My sister loves to find a bargain and a few weeks before Christmas she came across an e-book on sale that she knew I would like and gifted it to me. I am not quite halfway through Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman by Ruth Gruber, and I am enjoying it very much.

The book is sort of two books in one, a bit of biography in the first half and a Ph.D dissertation that was previously published as a book on its own in the second half. I am in the midst of the dissertation, which is extremely good and made even more amazing because it was written when Gruber was only 20. More on that in a bit.

This hybrid book came about in 2004 when Gruber’s assistant was digging through an old file cabinet and found two letters from Virginia Woolf in the back of it. Gruber, currently aged 101 and a successful journalist, photographer and writer, had forgotten about the letters and they sent her down memory lane. Gruber’s Russian Jewish immigrant parents encouraged her to get a higher education. In 1927 at the age of fifteen, she graduated from New york University. At eighteen she won a postgraduate fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to be followed up a year later with a fellowship from the Institute of International Education to study in Cologne, Germany where she was to study German philosophy, Modern English literature and art history.

Not long after Gruber began her studies in Cologne, one of her literature professors told her that he wanted her to get a Ph.D. and to write her dissertation on Virginia Woolf. He loved Woolf’s writing and Gruber was his only student who, as an American, knew English well enough to read and analyze Woolf’s writing. But Gruber’s fellowship was not renewable and she only had a year to do what usually takes two or three years. But she did it and in 1932 at the age of twenty became the youngest student to receive a Ph.D.

A year later she was informed by her former professor that Tauchnitz, the same press that published Woolf’s books (in English) in Germany, wanted to publish Gruber’s dissertation. When the book was published, Gruber boldly sent a copy of it to Woolf and then followed up a few months later to ask if she had read it and what she had thought!

There was a bit more correspondence with Woolf, nothing of momentous import. What it all added up to though was Gruber eventually getting to have tea with Virginia and Leonard in May 1935. Her visit lasted a half an hour and Gruber was in heaven meeting her idol. They talked mostly about Hitler and Germany and Leonard was really interested in the trip Gruber had taken to the Russian Arctic. Gruber thought it all went splendidly.

And then, in 1989, Gruber discovered that the New York Public Library owned Woolf’s diaries and letters. She went and took a look. Mistake! She discovered what Woolf really thought of her. Even though Gruber is American and has no German ancestry, Woolf refers to her always as a “German woman” and in a letter to Julian written before she went to tea to meet Gruber, she wrote, “I must now go and see an importunate and unfortunate Gerwoman.” And in her diary on that same day she calls Gruber a “pure have yer.”

Gruber eventually had to write to Nigel Nicolson to ask if he knew what that meant. Nicoloson sent a letter saying it meant a task forced on one which needs to be done and apologized, saying that it was an example of one of the things he always “deplored about Virginia, her cattiness, contempt for almost everyone who were not her friends, an occasional touch of anti-Semitism, her snobbishness and jealousy.”

Can you imagine, being twenty-two, meeting Woolf, thinking it went really well and holding that glorious memory for decades only to then find out that Woolf thought you a tedious obligation? I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to even look myself up in her diary and letters, sometimes it is better not to know! But it is typical Woolf. I mean, when Gruber was describing what a wonderful meeting she had had with Woolf I thought, wow, maybe she wasn’t as sarcastic and mean as I thought she was. Nope. And when Gruber found out the truth I chuckled and thought, “yeah, and you were a smart, interesting young woman, I’d hate to think what she would have written about the likes of me, a fawning groupie!”

This biographical portion of the book was great fun to read. Gruber has a lot that she could brag about but she doesn’t, she just lays out her accomplishments in a matter-of-fact way as if they were things that happened to everyone every day. And even though it turned out Woolf didn’t think all that highly of her, Gruber has taken it in stride.

I’ll be sure to tell you about the dissertation when I have finished reading it. Thus far I can say it is incredibly mature and an admirable feminist analysis before feminist criticism was even really being done.