The "Supreme Portrait Artist" and the "Mistress of the Phrase": contesting oppositional portrayals of Woolf and Bell, life and art, in Susan Sellers's Vanessa and Virginia.
Among the latest in a series of novels about Woolf, Susan Sellers's Vanessa and Virginia (2008) falls into the generic category of biofiction, a form which has enjoyed a noticeable increase in popularity over the last ten-to-fifteen years. A hybrid genre, biofiction enables novelists to tell the same kinds of stories as biographers and literary critics, while making use of modes of representation unique to fiction, namely "the novel's techniques for representing subjectivity, rather than the objective, evidence-based discourse of biography" (Lodge 8). Described by practitioner Michael Cunningham as the result of a collective decision that "we have the right to enter the minds, hearts, and souls of people who actually lived" (94), the emergence of biofiction has been attributed to two developments in contemporary literature. The first of these, as outlined by Michael Lackey in the introduction to his Conversations with American Biographical Novelists, was "an expanded understanding of the inner complexity of the human" (99). This prompted a shift in emphasis away from the "superficial and untrustworthy" external world of the realist and towards the "more fundamental and primary" inner world of the subconscious (14). Our understanding of the unconscious, although originating in mid-nineteenth-century discourses including psychical research (Johnson), became more fully established in the Modernist period with the advent of Freud. This helps to explain the attractiveness of Modernist writers as the subjects of biofiction, namely Woolf, Conrad, Eliot, and Freud himself. (1) As articulated by Cunningham in relation to his biofiction The Hours, fiction proved an ideal vehicle for the exploration of the subconscious: whereas "a biographer is restricted to what the subject is able to tell him or her," a novelist "can go all the way into [their] characters, down to their very hearts and souls" (93). Biofiction's ability to plumb the hidden depths of the subject is confirmed by critic Monica Latham in her survey of biographical novels about Woolf: "they can delve into her imaginary world, construct an 'as if,' bring the reader into her psyche" (356).
The other half of the equation which produced biofiction was "the collapse of the distinction between fact and fiction," a phenomenon that had been the subject of considerable vacillation on Woolf's part (Lackey 99). In "The New Biography" (1927), she praised Harold Nicolson's success in combining "truth of fact and truth of fiction," perhaps with an eye to her own work-in-progress, the genre-bending Orlando (154). Yet the essay concluded, with a logic that is not entirely transparent, that the truths were "incompatible," "antagonistic: let them meet and they destroy each other" (155). The fact-fiction dichotomy was then laid to rest in "The Art of Biography" (1939), Woolf's final word on the subject: "no one, the conclusion seems to be, can make the best of both worlds; you must choose, and you must abide by your choice" (124). Yet the effect of postmodernity's "incredulity towards metanarratives" was to subvert Woolf's prognosis, levelling the hierarchies between biographical and fictional narratives by querying the former's claim to superior "truthfulness" (Lackey 12). Whereas Woolf espoused the incompatibility of fact and fiction, postmodernism revealed that "fact is fiction" by emphasizing the biographer and the novelist's "use of the same rhetorical devices, strategies and techniques" (2).
The undermining of biography's fundamental "claim to be non-fictional" questions Sellers's definition of the biographer's art as analogous with the photographer's (2). Both, she states, "aim for a true likeness," whereas biofiction, like portraiture, offers "an individual view." Yet the proliferating biographical versions of Woolf across the latter half of the twentieth century query this distinction, lending weight to the growing understanding that "all biography is ultimately fiction" (Parini 252). While the thesis-driven biographies of the 1970s and 1980s may have striven for "a true likeness," for "the real Virginia Woolf," they collectively produced versions of the subject that were both plural and partial (Stanley 11). There was "Woolf the incest survivor, Woolf the repressed lesbian" (Cunningham 97-98), Woolf "the victim of repressive attitudes towards mental illness" (Lee, "Biomythographers" 177-78), each version requiring the denial of others in order to substantiate its "individual view." The multiplication of these biographical subjects confirmed, as Jay Parini writes in a different context, that "no single biography is ever definitive" but is instead "a particular story from perhaps dozens of stories one could tell" (252). Or, as Woolf put it in Orlando, an ostensibly "complete" biography accounts for but three or four selves, "whereas a person may well have as many thousand" (273).
