‘Vanessa and Virginia’ by Susan Sellers

VanessaandVirginia

Fiction – paperback; Two Ravens Press; 181 pages; 2008.

This book is Susan Sellers’ fictionalised account of the relationship between two very famous sisters, the artist Vanessa Bell and the writer Virgina Woolf.

I picked it up with trepidation, mainly because I know very little about Woolf and even less about Bell. I was frightened that I wouldn’t get it, that all the gaps in my knowledge would leave me at a disadvantage, but instead I found myself racing through this book, completely immersed in the story and not really wanting it to end.

The tale is written from Vanessa’s point of view in a long series of present tense vignettes aimed directly at her sister. In many ways it feels like a collection of letters, because Virginia is constantly addressed as “you”:

I did not forget you. I wrote to you every day. I implored you to eat well and rest, the doctors’ litany. I made a study for you, found you a desk and chair, arranged your books. At the same time, I was grateful to Violet for taking you. I could not have copied with your convalescence on my own.

It’s written using a linear narrative, but Sellers does weird things with time, often leaping ahead, missing out weeks, months, years. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised by this, given that the book spans the sisters’ lives from childhood to Virginia’s death, by suicide, when she was aged 59. That’s almost 60 years condensed into just 181 pages.

What I got most out of this book, aside from the wonderful, descriptive and heart-felt prose, was the fierce competition between the two siblings and how Vanessa, a struggling artist although very talented, felt she was living in the shadow of her more successful sister. The pair are incredibly close and often affectionate with one another, but there’s also petty jealousies and unspoken hurts just simmering under the surface waiting to reveal themselves in a fit of anger. The tension, at times, is palpable.

I very much enjoyed seeing life through Vanessa’s eyes and becoming immersed in her creative work (some of which can be seen on the official Courtauld Institute of Art website). As much as she seemed the stronger of the two sisters, I get the impression she was rather tortured by affairs of the heart. Indeed, she led an open marriage that left her vulnerable to being hurt by not just one man but two. In the end, Sellers demonstrates that Vanessa was perhaps just as vulnerable as Virginia, who long suffered from depression.

But do you need to know about the sisters to enjoy the book? Consensus seems to be be that you’re probably better off not knowing, because the fiction might seem slightly pithy in comparison to factual accounts. Personally, I was glad I didn’t know too much as I simply became swept up by the story.

However, I have to be honest and say I did find it useful to look up brief accounts on wikipedia just so I could get my bearings, because Sellers has a tendency to mention characters in passing without explaining who they are (such as other members of the Bloomsbury Group). On that basis, I think it is written with an expectation that readers will know at least a little about Vanessa and Virginia…

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13 thoughts on “‘Vanessa and Virginia’ by Susan Sellers

  1. I wrote about the book yesterday and I agree that it is written with an expectation that readers will know at least something about Vanessa and Virginia; for me that was to be expected of a novel of its type but I also found it a failing as it difficult for it to work on its own as a piece of fiction. However, I did love the book and actually thought that it would be difficult for people to enjoy it without prior knowledge and it would be best appreciated by those with some; the general consensus does seem to prove me wrong on that point and I seem to be one of few Woolf fans who enjoyed this book.
    I’m glad that your experience was rewarded despite approaching it with trepidation. I found Vanessa and her life fascinating but so tragically sad; she suffered so much pain, from a multitude of deaths and from loving someone who was incapable of reciprocating it to the same degree. I felt compelled to do some further reading upon finishing the novel (covered in my post) and was touched to discover that Vanessa and Duncan lived at Charleston together into their old age; upon Vanessa’s death, Duncan was devastated, feeling guilty at his inability to fully return her love in a way she was deserving of, but he and Clive continued to live together in their unconventional open relationship minus Vanessa’s influence.

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  2. Lovely review Kim. I totally agree that you I think its better to know less than more with this book. I didnt rush to read any information on Vanessa while I was reading it but I did straight after and I have to go to the Cortauld Institute!

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  3. I checked this book out twice from the library–once when it first came out and then to read along with your group, but in the end both times I was afraid I didn’t know enough about Virginia Woolf, her sister and her works to really appreciate the book. I had heard discussion from some earlier who felt it was an advantage to know about their lives to get things, but I am happy to see you thought it was fine and perhaps better not to know too much. I will have to put it back on my list as heaven knows when I will ever read more of Virginia Woolf’s books!

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  4. This sounds like an interesting read. I know a little about them – read a lot about the Bloomsbury group back in the dim dark ages of my 20s, but I remember only generalities now. Would like to read this.

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  5. Thanks for the fascinating review, Kim. This has added to my enjoyment of the book club process. Especially since I was very caught up with exciting family events on the actual ‘day’ and really wanted to participate in the discussion. The recent reviews and comments have been just excellent.
    It is a novel that will linger in my memory and will send me back to tackle something of Woolf again with a renewed interest.

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  6. I’m surprised it didn’t make me want to rush out and read all Woolf’s stuff… I think I’m still recovering from trying to read To the Lighthouse 15 years ago!! LOL.

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  7. I think you’d like it, Danielle. I’d not read any Woolf before and only had a hazy knowledge of her life, so I dont think it’s crucial to be a Woolf fanatic to understand or appreciate Sellers’ book.

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  8. I was surprised by all the people who enjoyed the book without having much interest in the Bloomsbury Group – when I read it I thought how confusing all the casual references to people *would* have been, if I hadn’t recently read Hermione Lee’s biog of Woolf – so, I’m someone who knows quite a bit about VW and still loved the book! But I didn’t know much about Vanessa Bell, so perhaps that helped?

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  9. Funnily enough, I know a little bit more about the Bloomsbury Group than I do about Bell and Woolf, probably because I’ve seen the film Carrington a couple of times!

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  10. Simon T, I’ll see your “confusing” and raise to “annoying”. As one who didn’t know much about these two sisters, I felt compelled to look them up part way through the book. A good fictional account would see me waiting until I finished it, to avoid any possible spoilers. However, I didn’t feel engaged as a reader without some foreknowledge.
    I realize I am in the minority and I look forward to this week’s book discussion. (Much more favourable from me!)

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