After having written about the first part of Ruth Gruber’s Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman, I forgot all about writing on the second part of the book. The first part, as you may recall, is memoir about how Gruber came to be the youngest person to receive a Ph.D, wrote her dissertation on Woolf, and actually got to meet her. The second part of the book is the dissertation Gruber wrote.
Written in 1932, the dissertation examines Woolf’s work up to and including The Waves. Gruber’s thesis in a nutshell:
Virginia Woolf is determined to write as a woman. Through the eyes of her sex, she seeks to penetrate life and describe it. Her will to explore her femininity is bitterly opposed by the critics, who guard the traditions of men, who dictate to her or denounce her feminine reactions to art and life.
The way Gruber sees things Woolf had a choice to write to please the critics and their arbitrary standards, to write in the male novelist tradition, or to create something altogether new and different.
Gruber traces the evolution of Woolf’s style through her novels. While it is a decidedly feminist analysis, it is interesting to note that her idea of femininity squares up with the prevailing notions of the time. She therefore says much about “feminine sensitivity” and discusses Woolf’s “feminine impressionism.”
Gruber makes a really interesting analysis of Orlando as Woolf struggling between a sort of Scilla and Charybdis of critics and male influence in order to find her way into her own style. These days it seems Orlando is talked about mostly as a biography and love letter to Vita Sackville-West. Gruber makes no comment of this and I suspect that at the time, she probably didn’t know the two women had been lovers. Her analysis does prove, however, that there is a lot more going on in the book then we generally account for.
Woolf’s use of painting and music are traced out through her work. Gruber also notes, “It is the mark of Virginia Woolf’s organic concept of life, that she concludes an endlessness in conflicts.”
As long as there is night and day, light and darkness, there will be antithetic stylists, inimical poets and negating critics. The conclusion that there is no absolute truth in either fact or fancy, structural or rhythmic form, enables her to employ both styles without self-consciousness or doubt.
The Waves, Gruber concludes, shows Woolf as having at last achieved the style she had been working towards.
There is much of interest in this dissertation that I haven’t even mentioned. I think much of what Gruber wrote still holds up today. As I was reading, I had to pause in wonder now and then since Gruber wrote it when she was only twenty. Oh, and she wrote it in a year while also taking a full load of classes. She also uses no secondary sources because no one had really done any critical analysis of Woolf at the time. Gruber’s range of knowledge about Woolf’s work and literature in general left me impressed and envious. How did she know all that without the aid of Google or other critical sources? It’s enough to make one feel both lazy and stupid.
I don’t think The Will to Create as a Woman would be of interest to everyone, but if Woolf is one of your favorite authors this is a book that will definitely appeal. And here is an interesting non-related tidbit I gleaned from the acknowledgements: author Dava Sobel is Gruber’s niece.