Interview with book site Vulpes Libres
Interview on the publication of the US edition
Interview with writer Caroline Leavitt
Interview with Frances Spalding
About Vanessa and Virginia
I didn’t set out to write a novel about Virginia Woolf. Vanessa and Virginia began as a short story based on an anecdote: a friend confided in me that when her second daughter was born, her eldest (then a toddler of two) tried to throw the baby away. I have always found it puzzling that while Freud has so many illuminating things to say about the role parents play in child development, he virtually ignores the presence of siblings. Yet for most of us those early relationships with brothers and sisters has at least as much impact on who we are as anything our fathers or mothers said or did. So when I heard this tale my imagination was fired. I pictured the toddler lifting the baby from its Moses basket, and staggering with it to the place she had learned to put things that were unwanted – the kitchen bin. My friend was understandably upset by her daughter’s behaviour, but to me it seemed an intelligent solution to the problem. After all, what was interrupting the pleasures of mother’s attention here was not the Father – but the arrival of a new sibling.
I started a story about this toddler, but though I got a long way with it I never finished it. This may have had something to do with the fact that during this period my mother told me that my friend’s daughter was not alone, and that I too had tried to bin my sister, born when I was about eighteen months old. Yet I couldn’t leave the story alone. At the time, I was reading a great deal of material about Virginia Woolf and her family for an academic project, including Frances Spalding’s wonderful biography of Virginia’s elder sister Vanessa Bell. Their relationship intrigued me. They were born at a time when few girls were sent to school, and as a consequence spent most of their days in each other’s company. How, I wondered, was it settled between them that while Vanessa would become a painter, Virginia would write? In 1901, when Vanessa was just twenty-two, she was selected as one of twenty students to enter the Painting School of the Royal Academy; Virginia, on the other hand, did not publish her first novel until she was well into her thirties. Yet it was Virginia who became famous, while Vanessa frequently found it difficult to make enough money even to pay her models. I could not help asking myself: what must it have been like for Vanessa living in the shadow of this successful younger sibling? Many contemporary descriptions of Vanessa contrast her reticence in speech with Virginia’s loquacious brilliance. If Vanessa had written in anything like the detail Virginia did, what would her story have been?
We have millions of Virginia’s words. We have her novels and her non-fiction, as well as a great deal she did not publish in her lifetime, including diaries, notebooks, letters, autobiographical sketches and discarded drafts. Some of Vanessa’s words also survive – many letters, an essay or two – but only a small percentage is published and when compared with her sister their volume is comparatively slight.
We may not have access to many of Vanessa’s words, but what we do have are her paintings. I realised that if I wanted to get to know Vanessa as a character, I would have to do so from this perspective. Consequently, I bought or borrowed every book I could that contained reproductions of her art. I visited the house she settled in at Charleston, almost every inch of which is decorated. For an entire year, as I worked on the first draft of what became the novel, the walls of my study were covered with Vanessa’s images. Given the close relationship that existed between the two sisters, I wanted my writing to echo Virginia’s interior, poetic, lyrical style – but I did not want to produce a pastiche, and whatever I did had to be with a painter’s voice. Since I am not a visual artist myself, I visited friends who are and watched them work. I talked to them about what went through their minds as they decided on a subject, prepared their materials, and set about creating their images. The more I listened, the more I was convinced that if I wanted to imagine Vanessa this process would figure prominently. In the end, I think it was this shared ability to make works of art that enabled both sisters to surmount so many of the difficulties in their lives.
As well as spending time with artists, I did a great deal of reading. This raised as many questions as it furnished answers. For example, what role did Thoby – the brother who came between Vanessa and Virginia and who died when he was just twenty-six – play in the sisters’ lives? His presence haunts Virginia’s novels and he also appears in her diary; Vanessa names her adored eldest son after him (her letters to him as a young man read more like those of a lover than a mother). Why did Vanessa spurn Roger Fry – someone she loved – to pursue a lifelong liaison with the homosexual Duncan Grant – a man who could never love her in return? What were Vanessa’s motives in writing to Virginia’s husband shortly after their marriage, to tell him she thought her sister was frigid? And perhaps the most perplexing question of all: why, having successfully survived so many periods of distress and illness, did Virginia finally drown herself when she was almost sixty?
