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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.