Thursday, May 05, 2011

In Elegant Paint and Memorable Print: Sellers' Vanessa and Virginia

Sellers, Susan. Vanessa and Virginia. Two Ravens, 2008.

My dalliance in the novels of Virginia Woolf is somewhat limited: I enjoyed To the Lighthouse and Orlando and appreciated the careful homage paid her works in Cunningham's The Hours and the film adaptation thereof, but there my knowledge of the writer and her works abruptly ends. My knowledge of Woolf's sister Vanessa, however, has always been vague and horrifically incomplete. By some miracle, Vanessa and Virginia has managed to bridge a gap between my inadequate education and the lives of these two famous sisters, and allowed me a little more insight into their skills, struggles, and complicated biographies.

Narrated from the perspective of sister Vanessa, a painter in search of appreciation, Sellers' novel deals less with the life of Virginia Woolf and more with showcasing the tangled and complicated personalities that surrounded and influenced her. Vanessa and Virginia is broken down into numerous short scenes, which initially makes the book seem fragmented yet eventually makes it both more believable and easier to read. Sellers' Vanessa is occasionally frustrating, often impatient, and fairly sympathetic: her Virginia is less the now-idealised writer portrayed in The Hours and more a human (a gifted and talented human, to be sure, but a very fragile and impetuous one with many flaws and much to love).

Sellers' extensive academic background and organisational approach to her book have given it a firm foundation of solid research and authenticity; although her dialogues are likely fictitious, the scenes and attitudes they represent are probably, for the most part, carefully based on events described elsewhere. By writing from Vanessa's perspective, she is not bound by Woolf's unique style, and her descriptions of Vanessa's paintings are elegant and vibrant (though they made me wish to see the images themselves; perhaps these will be added in a future edition). Certainly Vanessa's voice is a little plaintive and grating in spots, but in many ways this made her narration all the more believable.

Vanessa and Virginia is an enjoyable novel based on some very detailed academic research, and I would recommend the book to anyone interested in learning about its title characters or the world in which they lived. I should also enjoy another book by Susan Sellers should one, at some point, be forthcoming.

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