Vulpes Libris

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Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers

Vanessa and Virginia is a first for me. I’ve never before reviewed a book written by one of my TRP stable-mates and, as those of you who read the Two Ravens Press blog will know, I was ambivalent at the idea. Once I finished the novel I could not resist reviewing it – I was overflowing with things I wanted to say.

First things first, Vanessa and Virginia is the story of Vanessa Bell, the painter sister of Virginia Woolf. Virginia is present, certainly, but we see her through Vanessa’s unflinching gaze, and theirs is a relationship that is anything but easy. They are as intense in their love as they are in their rivalry, and inevitably Virginia is revealed as much less likeable than Vanessa. The novel spans Vanessa’s life from her childhood in Hyde Park Gate, through two World Wars and on beyond Virginia’s death.

I struggled with the novel to be begin with: at times I felt as if I was looking through a window to a club that I was excluded from, and this was frustrating. I only knew the very basics about Virginia Woolf and the novel seemed aimed at a reader much more knowledgeable about Woolf than I was. I found it difficult to keep track of characters and places. I suppose this is a difficulty of writing about a famous historical figure, or perhaps of writing historical fiction generally. You don’t want to slow down the narrative drive to explain everything, as you might assume your reader has a certain level of familiarity with the subject, and there’s nothing worse than the dreaded ‘info-dump’. In my case, I needed a little more exposition to orientate myself in the novel’s world.

I stuck with it and midway through, the novel grabbed me. Duncan was introduced and through Duncan, Vanessa and her world became real to me. I finally began to understand what sort of woman she was, and the more I came to know her, the more I could understand the contradictory craziness that was her relationship with Virginia.

There are only thirteen chapters, but each chapter is broken up into small sections, flitting on from each other without much in the way of explanation. I had questions about the structure of the novel – what could I make of these fragments, these scenes darting haphazardly through space and time? For me it was impossible to dip in and out of Vanessa and Virginia, as I would forget where I was last reading, or who was who, and I found myself rereading the same passages. But when I did sit down for two hours straight and give it the attention it deserved, I was duly rewarded. Only then did it strike me that the fragments, the structure, was bound up with the characterisation. Vanessa is a painter and she tells her story as a painter might. She shows us pictures, and her mind flits from place to place, viewing her life as if dotted around her on canvases.

The family relationships are vividly drawn and I found myself questioning if all of this could be true – it seemed so extraordinary. Vanessa has lover after lover and nobody seems to bat an eye, not even her husband, not even when her lover, Duncan, (who used to be her brother’s lover) moves in and Vanessa has a daughter, Angelica, with him… not even when Duncan’s own lover – a man nicknamed Bunny – also moves in. Okay, some eyebrows were raised when Bunny, after waiting twenty-odd years for her to grow up, marries Angelica. My mind was boggled but fascinated. After reading this novel it seemed unthinkable not to know about Vanessa and Virginia. I immediately looked for information about the sisters, their friends and lovers, and was eerily confronted with their photographs.

Make no mistake, Vanessa and Virginia is a risk-taking novel and in the first third I am not sure those risks paid off, but the middle is addictive reading and the end is real punch-in-the-gut emotion. I cannot help but admire the courage it must have taken to write a novel about a Very Famous Author – surely only an expert would attempt such a thing, and a Woolf expert is exactly what Susan Sellers happens to be. But this was not dry stuff, it was richly painted, and felt absolutely authentic. The prose was intense and beautiful:

The war edges closer. Its madness infiltrates the house. It steals through doors, seeps between crevices, invisible, contagious, evil. Julian hits his governess so violently I must apply a cold compress to her face… The food shortages intensify. Duncan is now so tired that he regularly falls asleep over his evening meal. Often Bunny and I end up carrying him to his bed. I long to sleep too. I long to pull the covers up over my head and wake in a different place, somewhere life is not such a struggle.

In retrospect, I am relieved that I did read this novel, as not only have I learned something about Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, but it is one of those novels that has something profound to say about human nature. The book has certainly left its residue on me; I am still reeling at the apparent connection between Vanessa’s mental health and Virginia’s suicide.

Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers. Two Ravens Press ISBN-13: 978-1906120276. 181 pages. £8.99.

13 comments on “Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers

  1. rosyb
    June 14, 2008

    Great review Lisa. I know you were debating whether it was right to do so, but you have declared your connection straightwardly and I am glad you posted this as it raises so many interesting questions about the line between historical accuracy and a good piece of fiction and how much info the reader needs etc. I hope that others – particularly those who write historical fiction like EmmaD – might come in and discuss some of the questions you raise.

    It is funny how a good structure thematically can also ignore apparently trivial but quite important things like how a reader is going to read it in terms of time and intervals. I have enjoyed novels, then put them down, been unable to return to them for some days, picked them up and that’s it – they’re lost to me. Whereas some others can hold you while you live your life as well. I don’t know what the trick is to that!

