Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers is the book I’m going to chat about today. Whether or not you’ll like this book can be largely decided by what your reaction is to that title – if you think “Oo, nice names, sounds fun” then look elsewhere. If your immediate thoughts are “Bell! Woolf! The Stephen sisters!” then you, like me, will probably love Sellers’ novel.
Vanessa and Virginia is fictional, but based on real people and events – the childhood of Vanessa and Virginia Stephen, later to be artist Vanessa Bell and novelist Virginia Woolf, and their subsequent lives up to the death of Virginia. It is from the perspective of Vanessa, and addressed to Virginia (though without expecting response). Sellers’ style is not an imitation of Woolf’s, but it has deep similarities – the same beautiful lyricism, use of abstract images, delving into human emotions with an intelligence and compassion which never stumbles into the saccharine. Had Sellers been a shade closer to Woolf, it would have merely been a false copying – as it is, she stays just on the right side. Like Woolf’s writing, though, you have to read a couple of pages every time you pick it up, before you fall into her rhythm. And, also like Woolf’s writing, I think Vanessa and Virginia will divide people. I was wrapped in the beauty of the language and never wanted to leave – but I can see how the short sentences and symbolism might rankle.
I came from the position that I knew a lot about the Stephen sisters – from Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf, but more significantly (for this novel) from Angelica Garnett’s impressive memoir Deceived with Kindness. As such, I had no problem when a host of characters were introduced, one after another, in the Stephens’ extended family and the Bloomsbury Group. I don’t say all that to blow my own Eng-lit-studying trumpet, of course, but rather because I don’t know how confusing Vanessa and Virginia would be for the uninitiated – I would humbly suggest that people seek out Deceived with Kindness first, as then everything will make sense. Plus Deceived with Kindness is great. I was going to point you in the right direction to read my review of it, but I don’t appear to have written one – so it might appear later.
To return to Vanessa and Virginia. The novel is a portrait of sibling rivalry and closeness; competition and understanding; unspoken bonds and unwritten rules guiding a relationship fraught with both love and jealousy. Obviously, I don’t know how true this is. Sellers uses at least one or two events (won’t spoil it for you by naming them) which probably didn’t happen, but are poetically justifiable. From the biographies I’ve read the sisters seem very close, but perhaps the jealousy side was there with some strength too. It certainly leads to some interesting discussion on the relative merits of writing and painting : “I think of Father’s jeer that painting is a bastard sister to literature” [Vanessa] later, “There is no doubt painting is leading the way. Fiction has forgotten its purpose. The novelists circle round their subject, describing everything that is extraneous to it, and then are surprised when it slips from view” [Virginia]. (Incidentally, to my mind, it is just this ‘circling around’ which makes Woolf such a brilliant writer – she homes in on a person, object, emotion through these descriptions of contiguity, rather than going simply and insufficiently for the heart). In some ways, the literal truth of the events and relationships doesn’t matter – Sellers was never going to be able to write Vanessa Bell’s autobiography. What she has done is write a beautiful novel which does justice to Bell’s perspective as a very talented painter, overshadowed by a very talented novelist sister, in an unusual group and unusual time. I don’t know where Sellers can go after this, but I look forward to finding out.