As a genre, biofiction finds its authority in this growing understanding that "biographies are really novels in disguise," an idea which it celebrates and extends (Parini 252). It exploits the greater license offered by its demarcation as fiction to "play with [...] even invert [...] the historical material" (Middeke 3), to "invent stories that never happened in order to answer perplexing questions" (Lackey 8), and to renounce claims to truth and authority in the service of "a larger effort to create a richer, more varied portrait" (Cunningham 94). Thus Sellers "plays with" Woolf's and Bell's memoirs to suggest continuities in their experience, Claire Morgan invents a pregnancy-and-adoption narrative "to answer perplexing questions" about Woolf's sexuality, and Sigrid Nunez juxtaposes multiple versions of the subject in order to render Woolf's popular representation "richer, more varied." This generic freedom and open-endedness is the defining feature of biofiction, enabling the subject to be reimagined without the need to "say [...] that they were this or were that" (MD 6).
Sellers's Vanessa and Virginia is perhaps the most ambitious of these novels, tracing its subjects' lives across a period of time unrivalled by previous works. Whereas Nunez's Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury restricts itself to the four-year period in which animal and author's lives intersect, and while Cunningham's The Hours famously confines itself to a single day, Vanessa and Virginia adopts a panoramic range, taking the form of an extended letter from elder sister to younger written in the wake of Virginia's suicide. Moments from the sisters' childhood and adult lives are interleaved with reflective passages from the mature Vanessa in an episodic structure, creating the effect of uninterrupted speech. Such narrative continuity recalls Bell's later letters to Woolf, in which she "dispenses with conventional openings and simply begins, as if speaking to someone seated beside her, or opening a vein that runs continually between two people" (Marler in Vanessa Bell, Letters 443). As Woolf wrote, "we are too intimate for letter writing; style dissolves as though in a furnace; all the blood and bones come through" (L1 343).
Drawing on both an implicit and an explicit critical apparatus, Vanessa and Virginia heralds new possibilities for biofiction about Woolf, possibilities which have, thus far, received startlingly little attention. The novel is situated at the intersection of fiction, biography, and Bloomsbury art theory, and enters into creative dialogue with more conventional forms of scholarship. Sellers is, of course, herself a prominent critic and Woolf expert: the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf and co-editor, with Jane Goldman, of the new Cambridge Edition of Woolf's novels. In her contribution to the Making Sense colloquium at the University of Cambridge, she described how her "sense" of Woolf and Bell was "derived in part from years of reading and viewing all of the available extant materials" (133). The novel is "proof of this intimate knowledge of the Woolf corpus" (Latham 367), drawing on a wealth of intertexts including Woolf's "Reminiscences" (1907-8), "22 Hyde Park Gate" (1920), "Old Bloomsbury" (1920), and "A Sketch of the Past" (1939-40), and Bell's "Notes on Virginia's Childhood" (1949) and "Life at Hyde Park Gate after 1897" (c.1950). Sellers's handling of these sources is threefold: she rewrites events to produce different outcomes, creates new versions, or collates descriptions gleaned from multiple sources. One example of a collated image is an account of George Duckworth on the eve of Vanessa's first ball: "he raises his eyeglass and appraises me. There is no difference between this gesture and his scrutiny of the Arab mare he has bought for my daily rides" (22). This blends Bell's reference to "a lovely grey Arab mare" in "Life at Hyde Park Gate after 1897" with Woolf's description of Duckworth's gaze in "Sketch of the Past": "he looked me up and down for a moment as if I were a horse brought into the show ring" (153). Readers familiar with Woolf's memoir thus experience the uncanny effect of Vanessa viewing the world through the veil of her sister's perceptions. This upholds Woolf's belief that the sisters had "the same pair of eyes, only different spectacles" (L6 158), allowing Vanessa, as Bell put it, to "borrow your green eyes in my old age" (Letters 29).