    Lots of points of interest. I wonder whether some historical intro, or at the back of the book could have helped negotiate that initial difficulty of being at sea at the start?

  2. Lisa
    June 14, 2008

    At the risk of sounding like a moron, I think I would have benefitted from the inclusion of a family tree at the front of the book, or perhaps some sort of time line. But then, as I say, I am an absolute beginner when it comes to Woolf. The only Woolf novel I’ve read is To the Lighthouse, and much of that was lost on me. However, perhaps (as usual) I can represent the Less Well-Read Reader.

    Seriously though, I love extra material in books. Family trees, maps, histories. In this sense Tolkien’s books are very pleasing to me…heck, they are pleasing to me in all senses. I must review the LOTR books one of these days on Vulpes Libris.

  3. Trilby
    June 14, 2008

    Gosh, I’m intrigued by this. Like you, Lisa, I know very little about Virginia Woolf (I’m more familiar with Leonard, with his Ceylon connection) but I’d be very interested to see how Sellers handles this. I don’t think that a family tree at the beginning is at all moronic – usually I find these make no sense to me at the beginning, but over the course of the book it can be very helpful to slot people into place.

    As a writer, the idea of fictionalizing a real person terrifies me. I often have historical characters on the fringes – T.E. Lawrence “haunts” my children’s book, and the WIP incorporates nationalist figures in India and Flanders – but to actually try to represent the experiences of someone so well known sounds like a terrible challenge. I suspect that the trick is to get to know one’s subject inside out – a kind of method acting for writers? – so that the facts come as second nature, rather than conspicuous milestones to “character development”. Kudos to Sellers for giving it a shot – I may well have to look this one up!

  4. Lisa
    June 15, 2008

    Trilby, I think you would get a lot out of this novel. It’s certainly not light reading, but if you put in the effort, it’s fabulously rewarding.

    The idea of fictionalizing a real person is terrifying, you’re right! I suppose immediately you’re pitting yourself against the world’s experts in that subject, so your portrayal has to be factually correct (or as much so as possible) but also be an entertaining and believable read to The Average Reader.

    I would recommend V&V. It’s unashamedly itself, and I admire that. I only wish I had read it in two sittings. Trying to read a couple of pages here and there didn’t work for me.

  5. Leena
    June 15, 2008

    Very interesting review. I know what you mean about fictionalising a real person… and in fact, this is the problem as I see it: novels like this, esp. ones that strive to be very accurate, tend to be written largely for people who already know something about the characters’ lives – otherwise, it’s hard (though of course not impossible) to make anyone care overmuch about all the biographical detail – but at the same time, those who are familiar with the subject are most likely to have an adverse reaction. (Hmm, more or less the same problem as with Jane Austen sequels, come to think of it.)

    I’ve been a Woolf fan (Woolfite? Woolfian?) since my early teens, I’ve read her works, her personal writings, and several biographies of her, and although I know ‘my’ Virginia must be very different from the real one, I can’t help it – I can’t read fictional accounts of her (or Austen, or, or… ) without constantly thinking, ‘She would never say/do/think something like this.’ Whether it’s The Hours (never read the book, great film, but VW is all wrong! ALL WRONG, I tell you!) or something that sounds as good as this one… nope. I just derive more annoyance than pleasure from them, and so, being a lazy wuss of a reader, I avoid them.

    Interestingly, though straightforward biographies have a major fictional element about them too – every biography gives a different account of a somewhat different person – I’m less annoyed by wild speculation (as long as it’s acknowledged as such) than by even the most meticulously researched biographical fiction.

  6. Jackie
    June 16, 2008

    This sounds like an unusual, yet interesting book. I’d like to know more about the subjects, as I find Woolf somewhat difficult. Having a sister myself, I’d like to see what the dynamics were in this family.
    The cover is a bit eerie, isn’t it?

  7. Lisa
    June 21, 2008

    Jackie, you know I hadn’t noticed the eeriness, but now you say it, I see what you mean. It’s a very beautiful book though. The colours are much more striking than they seem here.
    Leena, I would be fascinated to hear what you made of this novel.

  8. Pingback: Final Monday Guest Blog by Lisa (until the autumn) « Two Ravens Press

  9. Simon
    July 20, 2008

    Just written a review of this novel – I loved it… more detailed review (!!) on my blog.
    Simon

  10. lisa
    August 2, 2008

    So glad you liked it, Simon!! Great review, btw 🙂

  11. Pingback: Reviews and reactions « susan sellers

  12. Pingback: Interview with novelist and Virginia Woolf expert, Susan Sellers + Giveaway « Vulpes Libris

  13. Pingback: Reviews and reactions | Susan Sellers

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This entry was posted on June 14, 2008 by in Entries by Lisa, Fiction: literary and tagged , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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