VANESSA AND VIRGINIA
Click here for Susan's author page.
In a gloomy house in Hyde Park Gate, two young girls are raised to be perfect ladies. But from the beginning Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf pursue different dreams, and in their Bloomsbury household they create a ferment of free thinking and even freer living. Devoted to each other, yet fiercely competitive, both sisters fight to realise their artistic vision amidst a chaos of desire, scandal, illness and war.
Traced with lyrical intensity, their intertwined lives gradually reveal an underlying pattern. Only at the end of this fascinating work does the real nature of the relationship between Virginia and Vanessa become clear. Susan Sellers’ novel reveals a dramatic new interpretation of one of the most famous and iconic events in twentieth-century literature – Woolf’s suicide by drowning – as the two sisters’ life-long rivalry reaches its final crisis.
An expert on Woolf’s life and work, Susan Sellers is inspired by Woolf’s own brilliant narrative technique – a sensuous, impressionistic, interior voice – to inhabit the mind of an artist at work, and recreate the tale of the two sisters as Vanessa might have told it. Vanessa and Virginia is a chronicle of love and revenge, madness, genius, and the compulsion to create beauty in the face of relentless difficulty and deep grief.
New York Times Editor's Choice, May 23 2010.
Praise for Vanessa and Virginia
'A beautifully written exploration of tortured talent, sibling conflicts, domestic discord, disappointed love affairs, and emotional despair.' Booklist (USA)
‘A beautiful, haunting novel about the love, the rivalry between two gifted sisters, and the real purpose of Art. The achievement here is an uncanny, utterly persuasive empathy for both sisters, and the world and times in which they lived.’ John Burnside
‘Deftly, apparently effortlessly, Susan Sellers’s novel of love, art, and sexual jealousy gives us convincing and intimate access to the relationship between two remarkable sisters. At once pellucid and sophisticated, Vanessa and Virginia is quite simply a pleasure to read.’ Robert Crawford
'In short, disconnected scenes of exquisite description and nuanced emotion, Susan Sellers invites us to assemble the pieces into a picture not only of the Bloomsbury circle, but of the exigencies of creative work as outlet, devotion, and anchor. A fascinating, compelling novel written with authority and tenderness.' Susan Vreeland
'Reading Vanessa and Virginia is like swimming across the seabed of the minds of sisters Woolf and Bell – everywhere there are fragments of paintings and scenes from novels and lyrical phrases scattered like sunken treasure. It is a novel both exquisite and haunting. A triumph of the imagination.' Rebecca Stott, author of Ghostwalk
'Vanessa and Virginia is a beautifully written novel ... It is a difficult structure, but Sellers successfully achieves unity in its execution. Any novel based on the lives of two such prominent figures in the world of British modernism carries perils and pitfalls for the ambitious writer. Various concerns arise when dealing with such material: that the work will become a hagiography; that the writer’s gifts will not match those of the subjects he/she is exploring and that the novel will appeal only to a niche market of Bloomsbury fanatics, not to mention scholarly questions of verisimilitude. Nevertheless, Sellers prevails against these seemingly insurmountable obstacles. As a Woolf scholar she is meticulous in her attention to facts and details, but through Vanessa’s voice she reminds the reader that ‘art is not life’ – the book is a novel not a monograph after all. Therefore, there is no reason why the novel cannot be appreciated by the common reader and dedicated Woolfian alike. Sellers does not succumb to sycophancy as both sisters’ foibles and flaws lie side by side with their genius. Her even-handed approach to their strengths and weaknesses creates a believable reality which the reader (Bloomsbury expert or not) can fully appreciate. Sellers’ command of her material, her ability to create Post-impressionist pictures with words and her mastery of the difficult pastiche form, means that her work stands as a literary success in its own right, neither overpowered nor overshadowed by the artistic achievements of her subjects.'
Elizabeth Wright, The Virginia Woolf Bulletin
'A delectable little book for anyone who ever admired the Bloomsbury group ... The fictional world the author has recreated of the sisters striving to perfect their respective art forms while trying to keep the reality of children and war and illness at bay is full of color and intellectual promise and laced with despair and untimely deaths.' Publisher's Weekly, USA
'Sellers’s elegant first novel imagines life in Britain’s Bloomsbury circle from the point of view of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s older sister. Although Vanessa was an accomplished and highly respected artist, her life was overshadowed by that of her more famous sibling. As she gives Vanessa voice, Sellers examines a relationship between sisters in which love and jealousy are constants; a relationship in which relatives, friends, and lovers are sources of support, inspiration, joy, betrayal, and ultimately devastating sorrow. The amazing aspect of this novel is its painterly quality. As Vanessa recalls her life, layer upon layer of memory is applied to create a portrait of color and shadow, a process that is mirrored in the narrator’s descriptions of her methods of painting. While this novel may stand on its own as an exploration of sisterly relationships, it will be more appealing and more accessible to readers already familiar with the lives of Bell and Woolf and knowledgeable about the Bloomsbury milieu. Highly recommended for collections of literary fiction – particularly where Woolf is popular.'
