This month took me to New York for the US launch of Vanessa and Virginia. While I was there I contributed to a round table discussion about Virginia Woolf. The other panelists included Ruth Gruber, who wrote the first Ph. D. on Virginia Woolf in the 1930s. Ruth (now 97) described tea with Virginia and Leonard Woolf in their London home one afternoon in October 1935.
Virginia, she told us, was lying on a sofa, wearing a soft grey dress, and smoking a cigarette. Her hair was cut short in a bob. She said little as Leonard attended to the courtesies of pouring and passing tea, only becoming involved in the conversation when Ruth recounted a recent visit to Germany. The tea ended civilly, and was followed by a brief – and polite – exchange of letters.
Years later, Ruth read an account of herself in Virginia Woolf’s published correspondence, a puzzling, unflattering report, which did not correspond to her memory of their meeting, or the tone of the letters they exchanged. I think everyone listening to Ruth felt outraged on her behalf at this apparent betrayal.
Most of us won’t ever see our private thoughts published. If we did, we might have to reflect further on the disjunction between what we say and do in public, and the way we behave when the world isn’t looking. We like to assume we are straightforward, uncomplicated beings who rarely change our minds or contradict ourselves, yet a moment’s honest self-scrutiny reveals just the opposite.
Woolf herself was aware of the dichotomy. ‘We’re splinters & mosaics; not, as they used to hold, immaculate, monolithic, consistent wholes’, she wrote in her diary. She went on to imagine a form of writing that might encompass these ‘human dimensions’.
Perhaps, if we had more of the kind of writing Woolf envisaged, instead of the self-congratulatory memoirs tending to fill bookstores today, we might find it easier to accept that our icons also have feet of clay.