Sunday, May 05, 2013

Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers

I have read a lot of Virginia Woolf, including some of her journals, letters, and a biography by her nephew, Quentin Bell.  But I know almost nothing about her sister, the painter Vanessa Stephens Bell.  After reading this wonderful, insightful novel of the relationship between the two sisters, told from the point of view of Vanessa, I now have a starting point for understanding them, their relationship, and the connection to Virginia’s work.

Normally, I am wary of this genre I call biographical fiction, but Susan Sellers has the credentials which made me want to read.  She is a professor of English at St. Andrews University in Scotland and co-editor of the Cambridge University press editions of Virginia Woolf’s work.  She has won the Canongate prize for New Writing and has authored many short stories and non-fiction books.  As the jacket also says, this is her first novel.

At first, I found it a bit hard to know who was talking and who was listening, because Sellers does not use traditional attribution tags with dialogue.  Then I began to notice clever clues in the text.  For example, when she referred to “your writing,” or “my painting,” I was able to sail through the story.  I also enjoyed some of the obscure references to Virginia’s works.

 In the folllowing passage, Vanessa has had one of many confrontations with her father.  Sellers writes,

“‘Can you not imagine what it is like for me now?  Have you no pity?’  It is bearing down on me, Father’s beak.  I feel it ripping into my flesh, ravenous for sympathy. / Finally, I am released.  I go out onto the landing bowed down by my failure.  You are sitting on the bottom stair.  I can tell from your expression that you have been listening to our exchange.  Your eyes signal your compassion, your powerlessness to help. / “‘Damn him!’ I burst out. / I realize from the tapering light in your eyes that I have gone too far.  You look away.  You are only a partial accomplice.  I sense from the set of your shoulders, a sudden movement of your arm, that though you acknowledge Father’s tyranny you love him still” (41). 

 This interesting twist on sibling rivalry is only the beginning of the wonderful aspects of this novel.

Virginia Woolf is one of the most important feminist writers of the early 20th century.  Her novels – To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and Mrs. Dalloway, represent some of the finest modernist novels.  Reading Virginia Woolf requires a great deal of concentration, because time and place can easily slip slide away from consciousness.   5 stars 

Susan Sellers

--Chiron, 5/5/13

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