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4.9 out of 5 stars21
4.9 out of 5 stars
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on 14 November 2008
This is a subtle and very moving book. There's lots in here for readers of Woolf and devotees of Bloomsbury (who will doubtless enjoy the fresh approach and attention to detail). But the central portrait of Vanessa as a sister, mother, lover and above all artist makes for a novel with a much, much wider appeal. As several of the previous reviewers have already observed, the descriptions of Vanessa as she works on, or thinks about, her paintings are brilliantly done, and the narrative voice sparkles with life (in both its magical and mundane forms) on every page: "The sun streams through the window. I shift round in bed and turn to face the light. As I open my eyes I see the russet and gold of the apple leaves outside. I lie still for a moment and listen to the sounds inside the house. All is quiet. I think of Duncan, asleep in the next room. I get out of bed and slide my feet into slippers, wrapping a shawl round my shoulders. The apple trees dance in the breeze outside, a living mosaic. I go downstairs and put the kettle on the hob." There's obviously been a great deal of care and craft gone into this work, and the end result is something truly remarkable.
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"Vanessa & Virginia," by Susan Sellers, is a fictional treatment of the lives of one of the more renowned pairs of twentieth century sisters: the British Stephen girls, Vanessa and Virginia. They were the wealthy, London-born, privately educated, society-oriented daughters of Sir Leslie Stephen, a notable author/critic/mountaineer, and Julia Prinsep Jackson, a famous India-born beauty. The sisters, after the deaths of their parents, were to move to Bloomsbury, the London neighborhood of the British Museum, with their brothers Thoby and Adrian. Once in Bloomsbury, they would all begin to socialize with a group of artists and writers who would find communal fame as the Bloomsbury Group.

Vanessa was an artist and interior decorator who would marry Clive Bell and have two sons by him, Julian, who died during the Spanish Civil War, and Quentin. She and Bell had an open marriage, during which each took lovers; in both cases, frequently from the ranks of well-known men considered homosexual in orientation. Vanessa had affairs with art critic Roger Fry, and painter Duncan Grant, who fathered her daughter Angelica, whom Bell raised as his own. During World War II, Vanessa moved with Grant, and his homosexual lover David Garnett, to the Sussex countryside for the duration.

Virginia, a novelist/essayist/publisher, was to marry writer Leonard Woolf in 1922: she referred to him as a "penniless Jew" in her writings. They were a prominent writing couple, also associated with the Bloomsbury Group: they would found the Hogarth Press, and become printers and publishers, as well. Virginia wrote several highly-praised books,Mrs. Dalloway (Wordsworth Classics) (1925); To the Lighthouse (Wordsworth Classics), (1927), Orlando (Wordsworth Classics): A Biography, (1928). She also wrote the internationally famed, book-length essay "A Room of One's Own," (1929), with its often-quoted saying, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." Virginia was to have a long-term affair with Vita Sackville-West, a wealthy society writer and gardener, for whom she wrote ORLANDO. Virginia was, unfortunately, to drown herself in 1941, during the early days of World War II. She put on her overcoat, filled its pockets with stones, and walked into the river Ouse, near her home. She has been posthumously diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, never treated in her lifetime, which resulted in several nervous breakdowns. She has also written that as young girls, she and Vanessa were subject to sexual abuse from their half-brothers George and Gerald.

Sellers' book opens upon the sisters as young girls, leading rather privileged lives, all told; let's face it, they inherited looks, brains, money, and social standing. They were best friends, rivals, artistic collaborators, and possibly lovers, as they would be all their lives. This book is clearly based upon mountains of research, and is the first to imagine the sisters' lifelong relationship from Vanessa's point of view. It is a riveting, sympathetic and sensitive treatment of unconventional, but productive lives. Now, mind you, it is fiction, not a biography: written in a style generally called epistolary: that is, as letters or notes from Vanessa to Virginia. And sisters, of course, have no need to give each other backgrounds on their parents or other siblings. I went online elsewhere to gather the biographical information in my introductory paragraphs, above. If you are not going to be comfortable reading a book without this background information, be warned. I also think, as the Stephen sisters were very real, I would have liked to see some portraits of them and the people in their lives. Furthermore, the author frequently has Vanessa describe the paintings, or interiors she'd created, and that's remarkably interesting, but "Show and tell" is always more engrossing than just "tell." I wish author or publisher had seen fit to include some relevant illustrations of Vanessa's work.

Susan Sellers is a professor of English at Scotland's ancient, prestigious St. Andrews University, and is co-editor of the Cambridge University Press edition of Virginia Woolf's works. Sellers is a past recipient of the Canongate Prize for New Writing; and is author of many short stories and books of nonfiction. This is her first published novel.
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on 9 July 2008
Vanessa and Virginia is a beautifully written and thoroughly enjoyable novel. Sellers's rich imagery is brilliantly evocative of setting and emotion and brings the bloomsbury group back to life, her writing is remininiscent of Woolf's while also full of innovative personal touches. I particularly enjoyed the illuminating new perspective Sellers offers on the lives of her characters, reading from Vanessa's point of view, and the intimacy created by Sellers's use of the second person. I found this a moving and memorable book, fascinating for Woolf fans and the perfect introduction for those new to her.
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on 20 February 2009
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.
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VINE VOICEon 13 September 2008
This is a fascinating depiction of the relationship between two famous sisters, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. Although this is the author's first novel Susan Sellers writes with complete assurance and her decision to write in the second person - Vanessa addresses the novel to Virginia - is extremely effective and helps create a particularly charged and intense atmosphere, capturing the shifting and equivocal nature of Vanessa's feelings for Virginia.

