June 28, 2009

Public and private

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , at 4:17 pm by Susan


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.



  1. janeyolen said,

    Of course these days, with people spewing out their private thoughts and sexual pictures in twitter speak and on FaceBook and online journals (I am as guilty as anyone else) there is little concern of the privacy of such jottings.

    One wonders what Virginia W and her cohorts would have felt about such things. Would they have leaped into the twitter fray? Or the frayed twitterings? Or returned to their private (they thought) diaries where they could make cutting remarks without fear of exposure. At least as long as they were alive.


  2. scs2 said,

    Now that’s an interesting thought: what would Woolf have made of Facebook and Twitter?

    I suspect she would have hated the illusion of privacy these sites give! After all, she published nothing in her lifetime she did not painstakingly revise and correct.

    Speaking for myself, I feel there is something false about the apparent intimacy of these on-line sites, because as a writer you must always be aware that your words can be read by millions. Isn’t there always an aspect of public performance about even our most intimate postings and tweets?

  3. maggi said,

    great to see you have started a blog! Congratulations!
    In my PhD research I did some work on letters, epistolary novels, and so-called “private correspondence”, and concluded that the only form of writing that is genuinely private is a locked diary, written with the genuine intent of privacy (and even then there is the possibility of a lurking thought that the diaries might one day be discovered and published…)
    Brian Eno writes in his A Year With Appendices that once he had agreed that his private journal might be published, he immediately started writing it differently.

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