Thursday, April 16, 2009

Review of Vanessa and Virginia

Photograph of Julia Duckworth Stephens, mother of Virginia and Vanessa

I got this book from the Amazon vine program, which sends free books to people to review. Sometimes the books are really great, but more often they are bad, or only so-so. This fell into the so-so category.

The author's idea was to write a memoir from the point of view of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf's sister. She was a painter, and they were very close as children and later as fellow artists. Vanessa married, and then had several affairs with men, producing a number of children. Virginia married but never had children. She was much more successful as a writer than Vanessa was as a painter.

This idea--of imagining Vanessa's voice-- was good because we know a lot about what Virginia thought, as she wrote so much, but we know less about Vanessa's inner life, which the author imagines, based on several biographies of the sisters. The problem is, the voice that she gives Vanessa is not very credible. She sounds entirely too contemporary. Vanessa, for example, would not use the word "parenting" for example, as nobody did before about 1980.

The plot revolves a great deal around Vanessa's torments about her lover Duncan Grant, who was bisexual, and who ended up dumping her for a man. In this book the author imagines that Vanessa attempted suicide over this. I don't know if there is any historical evidence for this. WE know of course that Virginia successfully killed herself.

But the interesting aspects of the plot and the author's ability to evoke the setting of a late 19th century upper-class English childhood do not make up for the lack of a convincing narrator's voice. I realized, reading this, how important this often over-looked quality of first-person fiction is: one thinks of successful first-person narrators, like Huckleberry Finn or David Copperfield. Maybe those voices succeeded because the writer knew the character's place and time so well, as it was his own. In a way, Susan Sellers is writing historical fiction, and making a Bloomsbury character talk convincingly is almost as hard as making a medieval person talk convincingly! That time was long ago and far away, it turns out.

The other problem is that Sellers assumes that the reader knows a lot about Bloomsbury, almost as much as she does. She does not explain who Lytton, Carrington, Vita, and Ottoline are. I think she wrote this novel for Bloomsbury fans who will recognize the characters as old friends from their readings of other books about Bloomsbury. I am not particularly a Bloomsbury fan. I love Virginia Woolf's novels, but the whole cast of decadent, somewhat pretentious, privileged upper-class intellectuals does not appeal to me very much.

REading this reminded me of the day that I visited Sissinghurst Castle in 1994. WE took a cab from town to the garden, which was the creation of Vita Sackville-West and her husband. Vita was one of Virginia's lovers. There had recently been a PBS television series about Vita's affair with another woman, Violet. When the cab driver picked us up, he asked us if we were going there because of "the scandal." We asked, "What scandal?" Apparently a lot of Americans were drawn to the garden because of the titillation factor. We were in fact wanting to look at the flowers. I thought it was funny that a hundred years later, this affair was still "a scandal."

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