Susan Sellers’ novel Vanessa & Virginia imagines the lives of Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell from Vanessa’s point of view. Told in the first person, Sellers’ renders Vanessa’s voice as vibrant, vulnerable and very real — one could almost think the book was a journal kept by the painter and cornerstone of the Bloomsbury set. Through this directness, Sellers rescues the sisters from cold academic discourse and by focusing on their very universal sibling rivalry Sellers makes them accessible to a new generation.
Though both were ultimately successful in their chosen fields, Virginia was the more financially secure, and this was a point of vulnerability to Vanessa. The impression I got from reading conventional biographies and watching the film adaptations was that Virginia depended on Vanessa for emotional support, but Sellers’ novel speculates that Vanessa depended upon Virginia almost as much: drawing strength from her sister’s counsel to face her own complicated romantic life:
“How entangled our lives must seem to anyone outside the skein. Did I sense, when I encouraged Leonard to propose to you and persuaded you to accept him, the life raft I was sending you? I was the carnal sister, you were the intellectual – so the story runs. The truth is rather different. You experienced intimacies in your marriage I could only dream of.”
Vanessa was married, but lived apart from her husband, was deeply in love with a bisexual man, and her three children had two different fathers. Virginia, in contrast, had a stable, loving, though apparently sexless, marriage for almost her entire adult life. While both sisters at times struggled to combine their art and life, for Vanessa this was a life-long issue and the distinctions between the two were slight at best. When reappraising one of her apparently unsuccessful paintings early in the novel, Vanessa detects the myriad ways her complicated life manifested itself in the themes and suggestion of the picture, but brushes it off because “Art is not life, after all.” By the end, after much more water has passed under the bridge, she agrees with her sister that “What matters is that we do not stop creating” no matter what life throws at you.
The first part of the book is carried along nicely by the unfolding story of the sister’s emergence from their parent’s strict Victorian shadows and their evolving romantic lives. The later part, in contrast, is punctuated by the highs and lows of Vanessa’s attachment to her lover Duncan Grant, and the shadows of two world wars. The book ends with Virginia’s suicide in 1941, fittingly, as Sellers’ focus is always on the sister’s relationship.
Vanessa & Virginia will be a great novel for book groups because it is more accessible to contemporary readers than Woolf’s stylistically challenging prose and should serve to bring new fans to the work of both artists. My only quibble is that I find books that talk at length about existing paintings very irritating if there are no reproductions of those pictures in the book. However, as this is the exception and not the rule for novels, I’ll just have to be content with digging through biographies and art books for the references.