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…