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Archive for the ‘Susan Sellers’ Category

If not for the Not The TV Book Group, I never would have read Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers.  In fact, I probably would never even have heard of it.  I wasn’t remotely excited about reading it, having no great love for Virginia Woolf and absolutely no knowledge of Vanessa Bell.  However, from the very first page, from the very first paragraph, I was in love with this book.  Captivated, enthralled, enamoured, awed…words fail.  I found the writing beautiful and poetic, vivid yet with a distance from anything too emotional – a kind of restraint I find admirable both from a character- and style-perspective.  I was particularly struck by this passage, by both the language and the imagery; this was the point at which I knew that Vanessa and Virginia was certain of being one of my favourite reads of 2010:

Mother.  She enters the nursery like a queen.  We, her troops, present ourselves for her inspection…Her ringed fingers dance as she talks to the nursemaids.  I learn the questions she asks them by heart.  Later I will set out my dolls and quiz them in her clear round voice about castor oil and the mending.  I practice standing with my head erect and my back straight until my shoulders feels as if they are pinned in a press. (p. 2-3)

Perhaps because I’m not a fan of Woolf’s, my sympathies were with Vanessa right from the start.  As the novel begins, it is unclear who the narrator is and it is several pages before she is identified as Vanessa and that the ‘you’ she is addressing is Virginia.  Usually, this kind of ambiguity would frustrate me but here I was intrigued.  As I’ve said, I adored the style of the novel from the very first line, but, not having read any reviews of the book beforehand, was nervous that it might end up focusing too much on Woolf (I just finished reading Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, which is essentially the story of Mary Cassatt told through her sister).  While the relationship between the sisters fascinated me, I was happy that Vanessa’s life was given its own space and attention, independent of her interactions with Virginia.

The early jealousy between the sisters struck a particular cord for me.  Growing up, I was terrified that my parents would decide to have another child and that it would be a girl. I adored my younger brother but the idea of a sister, who would so clearly be a rival, upset me. No younger sister ever arrived, but I’ve had a friend since childhood that is like a surrogate sister and we have the same kind of jealousy that I see in the relationship between Vanessa and Virigina, always competing against one another for everything, never wanting to share that which we feel is ours alone. We love one another but there’s still that edge, that need to assert our independence and have friends, talents, praise all to ourselves.  It’s not a competition for attention from any parental figure, but a private battle between us alone. Terribly messy but yet it seems terribly common as well in close female relationships.  Does jealousy enter into relationships between men, be they brothers or friends, as much as it does with women?

I knew almost nothing about Vanessa Bell beforehand and my encounters with Virigina Woolf have been less than successful. Yet that didn’t impair my enjoyment of the novel at all; I was captivated the entire time. Not knowing the biographical details beforehand certainly did not damage the experience. Instead, I am only more eager to read more about Bell and the Bloomsbury Group (still strangely uninterested in Woolf herself).  I am also terribly eager for Sellers to write a second novel – to think that this was her first!

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