Sellers's novel positions itself, significantly, as a lost document, and ends with the narration of its own destruction: "I untie my parcel and dip the first sheet in the water. The words blur. When the last one has been released I make my dedication. This story is for you" (181). By staging Vanessa drowning her book, Sellers imbues her novel with the intrigue of a "rediscovered lost manuscript," to borrow a phrase used by Cora Kaplan to describe the allure of the Henry James biofictions (63). As well as engaging with "the available extant materials," she thus invokes the specter of Bell's missing papers, and locates the impetus for the novel in precisely this "'sense' of ellipses in the surviving record" (Sellers and Wright 133). The lost documents include a memoir of George Duckworth which, Woolf wrote, "so flooded me with horror that I cant [sic] be pure minded on the subject" (L5 299), and the autobiographical "jumble of all the people and incidents I can remember up to the age of 14" that inspired "Reminiscences" (Bell, Letters 57). By framing her novel as a recovered text, Sellers is able to address the "unanswered but crucial questions" created by these fissures in Bell's literary remains (Sellers and Wright 133). "Allowing interpretations--without foreclosure or distortion of 'known' facts," the form thus affords her a licence to speculate that conventional biography and literary criticism withholds (134). Yet given Sellers's scholarly expertise and status, the line between biofiction and these sister-genres becomes increasingly difficult to define, and the resultant ambiguity of status is given full acknowledgement by the narrator. In the end, Vanessa insists, hers is not only "a work of fiction" but also "an attempt to discern the truth" (31).
As indicated by my epigraph, these "truth[s]," once revealed, are used to discredit the "story" that has sprung up around the sisters, with a particular emphasis on contesting the oppositions that underpin their legacies. By refocusing attention on their similarities rather than their differences, Sellers proposes revisions to narrow, reified constructions of Bell and Woolf as the 'proper' versus the 'inauthentic' woman respectively. Diane Gillespie notes the convenience of these biographical and critical shorthands:
It serves the purposes of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, or their later biographers and critics, to think of the virginal, barren woman versus the sensual, maternal one; the domestically inept versus the practical and competent; the dependent versus the independent; the conversationalist versus the silent listener; the mentally unstable versus the sane. (5)
One such dualism is challenged by Sellers: that Vanessa "was the carnal sister" and Virginia "the intellectual," a mode of representation already apparent in Henry James's opposition of the "crushed strawberry glow of Vanessa's beauty" to "the promise of Virginia's printed wit" (374). Sellers reveals that Vanessa, like Virginia, endured long periods of celibacy, while the fact of the novel attests to her considerable literary gifts. The author's fictional re-negotiation of the relationship between her subjects is, she acknowledges, informed by "four extraordinary biographies: Frances Spalding's Vanessa Bell, Angelica Garnett's Deceived with Kindness, Jane Dunn's Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell: A Very Close Conspiracy and Hermione Lee's Virginia Woolf" (Acknowledgements, n.pag.). Dunn's popular biography warrants further attention at this juncture because of the way in which she, like Sellers, explicitly foregrounds the relationship between the sisters. Her thesis is that "the sense of never being loved enough, especially by a mother who had prematurely abandoned them, united the sisters in an emotional symbiosis, that to Virginia particularly was central to her life" (115). Thus despite the "polarities in their characters," which led them to "divide [.] the worlds of art and experience into two," there cohered a bond which "could be both inhibiting and inspiring" (1-4). Dunn provides a template for Sellers's resistance to oppositional portrayals of the sisters, asserting that "the simple equation that Vanessa had chosen life at the expense of her art and Virginia had chosen art at the expense of life [...] was only one construction in the intimate interlacing of their lives" (217). Instead, Dunn perceives their relationship as one of "complementary intimacy," asking, in the words of Flush, "could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other?" (5).
Dunn's further suggestion that "each [sister] had a distinctive influence on the art of the other" is redolent of the argument of Diane Gillepsie's The Sisters' Arts: The Writing and Painting of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell (5). Gillespie suggests that Woolf and Bell "identified with each other as artistic rebels and experimenters," often finding themselves "stimulated by each other's work or capable of creating parallel works" (8-10). Indeed, she argues that "the amount of potential each did fulfil was due in large part to the professional example of the other" (7). A reference point for Dunn and an implicit one for Sellers, Gillespie's monograph has three main objectives: "to shift the emphasis in the ongoing discussion of Virginia Woolf and the visual arts from Roger Fry to Vanessa Bell; to shift the emphasis from the psychological to the professional and aesthetic and, in these contexts, to define and reveal more fully the pervasive role of the visual arts in Woolf's writing" (2). Like Dunn, Gillespie focuses attention on the relationship between the sisters, but her predominant accent is critical rather than biographical. Feeling that "the psychological tugs of war and intimacies between the sisters" had been emphasized "at the expense of their relationship as professional artists," Gillespie redirects attention away from "sexuality, domesticity, sociability, [and] pathology," and towards "artistic productivity" (4-5). She does, however, add the caveat that "a recognition of the family relationships between these two women as artists and between their art forms calls into question some of the other dualities as well" (5).
