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Deciphering Virginia Woolf

By Jessica Tabak

Photo: Samantha Saleh

Roberta Rubenstein can’t say what she was thinking. Forty years ago, she wrote to Leonard Woolf to ask for help deciphering pages of handwritten notes on Russian writers by his late wife, Virginia. “I don’t know what I thought he would do,” the literature professor recalls. “I guess I thought he might say to send him a few pages, and he’d see whether he could decipher some of the unreadable words.”

Instead, the 87-year-old Woolf invited the then-PhD student to his home in Sussex, England, which he and his wife had once shared. Over the next year, the two sat at the Woolfs’ kitchen table and pored over the author’s notoriously indecipherable script. In the process, they became friends.

A Fulbright fellow at the University of London, Rubenstein was researching the influence of nineteenth-century Russian writers on Virginia Woolf’s fiction and literary criticism. In the early 1900s, short stories, novels, and plays by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev were being translated into English, most of them for the first time. Woolf was among the critics who reviewed them enthusiastically. Her reading notes and several published essays, says Rubenstein, reveal the extent to which she was affected by them.

“Each of the Russian writers held a different [place] in her imagination,” says Rubenstein. “Their works entered her experience at a vital moment in her own development when she was trying to break free of older literary conventions.”

After finishing her dissertation, Rubenstein accepted a teaching position at AU and began looking for a publisher for her work. No one was interested. “When I told people what my dissertation was about, they would say, ‘Oh, it’s on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the Edward Albee play?’” she recalls. “In the early 1970s, that was the main way in which Woolf’s name was recognized in the United States.”

It would be another decade, with the publication of her letters and diaries, before Woolf would become a popular subject of academic study. By then, Rubenstein had moved on to other scholarly pursuits. “I sort of forgot about the dissertation,” she admits.

Until five years ago. A paper on Woolf’s relationship to these writers, she learned, had been presented at a conference in Russia. It was the spark she needed. “I started looking at my dissertation again and I realized how little still had been done with this subject,” she says. “And here were all my transcriptions of Woolf’s notes on Russian writers that had never seen the light of day.” She decided it was time to bring her work forward.

Revisiting her early scholarship brought new insights into her subject. And a new CD of digital files containing Woolf’s complete works, including handwritten letters and diaries, allowed Rubenstein to view at her computer what previously had required trips to three libraries on two continents.

This time, Rubenstein had no trouble finding a publisher. Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View (Palgrave Macmillan) was released in September 2009 to high praise, including a favorable review in the Times Literary Supplement last December.

“The dissertation written so many years ago and the just-published book seem like widely-separated bookends for my scholarly career,” says Rubenstein. “Of the several books I’ve published, this one has undoubtedly been the most thrilling to see in print.”

~from "Deciphering Virginia Woolf," Connections Magazine, Spring 2010.