Vanessa & Virginia – Susan Sellers

Some books you need time away from to reflect before you put your book thoughts down onto paper (or in some cases onto the keyboard) and some you should jot down as soon as you finish them when the book is most vivid. The latest read for the NTTVBG and Kirsty’s choice ‘Vanessa and Virginia’ by Susan Sellers is one of the latter books however life has gotten in the way once more and I have left jotting everything down a little too late and so I am hoping I catch the shine I first felt after reading the book in this post.

‘Vanessa and Virginia’ is the fictional tale of two rather famous sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf and through Vanessa Bell’s eyes and narrative we get a look into the world of these two sisters from their childhood in the dim halls of a house in Hyde Park Gate until fame beckoned and war came making their lives unrecognisable in many different ways. Researched by Sellers, who is also a Woolf expert; this is a very vivid portrayal into the sibling’s lives and in some ways I suppose you could call it ‘historical faction’ if you wished, whatever the genre it does come filled with atmosphere whilst being highly readable.

This book for me personally, regardless of who the two leading women were, told the sometimes funny, sometimes harrowing relationship of two sisters, brought close together (almost cloyingly so) by the deaths of those around them, and afterwards an almost constant struggle evermore to out do one another and compete against the other (and not just creatively) whilst at the same time each constantly seeking the others approval and validation. I thought Sellers managed to write and capture these feelings marvellously. We all love our siblings and yet in minute ways, not to the extremes in this book I hope, do have some small competition with them (everyone will be saying ‘no we don’t’ – you are all big fibbers) and I found that very interesting to read even more so when it reached the extremes in this book.

I don’t know very much about Woolf or Bell and for me that worked to the books advantage. I was totally lost in the lives of the sisters and didn’t know (well apart from Woolf’s rather infamous death) which way the story would go and that kept me reading on along with Sellers wonderful prose. I did wonder if Sellers wrote from the aspect of Bell both because Bell is the lesser known and also as a painter though her Sellers could paint the scenes more intensely and vividly through her eyes, or maybe that’s just me looking for things that aren’t there? I do think the story of Vanessa is a fascinating one from her marriage it’s openness and its decline and the relationships she had afterwards, how the war affected her and how her sister’s fame affected her.

I think writing a fictional book with someone as famous as Woolf as a character can be a blessing and a curse for a book as some people will dash to buy it and either love it or be slightly disappointed or people will be put off.  If that might be you then don’t be put off as I don’t think you have to know anything about the sisters to read this book. In fact I could imagine if you knew too much before this book you might not get quite so much from it because you would already, possibly subconsciously, have certain feelings and prior knowledge of the leading ladies and that could stop this fiction weaving its fictional magic.

It’s interesting that from the discussion (which you can see here) those who knew a lot about Woolf and her life didn’t quite enjoy it as much as those people who didn’t. Well that’s the case on the whole, I am sure there will be Woolf lovers who love it also. It’s a book that I very much enjoyed. I don’t think its changed my thoughts on Woolf in any way or made me want to rush off and read more of her works or more about her (but that might just be my Woolf readings of late rather than this book) it has made me want to find out much, much more about Vanessa Bell though.

Oddly, from the man who the other day mentioned he assumed a book was fact from the start, I would try going into this book leaving all your prior knowledge or assumptions of Woolf and Bell at the door if you can you might just enjoy it all the more. Anyone else agree? Who else has read this and what did you think?

Oh and two things not to forget. One is that there is a rather special ‘Solar’ Competition going on below and the second is that the next NTTVBG meeting will be next Sunday over at Kimbofo’s to talk about ‘The Illusionist’ by Jennifer Johnston, see you there I hope!


Filed under Not The TV Book Group, Review, Susan Sellers, Two Ravens Press

14 responses to “Vanessa & Virginia – Susan Sellers

  1. Can you imagine what it would have been like – the pressure – growing up next to Virginia Woolf??? I know nothing about her, and have not read any of her works. There is an intimidation factor there that I haven’t conquered. The book sounds fascinating!

    • I dont know that growing up it was such an issue even though they were both creative and a touch competitive, once Woolf became famous though that must have been (and seems to have been) really difficult. The book is very interesting and I think you would like it Sandy, might kick start a Woolf season for you!