Whereas Gillespie excavates the professional and aesthetic relationship between the sisters, and indicates the ways in which her findings may be used to trouble their biographical creation as contrasting figures, Sellers approaches the problem from the opposite angle. If, for Gillespie, the sisters were "artists who were also women" (11), for Sellers they were women who were also artists; the biographical provides a gateway into the critical rather than a distraction from it. Furthermore, while Gillespie acknowledges that "aspects of Vanessa Bell's creativity inevitably emerge" from her study, her primary focus is "Virginia Woolf's writing" (7). Sellers, conversely, is more even-handed, using her title and choice of narrator to redistribute interest traditionally directed towards Woolf. As will be demonstrated in the first half of this article, she uses fiction to challenge and renegotiate oppositional portrayals of Woolf and Bell, posing an intriguing intervention into narratives of life and of the body. She then goes on to foreground the interplay between the sisters' arts in terms of their structural dynamics. I shall demonstrate this by engaging her nuanced, synthesized narrative of their lives with a different kind of criticism: the art theory of Roger Fry and Clive Bell.
At this juncture, it is sufficient to state broadly that both Fry's and Bell's theories are characterized by a hostility towards representation for its own sake, a prioritization of formal design, and a belief in the need to "disentangle our reaction to pure form from our reaction to its implied associated ideas." (2) Yet Sellers's use of ekphrasis, unaccompanied by artistic plates, precludes a reaction to "pure form" on the part of the reader. Expressing the vision of a painter in "the words of a writer" (Latham 367), she instead describes form in such as way as to maximize its associations. For instance, three flowers in Vanessa's painting The Tub (1917), two of which "stand in close proximity" while "the other stands estranged and aloof," are suggestive of the relationship between Clive Bell, his lover Mary Hutchinson, and Vanessa (111). Such associations conflict with Fry and Bell's assumption that "'literary,' in the sense of depending upon outside elements [...] rather than on formal elements within the picture itself, is a pejorative term" (Gillespie 5). As shall be seen, Sellers reengages the formal design of a work of art with its associative or "literary" connotations to produce a broader framework for interpretation. This dialogue constitutes an implicit challenge to Fry and Bell's preoccupation with the "universal aspects" of form (207). Instead, Sellers illuminates those moments wherein formal interest coexists with, even arises from, biographical elements, thereby championing the aesthetic potential inherent in women's lives.
In so doing, she inserts her novel into a recent body of scholarship that is attentive to the artistic interplay between Woolf and Bell, and sensitive to the points of departure between their aesthetics and those of Clive Bell and Fry. This develops prevalent work on the intersections between Woolf's writing and Fry's formalism by Allen McLaurin, Marianna Torgovnick, and Ann Banfield. Taking her cue from Woolf's assertion that "many of [Fry's] theories held good for both arts" (249), Banfield frames Woolf's Granite and Rainbow and Fry's Vision and Design as related concepts, both concerned with "the discovery of intellectual form in chaotic sense-data" (274). Although Banfield's approach reveals fascinating parallels between modernist fiction and Post-Impressionism, her primary interest is in the "philosophical framework for an aesthetic," rather than the implementation and adaptation of that aesthetic on canvas (260). She thus underemphasizes a potent area of overlap between Modernist literature and art: the dialogues between Woolf's novels and her sister's paintings.
While Banfield subscribes to the idea, noted wryly by Gillespie, that "you'll find a man at the bottom of it" (3), critics taking their cue from Gillespie herself have indicated a contrasting, at times conflicting, dynamic of influence at play between Woolf and Bell. Jane Goldman's landmark study The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf finds in Bell's "development as a colourist" (130) and refusal to "subordinate content to [...] formal aspects of her work" (145) a parallel with Woolf's own "love of colour" and "fascination with literary analogy" (138), and positions both sisters at odds with Fry and Clive Bell's move "away from colour towards significant form" (137). A related stance is adopted by Lisa Tickner in her analysis of StudlandBeach, which notes the coherence of "a certain psychological intensity" in the composition's "simplified forms" (64). She finds in this co-existence of form and content evidence for a different conceptualization of Significant Form on Vanessa Bell's part, one that is concerned with "the distillation--rather than the rejection or transcendence--of social experience" (64-5).
