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Vanessa and Virginia Paperback – 30 May 2008
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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.
From the Inside Flap
`Vanessa and Virginia is 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 BurnsideSee all Product description
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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.
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.
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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