Vanessa and Virginia

Written by Susan Sellers
Review by Jeanne Greene

In London between the wars, artist Vanessa Bell and her sister, the author Virginia Woolf, members of the influential Bloomsbury set, indulged in an unconventional lifestyle that included sexual freedom. Sellers’ novel, Vanessa and Virginia, suggests how daughters of prominent Victorians may have arrived at this point in their lives.

Sellers, who co-edits Cambridge University Press editions of Woolf’s work, gives us an insider’s perspective on complex familial relationships. In a series of diary-like entries, Vanessa, the elder sister by three years, reflects on contemporaneous events, interspersing recollections of childhood. Frankly and tenderly, she probes the sisters’ lifelong ambivalence toward each other.

The girls, born into a gaggle of stepsiblings, have busy parents. Vanessa is hungry for attention; she resents her baby sister’s demands on their mother. Left too much on their own, both girls are sexually abused by older stepbrothers. They have no secrets from each other; they become close but not loyal. Vanessa learns to use knowledge of Virginia’s weaknesses against her.

Their adult lives are rife with contradictions. Husbands and lovers, intellect and talent, draw them together—and come between them. Vanessa envies her sister’s books, To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. Virginia is envious of Vanessa’s children. Inevitably, they betray each other. Both are subject to depression. Vanessa sees her sister’s despair but, in honing the ability to hurt, she has lost the ability to heal. It is Virginia who takes her own life.

‘What might have been’ is fascinating and, when presented with authority, adds to our understanding of the subjects. Although readers will benefit from familiarity with the Bloomsbury set, one needs no special knowledge to enjoy this fine novel.