A few weeks ago I received from Open Road Media a copy of Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman by Ruth Gruber. It was an entirely new experience, and not least because I've never been sent anything to review before! But, loving all things Woolf, I was more than happy to read it.
Lit Crit isn't my thing, let me say that first. Aside from A' Level English Literature, I have no idea on really studying a book, and frankly the idea intimidates (as well as impresses) me. This book may well be the only study of an author's works that I have ever read, but luckily it was a pleasure to read.
One of the reasons this study is most intriguing is because of the young age of the author - Ruth Gruber was only twenty when she wrote it, and is the youngest person ever to receive a PhD. We've all had this debate before: to what extent should you know or even care about an author, but when you do know a little, it does colour your view on a book, and so I cannot help but comment on her maturity as a writer. On the other hand, with regards to Virginia Woolf, if you are to judge an author solely by his or her work, then reading literary criticism gives you a further, deeper insight. This is what excited me the most, and makes me want to go on to read more on the works of an author, the explorations of technique, themes, and motivations, as opposed to biographical information. I can't say exactly to what extent I engaged with it, however that is more down to my confidence (or lack of) as a reader. I think when you read as a hobby, as I do, it is difficult to read an academic critique and take issue with it. Either way, I'm pleased to have it and will no doubt re-read it in the coming years.
What was difficult to read, as a Woolf fan, was the introduction, and it brings me back to a question I frequently ask of myself and others on here, or in conversation elsewhere: how do you feel about loving an author who, really, you should hate?
Everyone has a favourite author, and it's often irresistible to go seeking biographical information, learn about the mind and life that produced such beauty. Sometimes, we fall in love with the author themselves, and because we don't know them and because we've been so affected by them, it's difficult to read something that shows them to be awful human beings.
We none of us are perfect, that much is true. Everyone has, most likely, done something awful at one point during our lives that we perhaps regret and we would much rather it wasn't made public knowledge. However, with writers such as Woolf, it's unavoidable, particularly when letters and diaries are made public. Furthermore, these things that make some writers appear to be awful human beings are not something they regret. They see no fault in it. And that is the problem with Virginia Woolf - as much as some of us may love her, she really could be terrible. Gruber drew attention to this in her introduction, which honestly was not so fun to read.
Having met with Virginia Woolf ("I had met Virginia Woolf" - a line that inspired more envy that I have ever felt!), Gruber, years later, read the publicised diaries and letters of Virginia Woolf, which contained some somewhat uncomplimentary passages concerning the meeting. She was referred to as "a German Jew", and Gruber, being as she was American for a start, must have felt both dismissed and insignificant. I cannot imagine the sting of reading that. At first, it annoyed me - why did Gruber feel it necessary to write an introduction to her thesis decades later to tell us that? It seemed so bitter. And, indeed, it must have been - to devote that time and energy, to achieve something so very important, to meet the woman who had changed your life, and then to read an almost dismissive flick. It was uncomfortable, and I didn't want to read that about my hero.
Taken in this context, that line excuses writers' bad behaviour. You love their second life, you love them for what they have produced, not for saying, as Virginia did, "I do not like the Jewish voice; I do not like the Jewish laugh." Ultimately, does it matter? When it comes to reading novels, I don't think so. But when it comes to loving the author who produced the work, I am conflicted. It's almost as though I'm looking for perfection. Hero-worshipping, I suppose. Jeanette Winterson cannot put a foot wrong because she wrote Written on the Body, and how can you hate a mind that came out with The Virgin Suicides? I don't want to hear anything less than good.Your aunt is a very lucky woman Angelica. She has two lives. The life she is living, and the book she is writing.
I've still never come to a decent conclusion, other than "It doesn't matter [but it secretly does]". It was interesting, and clearly very thought-provoking, to see attention being drawn to the fact that Woolf could be hideously hurtful. A lot of the time, in biographies certainly, there is a slight degree of hero-worship perhaps, and at the very least, I wonder about the bits that have been left out. Not in Gruber. But, as I say, at the same time it left me feeling uncomfortable. How ridiculous of me to want a one-dimensional image of an author to save me from seeing an inexcusable cruel side. "Catty", as Nigel Nicholson put it, and we all can be catty. But I felt sorry for Gruber, though she may not have been deliberately soliciting sympathy. Fact is, Woolf could be harsh, very, very harsh.
But, returning to the thesis - it was fascinating, especially as I am so unfamiliar with this type of writing. I do want to read more literary criticism because I feel now I can only go so far by myself or with biographies. I am very glad to have read this.
And what of hateful authors? Do you get a sense of feeling a little let down, maybe a vague embarrassment, or a desire to hide away from the nastiness your favourite author may have exhibited? I must say, during Dickens Month in February, I at best skimmed the posts about Dickens as opposed to his books. As I am still working through them, I want to leave that part until later. I don't want them spoiled in anyway. But why should I feel that they would be...?