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Ghostlike Sisters

February 7, 2010

Vanessa and Virginia

Vanessa and Virginia
By Susan Sellers

Anyone who knows me knows about my now four-year preoccupation with Virginia Woolf. My presents for just about any holiday often have some tangential relationship to Woolf. Last Christmas, my mother gave me an umbrella with her face on it. This Christmas, she gave me this book: Vanessa and Virginia, by English professor Susan Sellers. Aside from other Woolf readings for my thesis, I didn’t have much else to read over the winter break, so I figured I’d give this a shot.

Sellers imagines the profoundly deep relationship between Woolf and her elder sister, painter Vanessa Bell, in a series of intimate letters. Vanessa writes the letters to Woolf, who is addressed only as “you” throughout this novel. I’ll admit that I was initally skeptical about this treatment of one of my literary heroes. But Sellers has a surprisingly commanding grasp of loose-limbed prose, the kind of watery, light-infused writing that is appropriate for the (former) Stephen sisters.

The letters cover their lives from childhood until Virginia’s suicide in 1941. It was interesting to gain a broader perspective from Sellers’s imaginary Vanessa–the elder sister who was gradually overshadowed by Virginia’s brilliance, despite being brilliant in her own way. Sellers’s Vanessa is a tragic character, but one who avoids any declarations of self-pity. She is a fascinating person to encounter, but one that we are left without a tangible understanding of at the end of the novel. Vanessa here seems as fleeting and visionary as Sellers’s prose, which may be fitting for a novel about two now deceased genius sisters, but overall, I found the book lacking. It was beautifully written, but presumptuous. I should not be allowed to write about it, for I am clearly far too opinionated about and devoted to Woolf to read any fiction about her objectively. Overall, I am doubtful of Sellers’s license to recreate Vanessa and Virginia in fiction–just as I was extremely doubtful of Michael Cunningham’s license to do so–but if anyone treated their lives with an appropriate style of prose, Sellers seems to have been able to do so.

READ IF: You’d like a fairy-tale reenactment of the relationships of two utterly fascinating sisters.

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