I have to confess to not being a great fan of Virginia Woolf. So when Susan Sellers makes Virginia say `Though actually I worry I don't think enough about my reader' I found myself nodding vigorously. Happily Susan Sellers does think about her readers and 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.
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on 18 June 2008
At once highly knowledgeable and superbly imaginative, Sellers presents us with an album of narrative snapshots, capturing the colourful cast of characters that inhabited the lives of the two artist-sisters while speaking to the highly visual nature of Vanessa Bell, a painter. In giving voice to Bell, one of the most influential figures in Virginia Woolf's life, the novel illuminates an often-overshadowed perspective. Simultaneously, the oblique portrait of Woolf affords an original and unusual glimpse at the famed author. Sellers' expert, lovingly-crafted prose cuts to the heart of the relationship between the two extraordinary sisters, quite probably each woman's most powerful and significant love affair. A must-read for anyone interested in the nature of love, family, creativity or the lives of artists.
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on 13 April 2015
This is a little jewel of a book that I could so easily have missed. Having been ready to go along with that lazy dismissal of the famous sisters as part of a clique of self regarding and self parodying London intellectuals this novel really opened my eyes to how wrong I was. Other reviewers have commented on the precision and exquisite craft in the writing, esp. in the descriptions of the act of painting (something that's really hard to pull off.) What the novel made vivid for me was the extraordinary level of dedication and in the case of Vanessa, considerable material deprivation, both sisters were prepared to commit to practice their art. At times you really feel you're the one struggling to find that perfect colour or the exact words and phrasing.

As someone who had struggled with Virginia Woolf's writing and not taken much notice of Vanessa Bell's output this novel sent me back to both with new eyes and I've thoroughly appreciated the return visit. ( I'm still not a fan of Charleston's knick knacks and soft furnishings though. Sorry.) You don't need to have any detailed knowledge of the Bloomsbury scene to appreciate this novel and I think it would be a great precursor to reading Woolf's novels or looking at Vanessa's pictures. It would also be a great reading group choice as it's so multi layered yet mercifully compact!
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on 24 June 2008
In her first novel, Vanessa and Virginia, Susan Sellers explores not only the events that marked the lives of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, but the mindset and emotions of the movement that shaped their art.

With distinctive sensuality, Sellers evokes a unique perspective on the genius of the famous Woolf, its effect on those around her, and the multi-faceted desires and divisions that ran through the controversial Bloomsbury Group. Her captivating take on the story is placed in a narrative that arouses clear and piercing images without compromising a lovely rhythmic style.

Vanessa and Virginia certainly deserves a place on anyone's reading list, even - and perhaps especially - those who are not familiar with either Virginia Woolf or Vanessa Bell.
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on 1 April 2015
An outstanding book - I love its blend of strength and sensitivity. Susan Sellers is an expert on Virginia Woolf's life and work, and it is remarkable to see her incorporate her considerable knowledge in such a delicate way into this powerful work of poetic fiction. The relationship between Virginia and her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, is brought to life through Vanessa's eyes, and it is humbling to witness how the author successfully conveys the perspective of a visual artist. The scope of this book is immense - to quote from the blurb, 'both sisters fight to realise their artistic vision amidst a chaos of desire, scandal, illness and war' - yet the novel never loses its focus: chief among its treasures is the creation of a bridge between two ways of making sense of the world. At the end of the novel, I feel haunted by the image of Vanessa giving up her story, page by page, to the river that claimed her sister's life, as a dedication to her. Immediately afterwards, as Vanessa sets up her easel and, in a last message to her sister, says 'You are right. What matters is that we do not stop creating', I feel a sense of restoration and empowerment, recognising the mark of a generous author who has done so much herself to promote women artists and writers.
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on 15 December 2013
This is a dream of a novel, beautifully written and completely absorbing. It doesn't matter if you know nothing at all about Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell because the focus is on their relationship as sisters. This functions as any close sibling relation might, through fierce loyalty and rivalry and love. The novel follows the sisters' lives from their strict Victorian upbringing to Bohemian Bloomsbury, through two world wars and the loss of Vanessa's beloved son to Virginia Woolf's tragic suicide. Against this backdrop we see two passionately creative and ambitious women, for whom the making of art is not only important but a source of deep connection and solace. Sellers is Virginia Woolf's editor and the novel is consequently written with knowledge and authority, but also great sensitivity and compassion. It's one of those rare books that changes not only what you think you know about something, but makes you reflect on your own life.
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