Turning from painting to "the marginalia of the margins," Maggie Humm has interpreted the sisters' "private obsession with photography" as suggesting a wish "to explore forms of representation outside the objectifications of masculine modernism" (5). Accordingly, she reads both To the Lighthouse and the narrative organization of Woolf's photograph albums as contesting "Fry's emphasis on pure artistic plasticity" (17). More recently, Justyna Kostkowska, while reasserting the continuities between the sisters' arts and the "Post-Impressionist method[s]" espoused by Fry and Clive Bell, has furthered understanding of the mutual influence between her subjects, reading Jacob's Room as "a literary rendering of [Vanessa Bell's] experiments" from 1911-1913 (82). While by no means comprehensive, this survey provides compelling evidence for Vanessa and Virginia's contribution to an active field of criticism. Sellers, as shall be seen, realizes the democratic potential of biofiction to include "the common reader" in these ongoing academic conversations.
In emphasizing the similarities between the sisters and their arts, Sellers breaks with a mode of characterization prevalent in fictional representations of Woolf since Leonard Woolf's The Wise Virgins (1914). Alone among the novels under consideration, The Wise Virgins conceals its characters' identities under pseudonyms, and, as such, should be classified as roman a clef rather than biofiction proper. Whereas contemporary writers' use of Woolf's name is the product of an age in which "the biographical novel is partly legitimised" (Lackey 10), The Wise Virgins' attempt to preserve the anonymity of its subjects is in keeping with early-twentieth-century literary convention, and maintains a level of respect appropriate to Woolf's close acquaintance with the persons described. To the contemporary reader, however, the subterfuge of The Wise Virgins is shattered by its author's status as Virginia Woolf's husband and literary executor. It does not, today, require an interpretative lockpicker to deduce that "Katharine" is Leonard Woolf's sister-in-law and "Camilla" his wife. While evading some of the restrictions of biofiction by changing his characters' names, Woolf's roman a clef nevertheless shares certain integral characteristics with contemporary biofictional representations of his subjects.
In The Wise Virgins, the Vanessa figure, Katharine, is described as "flesh and blood, [...] flush[ing] the fair skin red and the full lips," a stark contrast to her sister, Camilla, "so white and fair," "not a woman, but a fine lady in a dream or a play" (119). Though Leonard Woolf's novel attends only to the sisters' pre-marital lives, the opposition noted by Gillespie between "the virginal, barren woman" and "the sensual, maternal one" is nevertheless apparent (5). Katharine's face "was already like that of a mother's," whereas Camilla's "would always retain something of the virgin's" (94). Gillian Freeman's novel But Nobody Lives in Bloomsbury, published almost a century later, demonstrates the enduring appeal of the contrast. Freeman employs similar descriptors to contrast "Virginia Stephen [.] beautiful, slender, intense, with a high forehead and green eyes," with Vanessa, "equally beautiful, but with a more sensual appearance, an oval face, grey-green eyes and full, sensitive mouth" (2). Physical characteristics are used to distinguish "the intellectual" from "the carnal sister": Virginia, with her high forehead, is quite literally a highbrow, while Vanessa has a "more sensual appearance," a rounder face and the "full" lips described by Leonard Woolf. As in The Wise Virgins, the sisters' respective futures as virginal or sensual are indexed to their facial features.
Michael Cunningham is as easily tempted to reproduce the popular division. In The Hours, Virginia "has the austere, parched beauty of a Giotto fresco," whereas Vanessa "is more like a figure sculpted in rosy marble by a skilled but minor artist of the late Baroque," "a distinctly earthy and even decorative figure, all billows and scrolls" (144). Vanessa's lavish "abundance" is suggestive of voluptuousness and a fully realized sexuality, while Virginia's austerity carries connotations of virginity, even asceticism. Significantly, Virginia is linked to the named artist, the Giotto, while Vanessa's creator is anonymous, "skilled but minor," a purveyor of merely decorative art. In contrast to Leonard Woolf and Freeman, Cunningham reads the sisters' physiognomies not only for clues regarding their future, but also for indications of the relative values of their work.
