‘Newbooks’ Review

Photo Brian Golden

This review by Janette Currie appeared in Newbooks Directory and The Editor’s Notebook.

The lives of the ‘Bloomsbury-group’, including the Stephens’ sisters, Virginia [Woolf] and her sister, Vanessa [Bell], are well documented. The curious reader can pick over the facts of their rather risqué, Bohemian life-style and learn of their artistic accomplishments in any one of the authoritative biographies and collections of letters weighing down the literary shelves of bookshops and libraries. And of course, who hasn’t seen the Oscar-winning film, The Hours, which tells the story leading up to Woolf’s suicide? Yet, even if you have lived on Mars for the last forty years and have never heard of Woolf, or Bell, or Bloomsbury, it matters not because this is a work of fiction.

Sellers, an English Professor at St. Andrews University and expert on Woolf, cleverly avoids all that has gone before to give a fresh insight into how the stresses of family life moulds the creative artist. Taking Vanessa’s point of view, but writing in Virginia’s free-flowing narrative style, she portrays the full force of their love-hate relationship. Sibling rivalry crackles below the surface of their creative energy as Vanessa, weighed down with the responsibilities of every-day life, of having babies, and keeping house for absent-minded lovers, struggles to find time to paint and to forge a new style, while Virginia, seemingly effortlessly, produces ‘crisp prose’. Vanessa’s jealous reaction to Virginia’s first published book is utterly convincing. She is relieved to find that, while it is well written, it is not ‘a masterpiece’. The tension between the desire to create and the desire to please is handled brilliantly throughout.

Salacious details are dealt with sensitively: Sellers does not set out to shock. Vanessa’s ménage-à-trois at Charleston with the artists, Duncan Grant and his lover, David ‘Bunny’ Garnett, is retold in a manner that exposes her need to love and be loved and explains why it was she who suggested the odd arrangement. Sellers makes a subtle comparison between the three-some and the childhood trio of Virginia, Vanessa, and their brother, Thoby, so that the reader sympathises rather than scolds.

Much is packed into this little gem. Late-Victorian austerity gives way to Edwardian freedoms while fierce pre-war debates cannot halt destruction and new hardships. To capture the full lyrical intensity of Sellers’ writing it’s best to read the whole book at once. An easy task, really, as there are no chapters in this short novel of just 181 pages. Written in sections, some a mere sentence or two, which represent the fractured, fragmentary nature of memory, the story fairly rips along. And, even although we know the end of their lives, their last hours so to speak, it is a page-turner.

The life of the book lives on well after the last page. Many of Vanessa’s paintings are vividly evoked with Sellers offering a new perspective of the creative impulse behind some of them.

The front image of two little blonde girls looking out onto the world through a rain-spattered window cleverly sets the tone of wistful desire and loss of innocence to come. This is a perfect little package that raises big questions about the relationship between family life and the impulse to create.

Janette Currie.