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Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers

Vanessa and Virginia

by Susan Sellers

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1499123,696 (3.57)13
"Vanessa and Virginia are sisters, best friends, bitter rivals, and artistic collaborators. As children, they fight for attention from their overextended mother, their brilliant but difficult father, and their adored brother, Thoby. As young women, they support each other through a series of devastating deaths, then emerge in bohemian Bloomsbury, bent on creating new lives and groundbreaking works of art. Through everything - marriage, lovers, loss, madness, children, success, and failure - the sisters remain the closest of coconspirators. But they also betray each other." "In this lyrical, impressionistic account, written as a love letter and elegy from Vanessa to Virginia, Sellers imagines her way into the heart of the lifelong relationship between writer Virginia Woolf and painter Vanessa Bell. With sensitivity, imagination, and fidelity to what is known of both lives, Sellers has created a powerful portrait of sibling rivalry."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)
  1. 00
    Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar (susanbooks)
  2. 00
    A Very Close Conspiracy: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf by Jane Dunn (MusicMom41)
    MusicMom41: A non-fiction story of the relationship between the sisters. MusicMom41

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Beautiful written with deep insight in the lives of the two sisters. I so love the work of Woolf. But I get also the wish to look again and with fresh eyes at the paintings of Vanessa Bell. ( )
  timswings | Aug 30, 2015 |
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, the 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 coeditor 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 following 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).

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.

Susan Heller’s Vanessa and Virginia presents an interesting twist on sibling rivalry which is only the beginning of the wonderful aspects of this novel. 5 stars

--Chiron, 5/5/13 ( )
  rmckeown | May 5, 2013 |
Beautiful prose, but the alternating point of view was not clear. I was not clear on the incidents/vignettes being described. In some ways, this style mirrors the time and subject of abstraction in prose and visual art, which is not my preferred style. ( )
  Lcwilson45 | Dec 8, 2012 |
If I had a sister, perhaps this novel would have rung more true to me; as it is, I found it irritating, and I gave up on it several times before finally forcing myself to finish it. The story of Vanessa Bell, a respected artist, and her sister, novelist Virginia Woolf, seemed dominated by one emotion: jealousy. Vanessa, the narrator, who writes this memoir of sorts to "you," her dead sister, is jealous of any attention their mother pays to Virginia, of any time their brother Toby spends with Virginia, of Virginia's seemingly uncomplicated marriage, and, of course, of Virginia's literary genius and success. Poor Vanessa: the only thing she has that Virginia can envy is her children. Yet she seems inevitably tied to her sister--although it's hard to determine whether that is due to love, a sense of responsibility, or simply wanting to be a part of Virginia's literary legend. It's hard to like a narrator who comes off as a spoiled drama queen.

In addition to the direct address to "you," the novel's style is very mannered--and not in a good way. Another reader mentioned the first name dropping. While I know who Maynard, Wilfred, Clive, Duncan, Lytton and others are, it's a snobbish stylistic mannerism that excludes readers who might actually have picked up the book to learn more about Vanessa, Virginia, and the Bloomsbury group. As to vocabulary, sentence structures, and images, if Sellers was trying to depict Vanessa-the-memoir-writer as a bad writer trying to hard to compete with Virginia, it worked; otherwise, it was just bad, pretentious writing.

I gave this novel two stars for the concept, even if badly executed; but I can't really recommend it. ( )
1 vote Cariola | Nov 16, 2011 |
This novel is crafted as a volume of retrospective vignettes about the lives of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, as might have been penned by Vanessa. Richly painted in Bloomsbury colour, Vanessa Bell being an artist after all
What this volume captures is some of the knotty and complex issues of sisterhood, including its competition and jealousies, as much a part of many a sibling experience, as of that particular sisterhood. And at the end I wonder if the writer is not implying that Virginia even stole the thunder of her own sister’s desire to commit suicide by committing it herself. If this is so, I’m not sure I would agree, but a sister might perhaps perceive it this way.
All the way through this novel I had a sense of this being a ‘setting the record straight’ by Vanessa. Virginia having often utilised the details of her sister’s life in her novels. This time Vanessa is wielding the words. That is not to say that there is anything inaccurate in this fiction, although inevitably when we are talking of fictionalisation of real events we are also talking of dramatic licence. At the end of the novel, Vanessa takes the manuscript of her remembrances down to the river and lets them float away, page by page. Inferring perhaps that she was still insecure about her capacity to set things down in words.
Vanessa was a vibrant and talented person in her own right, and this reimagining of a period well explored by many, is an interesting if limited means of learning about her, as somehow I felt she (the Vanessa of the novel) somewhat did herself down, in order to focus on her sister. Despite this I felt that the novel was misnamed, in that this is a one-sided reimagining, and although undoubtedly Virginia appears throughout, she is perceived only through the eyes of her sister Vanessa and is barely permitted to speak as herself. I would have more accurately titled it ‘Vanessa’.
As a debut novel though this piece is certainly evocative of its characters and the time, and I look forward to seeing where Susan Sellers takes us next. ( )
  Caroline_McElwee | Mar 8, 2010 |
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For Jeremy and Ben Thurlow, with love
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