While Leonard Woolf, Freeman, and Cunningham's narrators are anxious that women be one thing or another, Sigrid Nunez's Vanessa is a boundary-breaker who has both "her art and her children" (35). In Mitz, the comparison of the sisters is focalized through Virginia, who notes "how she looked to herself: very plain and dull beside Vanessa--a goddess in Virginia's eyes, a radiant Madonna, a complete woman, impossible not to envy. Vanessa had what people insisted could not be had" (35). Like Sylvia Plath half a century later, who envisaged a future comprised of "Books & Babies & Beef stews," Vanessa achieves the seemingly impossible in combining artistic pursuits with domesticity (269). However, Virginia's childlessness remains the unspoken corollary to Vanessa's ability to 'have it all'. If, in short, one must have art and children to be "a complete woman," Virginia is, implicitly, incomplete in having 'only' her art. Indeed, Woolf herself suggested as much in noting that Vita Sackville-West's "maturity and full-breastedness" and "motherhood" made her "(what I have never been) a real woman" (D3 62).
Virginia's childlessness is redressed in Claire Morgan's A Book for All and None, an academic quest narrative detailing two scholars' search for the intersections between Woolf and Nietzsche. Morgan emphasizes the rude health of the mountaineer's daughter frequently seen "striding along with a stick in one hand," and asserts that "that life in her, the energy, the force of it," is "only a hair's breadth [...] from sexuality" (203). Whereas Cunningham, Freeman, and Leonard Woolf reinforced the opposition of Bell's carnality to Woolf's intellect, Morgan's character Raymond Mortimer asserts that "art and sex" are "two sides of the same coin" (228). The author's reclamation of a sexualized Woolf culminates in the revelation that Virginia secretly gave birth to, and relinquished, a child. While, as Catherine Taylor noted in The Guardian, Morgan's "final revelation defies credibility," her insistence that Woolf had the potential to be sensual and maternal as well as intellectual suggestively allies her project with Sellers's. Unlike the other writers under consideration, Morgan and Sellers present their subjects less as extremes on a continuum than as variations on a theme. For Sellers, they are "inexact replicas of each other, as if the painter were trying to capture the same person from different angles" (4). As shall be seen, this mode of representation enables her ultimate emphasis on the interplay between her subjects' arts.
In thus countering the prevalent direction of biofiction about Woolf, Sellers challenges a pervasive mythology that can be traced back to the sisters themselves. Loosely summarized, this opposes Woolf's supposed frigidity to Bell's sensuality, Woolf's mental instability to Bell's tranquillity, and Woolf's skill with words to Bell's painterly silence. Since such myths, as Hermione Lee asserts, have "powerfully affected" Woolf's "posthumous life," Vanessa and Virginia's resistance to dualisms represents a significant intervention into popular representations (Woolf, 119). The stubborn characterization of Woolf as "a chaste, chill, sexually inhibited maiden--Virginia the virgin" may have originated in a letter from Bell to her husband following her sister's marriage (Lee, Woolf 244). Bell wrote that the couple
seemed very happy, but are evidently both a little exercised in their minds on the subject of the Goat's coldness. I think I perhaps annoyed her but may have consoled him by saying that I thought she had never understood or sympathised with sexual passion in men. Apparently she still gets no pleasure at all from the act, which I think is curious. They were very anxious to know when I first had an orgasm. I couldn't remember. Do you? But no doubt I sympathised with such things even if I didn't have them from the time I was 2. (132)
Bell's letter implicitly opposes "the Goat's coldness," ironic in context given the animal's stereotypically sexual associations, with her own, far more sensual nature. "I couldn't remember. Do you?" is suggestively ambiguous; is Bell asking her husband when he first had an orgasm or, rather, when she did? The suggestiveness is intensified by Bell's repeated use of the word "sympathised," a word that carries connotations of simultaneous climax. (3) "The Goat's coldness" forms a seeming precursor to Bell's own erotic overtures; by highlighting the unresponsiveness of her husband's former love interest, she shores up her self-image as a sexual woman.
