Saturday, August 8, 2009


Several weeks ago, I suddenly caught Bloomsbury fever. This happens, I think, from time to time for no apparent reason but random osmosis. It's like the weird fascination I have for Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (and I know I'm not alone). Susan Sellers' novel Vanessa and Virginia kept on sneaking up on me in lit-blog posts and newspaper reviews and on bookshelves. Eventually, succumbing, I checked it out of the library and began to read it on the bus I took to see Othello. I have experienced several books like this recently; it is as if there is a trap door that is suddenly opened and as one sits to read (or stands), one plunges suddenly down twenty-five levels and (in the manner of Dumbledore's pensieve) there is a smudging of colors and sounds and all that flows in and around your brain is Words. It sounds very dramatic, I know, but oh well.

Vanessa and Virginia is, as one might imagine, about those famously intelligent and talented sisters, the writer Virginia Woolf and the artist Vanessa Bell. The novel takes the form of a letter to Virginia from Vanessa, a loving chronicle of their childhoods, their lives and careers, their simultaneous friendship and relentless rivalry. Sellers credits Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf as a major source for her work, and having read the biography the influence is clear. The novel might have fallen flat because of its linear (and mostly factually supported) narrative if it wasn't for Sellers' ripe language and her descriptive emphasis on the senses (Vanessa is an artist, after all).

The story has no hidden twists if one is acquainted with the members of the Bloomsbury group, though I was suprised by the suggestion of incestuous tendencies between the Stephens children. Vanessa is the older sister, the "saint", the internal processor, the nurturing mother-figure to be depended upon. Virginia is a verbally virtuosic, mentally agile child who dazzles and impresses dinner guests, but her witty and often cruel remarks makes her sister nervous. After the death of their parents, the sisters move into their Bloomsbury apartment, whether they quickly became to assemble a host of the most influential personalities and talents of early twentieth century Britain and begin to establish the reputation of the Bloomsbury group, greatly enhanced by the success of Woolf's novels. Their paths were to part: Vanessa marries first, but it is Virginia who finds a true partnership in her husband, Leonard. Vanessa has children, and her painting is successful, but she is never able to achieve financial success with her art as Virginia does with her novels.

This novel confirms what those familiar with the Bloomsbury Group might know but is kind and welcoming to the initiate, both without compromising history or sacrificing aesthetic quality. Sellers' languid, impressionistic novel is an ode to a particular pair of sisters at a particular moment in time when the Western world was undergoing numerous and sometimes severe transitions.

Another volume that Sellers drew upon for her novel, one less sympathetic to Vanessa's influence, was Angelica Garnett's memoir Deceived with Kindness : A Bloomsbury Childhood. Angelica Garnett's personal life and identity embody the confusions and tangled relationships of Bloomsbury. Angelica was Vanessa's illegitimate daughter by Duncan Grant (the love of her life but alas a man of bisexual habits, leaning towards men). Angelica believed she was the legitimate child of Vanessa's husband, Clive Bell, until Vanessa told her the truth at sixteen. Angelica later married - to her parents' understandable displeasure - an old lover of Duncan's, David "Bunny" Garnett (author of bittersweet Bloomsbury classic reissued recently by McSweeney's Lady into Fox.)

Garnett's childhood was singular: she had the advantage of being related to and friends with people of great talent and influence. They were all devoted to art.
I particularly liked this quote: "Though we were unbrushed, unwashed and ragged, our carpets and curtains faded and our furniture stained and groggy, appearances of a purely aesthetic kind were considered of supreme importance. Hours were spent hanging an old picture in a new place, or in choosing a new color for the walls." Despite this creative asset, Angelica felt emotionally crippled by Vanessa, taught to be dependent. She explains her reason for writing the book as a catharsis in achieving independence from her past.

If one is still feeling Bloomsburyish, take a look at some of Vanessa Bell's vivid paintings or the colorful pointillist covers she did for her sister's novels. At the risk of sounding just like Stuck in a Book, because I know he's had the same advice recently, if your interest is still peaked you should watch the film adaptation of Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours, music scored by the marvelous minimalist Philip Glass. I put on the soundtrack nearly every morning;the second track is called "Morning Passages" and it sounds like a person (probably Virginia) lounging about, smoking tersely, writing and crossing out, ink-fingered, with a leaky pen. It sounds like somebody playing their morning scales on the piano. It makes me feel crisp, like I should sharpen my pencils.

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