Vanessa and Virginia
A novelist imagines her way into the heart of the relationship between sisters, rivals, and artistic collaborators Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.
It’s undeniably rich material for a novel: two sisters, one a renowned Impressionist painter, the other a famous modernist writer, both of whom led unconventional lives overshadowed by too many deaths.Skip to next paragraph
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In Vanessa and Virginia, Susan Sellers, a Virginia Woolf scholar at St. Andrews University in Scotland, explores the close but rivalrous relationship between Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, the two talented, tormented Stephen sisters, born less than three years apart.
Sellers’s novel is narrated by Vanessa when she is old and arthritic. It is addressed to her sister, still sorely missed years after she drowned herself in the River Ouse with stones in her pockets.
Sellers knows her subject inside-out – which is both a strength and problem for her book. Unlike Michael Cunningham, who used “Mrs. Dalloway” to create an entirely new and stunning novel, “The Hours,” Sellers hews closely to her source material. But in aiming for something more impressionistic than conventional historical fiction, her narrative has a sometimes beguiling, sometimes frustrating elliptical quality.
Because Vanessa’s intended audience – her dead sister – knows everyone she’s talking about, her narrative deliberately elides such anchoring details as last names and dates. It is hard to say whether “Vanessa and Virginia” will resonate for readers unfamiliar with the history, or whether it will matter if they don’t know that Vanessa’s lover “Roger” is critic Roger Fry and friend “Maynard” is the economist Maynard Keynes.
But readers familiar with the Bloomsbury set may feel as if they’re watching a paint-by-numbers portrait emerge. Seeking to fill in some blank spots – including the year of Woolf’s birth (1882) and death (1941) – I picked up Nigel Nicolson’s short biography, “Virginia Woolf”; this is one case where fiction just can’t compete with the facts.
Sellers makes an interesting but challenging choice in designating the painter, not the writer, to tell this story. Her narrator notes, “You were the one with words. You were the one who knew how to take an event and describe it so that its essence was revealed. I do not have your talent. If you were here you would know how to tell this tale.”