US interview

Photo Brian Golden

VANESSA AND VIRGINIA

SUSAN SELLERS

What prompted you to write a novel about Virginia Woolf?

The inspiration grew out of editing Virginia Woolf for Cambridge University Press. Alongside working on the manuscripts, I read numerous biographies about her and the people she was close to. The more I read, the more fascinated I became! However, I didn’t consciously set out to write a novel. In fact, at the time, I was working on a short story about two purely imaginary sisters.

So you started with a story about sisters?

Yes. I’ve always thought Freud was wrong and that what really shapes us as individuals is not so much our parents as our brothers and sisters. Yet the relationship between siblings is often dismissed as unimportant. I think this is especially true of sisters. The bond between Virginia and her painter sister Vanessa Bell was particularly close, and complex. While they were growing up the girls spent most of their time alone in each other’s company, and when they were finally free to live as adults they set up home together. Virginia was intensely jealous when Vanessa married Clive Bell (she flirted with him and he briefly fell in love with her), and Vanessa had an even stranger hand in Virginia’s marriage to Leonard.

Do you think the fact that you have sisters yourself made you more sensitive to this relationship?

Definitely. I am one of three sisters so know from inside how intense and difficult this relationship can be. Like Vanessa I experienced the extra burden of responsibility often placed upon the eldest girl, as well as the feeling that nothing I had was fully my own. I’m told that when my sister was born (when I was 18 months old), I was so jealous of the attention my mother gave her that I tried to put her in the bin. Fortunately my mother rescued her!
As we were growing up we seemed to do everything in opposition: I loved books and playing with my dolls, while my sister asked for a chemistry set and became a tomboy. Today I am a writer and she is a scientist! I liked my hair long and when my mother refused to cut my sister’s short I decided to do it for her. I cut it with a pair of kitchen scissors and apparently it was so short in places that there was a question about whether it would grow again.

What made you decide to write from Vanessa’s point of view?

Vanessa is often described by contemporaries as the silent sister – overshadowed by the brilliant and very talkative younger Virginia. I think it was this that drew me in. We have so many of Virginia’s words  – in addition to her novels, we have many essays, a biography, memoirs, her diaries, correspondence –  whereas we have far fewer of Vanessa’s words. Another thing that surprised me is how few people know what Vanessa looks like. Virginia is very familiar: her face appears everywhere – on bookcovers, posters, cards, even bags. Yet there are hundreds of photographs of Vanessa in existence too, as well as many portraits of her – some by well-known painters. Both sisters were prolific letter-writers and devoted some hours to letter-writing each day; yet while Virginia’s letters are edited and published in multiple volumes, to read Vanessa you have to rely on occasional published extracts or gain access to archives. The same is true of Vanessa’s art. Vanessa was a talented painter (in 1901, when she was just twenty-two, she was selected as one of only twenty students to study at the Royal Academy in London), yet her work remains relatively obscure. It is hard to find Vanessa’s paintings: you can’t see that many of them in books, and her canvases are split between private collections and public galleries where they are rarely displayed (The Tate gallery in London, for example, has ten paintings by Vanessa and only one is on display).

Why didn’t you write a biography or factual account of the sisters’ lives?

The more I read about Vanessa and Virginia, the more questions I had. If I had written a standard biography, I would only have been able to pose these questions. By writing a piece of fiction, I was able to explore imaginatively some possible answers. When you write biography or history, everything you write needs to be supported by evidence. When you write fiction, there is a point where you have to let go of your research in order for your characters to become real. I think the best fiction occurs when as a writer you feel almost as if your characters are dictating the story. This leads to a much greater degree of exploration and suggestive speculation than is possible in a purely factual account.

What actual research did you do into Vanessa’s life?

Despite the difficulties of finding her pictures, Vanessa’s art was perhaps the strongest single source  – in particular the house she settled in at Charleston, almost every inch of which is decorated. Given the sister’s close relationship, I wanted to evoke Virginia’s interior, poetic, lyrical writing style; but I did not want to produce a pastiche – and because I wanted to tell the story from Vanessa’s viewpoint I knew I had to write with a painter’s voice. Since I am not a visual artist myself, I visited friends who are and watched them work. This experience gave me a wonderfully rich palette of language and imagery to draw on. In the end I think it was this shared ability to create works of art that maintained such a strong bond between the sisters – and also enabled them to surmount so many difficulties (deaths of loved ones, war, disappointments in love, illness) in their lives.

Vanessa and Virginia covers a broad time-span. How much historical research did you do?

The sisters were born during the reign of Queen Victoria and lived through extraordinarily turbulent times, including the First World War and the rise of the Nazis. I was very conscious of this historical backdrop and of the impact it had on their lives. They witnessed unprecedented social, cultural and technological change. Theirs was the first generation of women to have the vote and to be able to enter the professions; they heard the first gramophones and the first radio broadcasts – and experienced first-hand the devastations of modern warfare. They lived a life their mothers could only have dreamed of.

Much is made of the unconventionality of Bloomsbury and the scandal surrounding their love lives. How did you approach this as a writer?

With caution. I wanted to show how liberating it was for the sisters to throw off their restricted upbringing – but I also wanted to explore the toll some of their unconventionality took. For example, I wanted to show how much Vanessa suffered in the course of her unusual, triangular relationship with the homosexual painter Duncan Grant.

And finally what about Virginia? Did you have any conscious designs on her?

I suppose I did! I was certainly frustrated with the stereotype of her as a madwoman out of touch with reality – Nicole Kidman’s monotone depiction of her depression in the film of ‘The Hours’ is a case in point. Virginia Woolf wrote about politics – and she had a wicked sense of humour.  Did you know that when she was eighteen, she, her brother and a group of their friends disguised themselves as Abyssinian Royalty and inveigled their way on board the H.M.S. Dreadnought (the newest and technologically most sophisticated ship in the entire British navy)! The incident led to some very red faces and awkward questions in the British parliament! You only have to read Virginia Woolf’s diaries to get a sense of her complexity. One minute she is writing bitchy comments about people she knows – the next she is recording her thoughts on Shakespeare!

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