Virginia Woolf may have overshadowed her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, in popular cultural history, but Vanessa was a talented artist, wife, lover and mother in her own right. In her novel Vanessa and Virginia, author Susan Sellers—co-editor of the Cambridge University Press edition of Woolf’s works—artfully presents Vanessa, not as a frame to further explore and enhance her more famous sister, but through a full and authentic portrait of a woman whose life has been shaped by tragedy as well as a creative freedom remarkable for her time.
Sellers crafts her novel in short vignettes, beginning with cohesive and specific memories of the sisters’ childhood, and eventually becoming more abstract and dreamy as the girls age. The sisters survived the deaths of several family members and went on to create unconventional lives as founders of the famed Bloomsbury Group, a collective of artists, critics, economists and writers. Those meetings are not explored head-on in Vanessa and Virginia, but many of the relationships they spawned are, including the open marriage of Vanessa and art critic Clive Bell. Vanessa’s subsequent love affairs with painters Roger Fry and Duncan Grant are responsible for many of the novel’s most poignant passages.
While Vanessa and Virginia remain devoted to each other through tragedies, romances and depressions, sibling rivalry is never under the surface for long. As their individual careers rise and fall, Sellers never flinches in maintaining obvious tension in their relationship. While a working knowledge of the sisters’ lives might enhance and deepen the reading experience, it is by no means necessary, and that in itself is no small achievement.
Houses, lovers, wars and even children come and go, but the two constants in Vanessa’s life—Virginia and art—remain. Even after Virginia fills her pockets with stones and wades into the water, Vanessa seems to absorb her sister, rather than let her go, and it is, perhaps, that extra bit of strength that enables her to continue to paint, to create and, ultimately, to survive.
Kristy Kiernan is the author of the novel Matters of Faith.