Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers

I honestly cannot tell you why it took me so long to get to this book. I saw it over a year ago, in hardcover and for some reason, never bought it, even though I always wanted to. I think I thought it would disappoint me.  I often dislike novels based on real people, not because I think people shouldn’t speculate on the hidden lives of celebrities, but for a very stylistic reason. The authors repeat the characters’ names too often. As in, “Vanessa said to Virginia, ‘Virginia, my name is Vanessa and I am the sister of Virginia, but you already knew that didn’t you, Virginia?’ ‘What, Vanessa?”, asked Virgina. “That my name is Vanessa.’ “, and so on.  It drives me crazy, it’s as if the author needs to draw more attention to the fact that he/she is writing about a famous person.

This book, however, had none of that. It was perfectly balanced.

More than what this book is about, what happens, the chronology of events, etc., is the feelings and thoughts it inspired in me. It made me reconsider many of my previous opinions and thoughts about Woolf and Bell and brought them into focus as people rather that abstract subjects to study.

This book is Vanessa’s life. It is from her perspective and moves almost like a infrequently-written journal, flitting between place and time without any reference to the fact that time has passed or the location has moved. I did wonder, while reading, whether I understood it because I’m fairly familiar with the events of Virginia Woolf’s life. Either way, it was almost ethereal the way it moved and flowed effortlessly. 

It takes us through the beginnings of Vanessa and Virginia’s life, in the Stephen home and makes reference to all the major events in Virginia’s life, but through the eyes of Vanessa’s. So much attention has been given to Woolf (rightfully so), but Vanessa is so often overlooked. I think that we are too keen to use personal tragedy as the precursor to artistic output, especially in writing. Since Vanessa was not a writer, her tragedies are felt more on a personal level, rather than fiction fodder.

The book also investigates, but does not dwell on, Vanessa’s various extra-marital affairs, and the heartbreak it caused her. Sellers also spends a good bit of time on Vanessa’s artistic process and her feelings as she attempts to compete with her sister’s growing popularity. Even as jealousy and competition mount, the two sisters are ever connected and hold each other up almost without fail.

There is a small surprise at the end, which I won’t give away, because I think it is wonderfully done, and it should be appreciated without bias. It suggests how close the two sisters actually were and solidified in my mind that the ones to mourn after a death are the ones left behind.


4 comments so far

  1. Ellen on

    Frankly, after I read this book, I was very disappointed and rather irritated. The book is the author’s fantasy about the relationship between Woolf and Bell, and thus the perspective is skewed. I am an avid reader of and about Woolf, and also study the Bloomsbury Group as well, of which Vanessa was such an important and influential member. Although the relationship between the two women is very complex and at times painful for them both, I feel as though the author exaggerated Vanessa’s resentment against Virginia and caused her to seem in a way jealous of her. I guess I would have appreciated a more balanced perspective that expressed the feelings of both women.

    Thanks for your very well-written post!

    • brilliantstella on

      I think you can definitely feel either slighted by her one sided perspective or, as I felt, enlightened. I do agree that the resentment may have been a little exaggerated, but I do imagine Virginia as being rather competitive. It’s interesting how this book is from Vanessa’s perspective, but it’s really about Virginia; Vanessa’s life is somewhat defined by Virginia’s actions.
      Have you had a chance to listen to the Spoken Word Library CD of the Bloomsbury Group? It’s put out by the British Library and has many of the members discussing the Bloomsbury Group. Honestly though, it’s mostly interviewers asking other members about Virginia.

      Thanks for the comment and the honest opinion.

  2. Ellen on

    Thanks for the reply! The key word in your reply is “imagine”, as in “…but I do imagine Virginia as being rather competitive.” I’m in the middle of reading Virginia’s diaries and letters (staying within the same time periods in both books), and what I’m seeing is just how insecure felt about herself in relation to Vanessa. Virginia believes that Vanessa has everything any woman could ever want – talent, children, beauty, competence – everything Virginia sees as lacking in herself. Competition? I think Virginia feels herself powerless to compete with Vanessa in most areas, except in writing and, amusingly, in speaking. Apparently Vanessa twists cliches in a very funny way, and Virginia chuckles about this frequently. In all ways, Virginia considers herself greatly inferior to Vanessa.

    The story that you may have heard about Virginia writing while standing up in imitation of Vanessa painting at an easel is a myth. Virginia did most of her writing sitting down at her desk or on a writing tablet placed on her lap. There are many of these myths perpetuated about Virginia that are just untrue. I think Virginia also depended upon Vanessa for validation – after publishing “The Waves”, she states in her diary that Vanessa’s opinion of the book is the most important opinion other than Leonard’s.

    The two women didn’t see one another very often either. Vanessa was frequently in France at Cassis with Duncan Grant painting, and even when she was at Charleston and Virginia at Monks House, they didn’t see one another frequently. Sad, to me, anyway. I’d suggest that, to get a balanced view of both women, you read Virginia’s diaries in particular, and Vanessa’s essays for the Memoir Club, such as “Sketches in Pen and Ink”, which includes an essay called, “Notes on Virginia’s Childhood”. Both are very enlightening. IMHO, it’s the other way around: Virginia defines herself by comparing herself to Vanessa.

    Yes, I do own that collection from the BBC, and you’re right: the members of the group are asked mostly about Virgnia. I wish there’d been a wider range of topics, as it sounds like you do.

    This is so much fun! I could talk about these two women forever. This may be too much information, huh? ;o)

    Thanks again so much for your reply.

    • brilliantstella on

      I do agree that Vanessa and Virginia’s relationship was more complex and nuanced than Sellers depicts in the novel. Not having read Virginia’s diaries and letters most of my knowledge comes from third party analysis. I do remember a book called “Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury” and in it, the author discussed Virginia’s sometimes acceptance, sometimes fear, sometimes love, sometimes anger towards her servants, especially Nellie (or Nelly) Boxall. The author also referred to Virginia’s wonderment at Vanessa’s relative ease with dealing with them. I only point that out because I think Virginia was a very complex woman in her feelings and her writings. I think that two women, with such a strong emotional bond, would have to, on some level compare themselves to one another, one see’s one’s own failure where the other has succeeded. Perhaps not, though. Perhaps we want Virginia to be competitive and a little mean because she was so brilliant, I don’t know.

      One thing Sellers gets right though, is the intimate connection between the two. Whether or not they spent a lot of time together on a daily basis, I think their emotional connection, solidified by the tragedies in their lives, was spot on in the book. And you can completely disagree, but did you get the smallest hint of homoeroticism when she described their physical intimacy? It was just a twinge, and I was wondering if it was just me.

      I love talking about them! And definitely not too much information, if I had more time, I would read everything she has ever written and everything written about her.

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