  2. Despite knowing a fair amount about Woolf before going in, I did love it. I thought it was very well done, brave (I agree it is both a blessing and a curse) and original in telling the story from Vanessa’s perspective. It makes me want to go out and devour everything else about V & V now (I can appreciate though that with all your Woolf reading recently, both successful and unsuccessful, that it didn’t elicit that response in you).

    I wanted to make mention of the cloying relationship between the sisters in my own review but, as you noticed, it was rather long and something had to give! Having a sister myself I know how difficult such a relationship can be but was shocked at just how intense and ultimately unhealthy their relationship was in the book.

    • Claire I am pleased that you love it (and loved your thoughts on it) am pleased that we had a book like this in the mix especially with all of the different responses it seems to have brought out of people. I have been suprised by some of the people who havent loved it, but thats the fun in choosing books non of us have read before.

      I have to say my siblings are all much younger and we havent gotten competitive yet but me and my step sisters can be.

  3. I guess I’m always suspicious of this sort of novel. I think it’s developed into it’s own sub-genre lately, books based on famous writers. There’s also books based on famous characters and books that re-tell famouse books from other points of view.

    It’s all very meta….

    I like a well written biography. Non-fiction is an artform that can be just as rewarding as fiction when done well.

    While I’ve not read this book I suspect I would fall into the “know too much about Virginia Woolf to like the book” camp.

    • I agree on non fiction being an artform its sadly one that I dont think is always done incredibly well which is why I dont try more non fiction than I do. Well I try it, I just dont get very far with it.

      I think it is natural that these sorts of books are going to come out, they have been for years though I guess. I was about to pop Northanger Abbey into the catagory but that was more homage.

      If you think you might feel this way about this book see if the library has it.

  4. Also in the know too much about Ginny camp. Quoted you from this post in my own Sunday post as you seem to completely understand why I disliked this book despite really wanting to like it. Where was the joy in Vanessa, the light as her sister would say, that drew so many to her? A maudlin and joyless interpretation. (Sorry to bring my blahs to your house this morning. 🙂 )

    • Thank you for quoting and the lovely comments Frances. I am more than happy for people to bring their blahs to my house any day, the discussion be it people loving or loathing is all part of the project isnt it and indeed part of the joys of bookish blogs.

  5. I enjoyed it for its own sake, mainly because I know next to nothing about Bell and Woolf. Still, I did find it helpful to look up Wikipedia, about a quarter of the way through it, to get my bearings. I must say it hasn’t made me want to rush out and read Woolf’s back catalogue but it has made me intrigued about Bell’s art. Apparently a lot of her work is owned by the Courtauld Institute, which is a brilliant brilliant gallery to visit if you ever get the chance…

    • I have tried a couple of Woolf’s in the past few weeks and this book explained To The Lighthouse a little more but it hasnt made me rush for Orlando or The Waves. It has made me want to know much much more about Vanessa and I think that I might have to go to the gallery and see some of her work close up.

  6. Well, I knew a lot about Woolf and not very much about Bell, and I loved it! I loved the writing style – which was close to Woolf’s, but not an imitation.

    I completely agree with you when you say ‘I did wonder if Sellers wrote from the aspect of Bell both because Bell is the lesser known and also as a painter though her Sellers could paint the scenes more intensely and vividly through her eyes’ – and I think Sellers really achieved this. Thanks for your review, Simon!

    • I think Bell is a much more interesting and insightful persepctive plus as we know less we can’t say ‘thats not right’ as often as maybe we could with Woolf. I also think writing from Woolfs perspective could have made the book rather melodramtic and OTT.

      I have to say I didnt think Sellers style was like Woolf so it was interesting to see you and others saying that.

  7. ana

    Having no visual arts training nor aptitude, I was fascinated by the descriptions of the creation of artworks. Felt that perspective was a useful complement to everything that many know of Woolf’s work. Most readers would know a little something, at least of the life. Sellers’ interpretation was quite fresh, but may not have charmed those steeped in VW’s work as much as it did for me.

    Did love Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and the way it looked at Woolf in an original way too. Highly recommended.

    • I thought the way the pictures were described was beautiful too Ana interestingly when I looked up her work afterwards it wasnt how I visualised it at all in my head, its much more abstract I was expecting something else, I like it more than I thought I would too.

      I haven’t read The Hours, I am looking forward to it though as lots of people have said I should give it a whirl.

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