Although this novel is set against the early 20th century and the machinations of the infamous Bloomsbury Group, the focus is most definitely on artist Vanessa Bell, who pours out her heart to her younger sister, Virginia Woolf. In heartbreaking prose that reflects the bright and shifting geometries of her life as a painter, we first meet Vanessa and Virginia as children when both are surrounded by their loving parents and brothers at their family home at Hyde Park Gate.
The sisters were bound by the strictures of Victorian England with a father who was dominant, self-centered, and controlling, and a mother who reeked of goodness and
an unstinting sense of duty. Both were trained to be ladies, venerating the angel of virtue, and its reluctant guardian. The decorum of the time surpassed any hidden desires they may have harbored.
As children Vanessa was always playfully attentive to her little sister,
adoring the way she watched her accomplish things Virginia could not yet achieve. Yet in these early years
are sown the seeds of Vanessa’s artistic development and of her sister’s fierce desire to catch up and topple her. Thus an uneasy truce is born,
and it is Vanessa who ultimately fears where her sister’s cleverness will lead.
Vanessa was often disappointed and discouraged in her early career as an artist
and wearied by the fame of Virginia, who was beloved by the public for her writings and always considered larger than life. Like a “starved prisoner,” Vanessa was desperate to capture the essence of what it takes to be a painter. On a summer trip to St. Ives, she first attempts to drink the light in and capture it in her sketches.
Lighting up parts of Vanessa’s heart that have for many years been hidden, Susan Sellers peers back through the alleys of the past and paints an exquisite portrait of two sisters who shared similar dreams. Vanessa was always welcoming and presiding, Virginia intellectually agile, eloquent, and daring. Inspired by what Virginia says and does and rejoicing in her triumphs, Vanessa was always happiest immersing herself in the conundrum of her pictures as she grappled with space, form, light, dark, contour and texture.
The emotional territory in this novel is vast: love and anger, grief and delight, shame and pride, even the petty jealousies are framed around these two women, co-conspirators in both life and in art. The prose is passionate and colorful, filled with artistic impressions. Sellers often visualizes the scenes of Vanessa and Virginia’s early and later life as if it were a painting, the colors dark
- black, gray, russet, “with flashes of crimson from the fire.”
The second half of the novel has greater resonance as Vanessa aches to leave the past behind
yet simultaneously peels away the layers of memory as she watches the shapes shift and fall, and the wild ravings of Virginia’s increasingly erratic mind. The momentum of Vanessa’s affairs with artist and critic Roger Fry and talented artist Duncan Grant eventually carry this novel to its conclusion in a complex and compelling portrait of two fascinating figures
intent on flying in the face of social and sexual convention.