger, Ruth Gruber has walked her own life now as a writer and journalist. This is the path of stones laid carefully ahead by Ruth's fateful hero, that woman who lived day by day with quiet courage on 52 Tavistock Square.

Lys Anzia is assistant book reviews editor for Moondance magazine. Currently, as an American historical dramatist, Lys, is completing her second script, "Good-night, Darling", which covers a true story of the secret flying lesson Amelia Earhart gave Eleanor Roosevelt in April 1933. Lys is, also, now working as a broadcast radio producer for international radio syndicate, WINGS. A collection of Lys' poetry, on the tortured life of Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, is due out in publication in late 2006.

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