Lee asserts that along with The Wise Virgins, "the version of their marital sex-life put about by Vanessa and Clive [.] perpetuated the legend of Virginia's frigidity" (Woolf 244). Dunn similarly credits the Bells with the formation of "a pervasive attitude towards Virginia and sexuality, one which [Woolf] did little to counter, and on which the whole suggestion of her sexual frigidity was based" (186). The enduring impact of the letter is demonstrated by its (mis)quotation some ninety years later in But Nobody Lives in Bloomsbury. Clive accuses Virginia of being "a sexual coward," to which Vanessa responds, "if only she was like me. Orgasms since I was two!" The contrast is reiterated with the narratorial interpolation "she looked ready to have another" (52). In Vanessa and Virginia, the revelation that Virginia "appeared to find lovemaking unappealing" occurs in an exchange of letters between Leonard and Vanessa from which their spouses are excluded entirely (79). Vanessa states that she "told him you had always been physically unresponsive, especially with men. I told him I did not think he could change you" (79-80). Sellers's decision to render this conversation as a written, rather than a verbal exchange indicates the lasting implications of Bell's rejection of her sister's sexuality. As Dunn writes, "so much of received opinion about Virginia's character, even her art, rests on certain assumptions of her sexual, or asexual, nature" (187). Sellers forces Vanessa to acknowledge her own complicity in the formation of these assumptions: "Fate was to punish me for this" (80).
Yet Sellers also acknowledges that Vanessa's sensuality, rather than being the foundation of truth upon which the "virgin Virginia" legend was founded, was itself a constructed image. Turning to her current work-in-progress, a self-portrait, immediately after writing to Leonard, Vanessa notes that "it seemed to me my face had regained its bloom" (80). Yet she immediately reveals that "the rose flush on my face, the look of dreamy contentment, were a lie. I had not told Leonard everything" (80). The nature of the concealed material is boldly stated by Louise DeSalvo: "although the image persists of Vanessa's sexuality as a kind of voluptuous abandon, nonetheless both she and Virginia lived the greater part of their lives in a condition of celibacy" (87). The subject's "look of dreamy contentment" thus belies the fact that her marriage was, by the time of the portrait's composition in 1912, in name only, and that her affair with Roger Fry was to end the following year when she "transferred her affections to Duncan Grant"("Archive Journeys"). Sellers suggests that Vanessa destroyed the portrait "the day Duncan confessed he could never be my lover again" (80), reminding us of the irony noted by Lee: "that Vanessa, whom Virginia had envied all her life for her sensuality and maternal calmness, should from her late forties onwards be living in a sexually thwarted and emotionally unreciprocated relationship" (Woolf 540). Building on the work of Lee and DeSalvo, Sellers starts to bridge the gap established by the sisters' myth-making by situating them at the same extreme of the sexual continuum. This begins to frame them as allied, rather than opposing figures, highlighting the novel's capacity to intervene in the popular representation of its subjects.
Sellers's gradual revelation that while Virginia may have had the "sexless marriage," Vanessa endured the greater isolation culminates in a striking moment of union between the sisters (80). This takes the form of Vanessa's attempt to drown herself, the "anaesthetising chill of the water" a panacea for "Duncan's declaration [...] that he could never make love to me again" (147). As well as anticipating Virginia's eventual death by drowning, this event recalls the watery imagery used to evoke the adolescents' quasi-sexual bond. Attempting to console Virginia in the aftermath of her first breakdown, Vanessa "reach[es] up and unfasten[s] my dress and your baby mouth suckles my breast. I am your dolphin mother once more, glistening and sticky from your kisses. I will take you deep into the ocean where no-one can harm us" (42). Such textual patterning allows for a secondary interpretation of Vanessa's suicide attempt, as an attempt to return to the primordial attachment she previously shared with Virginia. Just as Sellers's representation of the sisters' mutual celibacy queries their oppositional representation as frigid and sensual, this implication of queer attachment confirms, albeit in a different way, the similarities in their sexualities. It implies that Virginia responded differently to her sister than to her husband, and that Vanessa's letter to Leonard overemphasized Virginia's frigidity in a jealous attempt to preserve their sexual bond.
Sellers's hint that Virginia's "frigidity" was confined to heterosexual encounters reflects the growing understanding of "the centrality of lesbian relationships to Woolf's life and literary work" (Swanson 190). Grounded in feminist criticism and drawing on the newly published letters and diaries, late-twentieth-century lesbian readings of Woolf recast her as "a passionate and vibrant woman who loved other women physically and emotionally" (185). These approaches destabilized the popular representation of Woolf as frigid, instigated in Vanessa and Clive Bell's epistolary discussion of "the Goat's coldness" and propagated in their son's biographical representation of a "sexless Saphho" (Barrett 6). Thus while readers of Quentin Bell's biography were encouraged to view Woolf as "disconcertingly ethereal," "both in her personality and in her art" (Quentin Bell, Virginia 6), forty years later Diana Swanson observed that the fact of Woolf's lesbianism "seems to be largely accepted" (190). While Sellers's dominant emphasis is on the sisters' shared celibacy, the insinuation of a lesbian attraction enables her to acknowledge this "building consensus" (199), and to further complicate simplistic popular representations of the subjects.
