- Vanessa and Virginia
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 224 pp.
The Problem with Sisters
As a cultural, literary, and historical icon, Virginia Woolf was celebrated by contemporaries and has continued to fascinate audiences long after her death. And why not? Her strong individualistic streak, perhaps anachronistic during her lifetime, fits in well with our post-feminist culture, and her ability to render life in intimate, almost cinematic detail has inspired writers for ages. Woolf scholar Susan Sellers touches on both of these aspects of Virginia’s personality in her debut novel, Vanessa & Virginia. However, don’t let the broad shadow of Virginia’s fame fool you; the focus of this novel is most definitely on Virginia’s sister, the painter Vanessa Bell.
The novel is constructed as a letter from Vanessa to Virginia after her suicide. It begins at their shared childhood and continues through their adult lives which were sometimes spent together, sometimes apart. Longer chapters are split into shorter vignettes in which Vanessa examines her memories, describes her paintings or her dreams, and reveals secrets to her sister. Each section frames a particular moment in time, turning it into a sort of painting or still life, as in this moment which occurs early on in the book:
I am lying on the sofa with a length of silk draped over one arm. It is a remnant from a dress I have been making. The material is a startling cherry red and so beautiful I cannot bring myself to discard it. I try the silk round my shoulders, then wind it like a turban round my hair. You are sitting at the table by the window, writing. I can hear the rasp of your nib on the paper.
As a still life, a saved, shared moment, this is a beautiful rendition of the strangely contradictory relationship of siblings, in which each recognizes the other’s difference, yet loves them all the same. And Sellers has a talent for rendering both the tender and the horrific parts of the sisters’ lives. In a particularly chilling section, Vanessa recounts to her sister how she almost drowned herself, a foreshadowing of Woolf’s own demise:
I cannot stop the pictures from forming in my mind. I push my stick into the river and watch the water eddy round it in fast-moving circles. If I close my eyes all I see is Duncan’s face, smiling as he leans close to Peter. I step into the water and feel the icy cold seep into my shoes.
When we finally reach Virginia’s own moment in the river, it becomes all the more devastating – and frustrating – having read Vanessa’s suicide attempt.
Unfortunately, using this framing technique to format a novel is more often problematic than powerful. Chapters tend toward confusion rather than elegance, and the plotline fractures into what could be called a Cubist narrative. Of course, Cubism does have a place in a novel written from the viewpoint of a turn-of-the-century painter, and if that were the only format issue, it might not be as bothersome.
But because the novel is also written in the second-person, confusion becomes much more likely. Second-person is a hard point of view to pull off in prose. Lorrie Moore, perhaps the master of this technique, was only able to do it by assuming that her audience knew nothing, and providing them with all the information they needed to piece the whole story together. If an author fails in this regard, reading second-person prose can be like listening to one side of a telephone conversation; you can kind of follow what’s going on, but a lot is missing. Take, for instance, this party scene:
They come into the room, in groups of two or three. Henry arrives with Nina on his arm, followed by Beatrice and Ka. I spy Gwen talking to Marjorie in a corner, Mary and Silvia by the window. There is no formality.
Any significance or importance vanishes in what becomes merely a list of names. Perhaps Sellers assumes her audience knows more about Woolf’s life than they do, or perhaps the fault lies in the fact that, as a letter from one sister to another, details like last names and locations would seem unnecessary. But for a reader, this information is very necessary. Without it, we are lost.
The effect of an adequate amount of information is most clear in the sections when Vanessa and Virginia are apart, and Vanessa must fill her sister in on a few details. She is living with two men at the time, her lover, Duncan, and his lover, Bunny. They have created an open marriage of sorts at a time when this type of relationship was unthinkable, and it is in these sections of the novel when Vanessa is most at peace, and readers most engaged.
There was a purpose and serenity to our days. Hearing the children play hide-and-seek in the garden, it was easy to forget the fighting overseas. I set up a studio in the least dilapidated of the barns and painted the blossom in the orchard. As we gathered the apples and pears, I felt a sense of fulfillment. Our queer triangle seemed a haven of sanity compared to the war.
In these moments, Vanessa is as fascinating as her sister, and as worthy of study and admiration. If the structure of the novel had been altered, her personality would have had a chance to shine through, engaging readers with her eye for symbol and color, her unconventional family life, and the darker demons she shared with Woolf.
As it is constructed, the novel continues to be overshadowed and broken apart by Woolf’s presence. Is that, perhaps, the unintended message? Vanessa herself could not escape the influence of her more powerful and magnetic sibling. Bill Clinton’s brother might know what this feels like, or the fourth Baldwin brother that no one can name. In a similar way, the book suffers from wanting to be too much, and the singular beauty of certain passages is lost in the confusion.