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Vanessa and Virginia

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Because Vanessa’s intended audience – her dead sister – knows everyone she’s talking about, her narrative deliberately elides such anchoring details as last names and dates. It is hard to say whether “Vanessa and Virginia” will resonate for readers unfamiliar with the history, or whether it  will matter if they don’t know that Vanessa’s lover “Roger” is critic Roger Fry and friend “Maynard” is the economist Maynard Keynes.

But readers familiar with the Bloomsbury set may feel as if they’re watching a paint-by-numbers portrait emerge. Seeking to fill in some blank spots – including the year of Woolf’s birth (1882) and death (1941) – I picked up Nigel Nicolson’s short biography, “Virginia Woolf”; this is one case where fiction just can’t compete with the facts.

Sellers makes an interesting but challenging choice in designating the painter, not the writer, to tell this story. Her narrator notes, “You were the one with words. You were the one who knew how to take an event and describe it so that its essence was revealed. I do not have your talent. If you were here you would know how to tell this tale.”

Vanessa views her tale through what she calls “the kaleidoscope of memory.” The aim is to capture in prose the fracturing effects of Cubism and Impressionism, mirroring the sisters’ artistic styles. Unfortunately, to underscore her narrator’s identity as a visual artist and express her state of mind, Sellers relies on too many descriptions of paintings, as tedious to read about as dreams.

Far more compelling are her evocations of the rivalry that began with the sisters’ competition for attention from their overextended mother – who, with three children from her first marriage and four with Leslie Stephen – never had enough time for poor Vanessa, the eldest of the second closely spaced batch. “I need her to tell me she loves me,” Vanessa recalls thinking at 16 as she watched her mother die.

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