If I had wanted to write an accurate biography of Vanessa and Virginia based on the available evidence, I would only have been able to pose these questions. But fiction is not biography: it does not have to quote its sources and it can take liberties with the truth. It can stage interpretations that arise from the imaginative endeavour of attempting to get inside a character’s head. Hélène Cixous – another writer whose work inspires me – quotes Kafka’s understanding of what a good book should be in her essay ‘The School of the Dead’. Kafka maintains that a book should be an axe to crack open the frozen sea inside us, a phrase I take to refer to the way our view of the world is limited until reading makes us look anew. A good biography changes perceptions by presenting fresh information and challenging interpretations – but fiction has resources which I would argue shatter that frozen sea more profoundly.
To quote one of Vanessa and Virginia’s contemporaries, the writer E. M. Forster: fiction shows, it doesn’t tell. The more I discovered about the sisters, the more I became intrigued by the desires and compulsions I thought I could see developing in their childhoods, and reverberating through their adult lives. To convey these, I needed a novelist’s palette: I gave myself permission to select, stage and heighten; I used metaphor, not fact.
Concocting our life stories and those of others is one of the things that marks us as human. It is a consequence of our existing as linguistic beings. Even biographers in full possession of the evidence must then write it into a story – though the best try to avoid the blunders made by the biographer in Virginia’s comic novel Orlando, who is lazy, prejudiced and a prude. During the process of drafting Vanessa and Virginia, there came a point where I consciously had to let go of my research, in order to allow my characters to come alive on the page. Every fiction writer will know what I mean when I say this: I had to reach a point where my familiarity with the sisters ignited their voices inside my head – so that at times I felt almost as if I were writing to Vanessa’s dictation. Once this started to happen, the choice of what to include and what to omit seemed self-evident; I was free to discard, dramatise and invent.
To cite just one example: in the biographies, Virginia’s adolescent request for a lectern so that she can emulate Vanessa at her easel and write standing up is included only as a detail – whereas to me it is highly significant. By staging the scene, I was able to give this detail greater prominence. I imagine the differences between straight biography and what I have done with the sisters’ story are similar to those between a photograph and a painting: where the photographer aims for a true likeness, the painter offers an individual view – efocusing, highlighting, and sometimes adding lines or colours that are not in the original but which the composition appears to call for.
Earlier this year I heard the novelist Rose Tremain read from her novel about Polish immigrants, The Road Home. She prefaced her reading by explaining that before she began writing she interviewed migrant workers and collected their stories. Someone in the audience asked her if she felt she had the right to use real people’s lives as the basis for her fiction. It is a question I imagine I will be asked about Vanessa and Virginia.
As a writer, I believe you have a responsibility towards your subject, but this responsibility is not that of a historian or biographer. Fiction’s strength is its ability to make people see, hear, feel, taste, smell its subject: as I have suggested, this process frequently involves deviations from or embellishments of any underlying facts. Though I often asked myself: ‘would the real-life Vanessa or Virginia have said or done this’ as I worked, my overriding impetus was whether what my characters said or did felt right within the context of my narrative. Every work of art must have its own integrity: I think you have to be true to the book you are writing.
Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse culminates with one of the characters, a painter Lily Briscoe, finishing a picture by drawing a single line down its centre. It is a powerful climax because Lily (whom many critics believe is based on Vanessa) has been struggling with this painting for years. Though she senses no one will ever look at her work, or that if they do they will not understand it, she experiences a moment of epiphany as she realises she has succeeded in portraying her vision. My own feelings on finishing Vanessa and Virginia are similar. It is a story about two remarkable women: it is not the only story, and it is certainly not entirely true. My hope in publishing it is that it will prompt readers to return to the extraordinary wealth of writing and painting by the historical sisters, and perhaps offer fresh insights into their troubled, passionate relationship. If it does, it might crack a little of the ice Kafka believed means we see the world through an unquestioning (Cixous would say ‘dead’) lens. And if it doesn’t – if is to be hidden in the attic or destroyed as Lily in Virginia’s novel feared her painting would be – well, at least I have kept faith with my vision.
This article was first published on the Two Ravens Press Weblog