Authors of novels about real people have great freedom, in the name of fiction, to carve out their territory. Virginia Woolf and her coterie seem to be frequent subjects of these bold interpretations, and Woolfians are irresistibly drawn to them, myself included.
In recent years I have added to my shelves Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury by Sigrid Nunez, But Nobody Lives in Bloomsbury by Gillian Freeman, and of course Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. The latest is Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers.
An accomplished Woolf scholar, Sellers makes few departures from the lives of the sisters. At the recent Virginia Woolf Conference in New York, she confessed that she chose the form of a first-person monologue by Vanessa as she would have been terrified to try to speak in Woolf’s voice. Yet one can appreciate her creativity and the risk involved in this undertaking as she presents a provocative perspective.
Sellers conveys a forceful immediacy with Vanessa’s present tense narrative directed at Virginia, who is “you” throughout. The four shattering family deaths are related in the first three chapters, resounding, one after the other, with startling violence. Vanessa observes that, “If this were a work of fiction, instead of an attempt to discern the truth, then Stella’s death, coming so soon after Mother’s, would seem like malicious overload on the writer’s part” (35).
Her story is one of bitterness and relentless envy from the start, as she perceives Virginia usurping Thoby, Mother, and then Clive. She resents Virginia’s relationship with Leonard and Duncan’s with Bunny—someone else is always taking her place, and she has to care for everyone while no one takes care of her. Even Virginia’s illness becomes an accusation: “There was manipulation as well as helplessness in your loss of control. By relinquishing the burden to me, you ensured I remained in Mother’s place, parenting you, indulging you” (51).
Vanessa’s language is lyrical and painterly when speaking of the colors, textures and shapes in her paintings, but there’s little joy, and her art often seems like a sedative. Drawing classes in her youth enabled her to “forget your pain and Father’s misery and Stella’s cares” (27); she paints to avoid feeling. Self-disparaging comparisons to Virginia and a lack of confidence in her work lead to her cloying subservience to Duncan, in both art and life, and seem to diminish her as an artist and professional.
While Sellers skillfully and sensitively conveys the complexity and pathos of Vanessa’s life, she makes a few unnecessary forays. A few instances of foreshadowing seem gratuitous, but this is, after all, fiction.
Overall, I found it satisfying and compelling, and I read it from cover to cover on the day I departed New York following the Woolf Conference. It gave me food for thought as I descended from conference immersion and a long flight into daily life, and now, more than a month later, I find I’m still swishing it around, enjoying the flavor.
Vanessa and Virginia, by Susan Sellers, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston/New York, 2009.