Library Journal, USA
'Virginia Woolf may have overshadowed her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, in popular cultural history, but Vanessa was a talented artist, wife, lover and mother in her own right. In her novel Vanessa and Virginia, author Susan Sellers—co-editor of the Cambridge University Press edition of Woolf's works—artfully presents Vanessa, not as a frame to further explore and enhance her more famous sister, but through a full and authentic portrait of a woman whose life has been shaped by tragedy as well as a creative freedom remarkable for her time.' BookPage (USA): http://www.bookpage.com/0905bp/fiction/vanessa_virgina.html
'Sellers' impressionistic prose evokes the near-magical artistic world the two innovative women inhabited ... Vanessa & Virginia is a thorough portrait of the complicated dance of sisters — women who are alike and unlike, connected and apart, loving yet still, at times, painfully at odds.'
MORE Magazine (USA):
For a review on the Vulpes Libris blog, please click the following link: http://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2008/06/14/vanessa-and-virginia-by-susan-sellers/
"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." (Lisa Glass)
For a review on Sarah Annes Brown's blog, please click the following link: http://www.adjb.net/sab/index.php
'Vanessa and Virginia, as well as being both subtle and beautifully written, has lots of narrative drive. The descriptions of Vanessa’s paintings, the way they reflect and interact with her complex relationships, are particularly effective.'
For a review on Janette Currie's blog, see: http://janettecurrieconsultancy.wordpress.com/reviews/review-vanessa-virginia/
For a review on the Stuckinabook blog, see this link:
'What she has done is write a beautiful novel which does justice to Bell's perspective as a very talented painter, overshadowed by a very talented novelist sister, in an unusual group and unusual time. I don't know where Sellers can go after this, but I look forward to finding out.'
Read the discussion on Vanessa & Virginia on the 'Not the TV Book group' literary bloggers' initiative here.
About Susan Sellers
After a nomadic childhood, Susan Sellers ran away to Paris. She worked as a barmaid, tour guide and nanny, bluffed her way as a software translator and co-wrote a film script with a Hollywood screen writer. Closely involved with leading French feminist writers such as Helene Cixous, she was among the first to introduce their work to the English-speaking world. From Paris she travelled to Swaziland, teaching English to tribal grandmothers, and to Peru, where she worked for a women’s aid agency. She moved to Scotland and in 2002 won the Canongate Prize for New Writing. She now lives mostly near Cambridge with her husband, a composer, and a young son, but is a part-time professor in English literature at St Andrews University. She has published short stories and a number of books and translations; this is her first novel.
See the author's website at: http://susansellers.wordpress.com
An extract from Vanessa and Virginia
I knew it was right the moment I saw it. Symmetrical and comely, with its sloping roof and large windows, it was a child’s drawing of a house. I was overjoyed when you asked me to rent it with you. As the agent showed us through the rooms a sudden memory of our childhood holidays in St Ives flashed through my mind.
In the country, I reasoned, I would be free. With Clive safely ensconced in London, and Roger visiting only at weekends, I could live once again at my own rhythm. The children would have a garden to play in, and I could return to my work. The fact that we would have a house independently of our husbands seemed to herald a new era.
In Asheham, my days gradually settled into the pattern that suited me. In the mornings I painted, then we gathered for lunch, and in the afternoons I gardened while the boys played hide-and-seek amongst the apple trees or rooted in the flower-beds for treasure. There were frequent visitors. I loved the sense of purposeful absorption that emanated through the house as its occupants settled to some pursuit.
It was at Asheham that I first experimented with art outside a frame. It was here I began to see that painting might be part of life. I discovered the pleasures of transforming the objects I lived with. I copied the frescoes of Fra Angelico onto the peeling plasterwork in my bedroom, created a jungle of colour for the boys. I decorated walls and doors, furniture and ornaments, with figures, flowers, abstract patterns. My work broadened as a consequence.
I stare at your letter, then fold it in two and put it back in my pocket. I rest my elbows on the window sill and look out over the garden. Something about your tone rings false. Julian’s head emerges for a moment from behind one of the currant bushes and I wave at him. He grins at me before disappearing back out of sight. I do not understand why you have cancelled your visit. I have planned a surprise birthday party for you, and now all my preparations are in vain. I let your phrases beat round my head, trying to catch their hidden message. It is all Leonard: his article for the Nation, his rally for the Russians, his government committee. Whichever way I turn your words their meaning is the same. Leonard takes precedence over me.
Sometimes love comes instantly, with blinding certainty, sometimes it is a sea mist, slowly enveloping the view until one is hard-pressed to remember the features of the shore.
When did I stop seeing Duncan as my brother’s lover and begin to fall in love with him myself? I think it was that very first weekend, when Adrian brought him to Asheham, and I watched him painting in the garden. I had never known Adrian with a lover before and the sight was strangely unnerving. I felt a sharp stab of jealousy as I glimpsed the two of them kissing from my studio window.
The next morning I set my own easel alongside Duncan’s on the grass. I studied him as I mixed my colours. There was an intensity about his concentration that communicated itself. I seemed to see more clearly as I looked past him towards my chosen subject. As I began to paint, our movements fell into the same pattern. There was no rivalry, only the shared sense of a common pursuit. Not since those far-off days with Thoby in the nursery had I felt so at one with another human being. I could not help falling in love.