By suggesting that Vanessa tried to take her own life, Sellers also queries a further aspect of the sisters' legacy: the opposition of "the mentally unstable" and "the sane" (Gillespie 5). Indeed, the description of the incident borrows its particulars not from Bell's own life, but from Woolf's possible suicide attempt of March 18, 1941. As described by Dunn, Woolf
had returned to Monk's House from one of her walks, wet through and shaken, having fallen in a dyke, she said. Two days later Vanessa came to tea and, concerned by her sister's state of mind but not expecting such a rapid deterioration, wrote that evening what was to be her last letter to Virginia. (299)
Sellers inverts the sisters' respective roles, having Virginia arrive for tea at Charleston to find Vanessa "soaking wet. And covered in blood" (148). Just as Woolf claimed to have "fallen in a dyke," Virginia asks Vanessa, "[h]ave you had an accident? Did you fall in the river?" (148). Virginia's realization of the reality of the situation prompts a dramatic shift in her perceptions: "I thought that I was the only one who contemplated ending it all. I always picture you happy--in the centre of things" (148). This echoes Woolf's recorded shock at "hearing Nessa say she was often melancholy & often envied me--a statement I found incredible" (D3 242-3).
Sellers's audacious intervention is supported by Leonard Woolf, who asserted that Bell's "tranquillity was to some extent superficial" and concealed "a nervous tension which had some resemblance to the mental instability of Virginia" (Growing 14). This suggestion is in turn corroborated by Angelica Garnett, who viewed her mother's "intermittent but crippling bouts of lethargy" as evidence for "a severe depression, different in effect but not perhaps unrelated to Virginia's instability" (32). Sellers grounds Vanessa's suicide attempt in such "crippling" periods of depression, which are shown to recur at intervals throughout her life. For instance, the miscarriage Vanessa suffers immediately after becoming Roger Fry's lover prompts a delirium in which she "think[s] constantly of water. [.] Only water can obliterate what I have done. Only drowning will thwart the monsters I might still create" (70). By invoking Woolf's means of suicide, such imagery reminds us that the waves threatened to submerge both sisters at different points in their lives, and that "as one of us surrenders, the other must fight" (171). This forms a stark contrast to Freeman's text, in which Virginia alone is governed by death, "the pounding waves growing louder and louder in her head," and eventually kills herself "in a frenzy" after hearing the birds singing in Greek (84; 165-6). By insisting that both of the sisters' lives contained moments of hopelessness, Sellers frames breakdown and attempted suicide as responses to an extremity of circumstance rather than manifestations of a pre-existing tendency. Her depiction of Vanessa's emotional makeup thus allows her to contest the pathologizing of Woolf, and the concurrent fetishizing of Bell's "maternal calmness" (Lee, Woolf 541).
The novel's potential to thus renegotiate the popular representation of its subjects is reiterated in the paratextual material, which promises "a dramatic new interpretation of one of the most famous and iconic events in twentieth-century literature--Woolf's suicide by drowning" (n.p.). While this most obviously refers to Sellers's creation of a parallel suicide attempt for Vanessa, it also evokes her representation of Virginia's suicide as a paradoxically life-affirming act. Vanessa visits Virginia on the day of her death to tell her that "I--can't go on any longer," and Sellers strongly implies that Virginia's suicide prevented a second attempt on her sister's part (176). Describing Virginia's death several years later, Vanessa experiences a moment of catharsis: "The water is in my mouth, my lungs, as the river drags us under. This time I cannot escape" (177). Virginia's death is thus permitted to serve for both sisters, allowing Vanessa to turn again towards life. This is symbolized by her decision, in the novel's final lines, to paint "a blaze of daffodils under the apple trees" instead of the cut flowers on her desk: "I gaze at the yellow, vivid and tangible in the sunlight. You are right. What matters is that we do not stop creating" (181). Vanessa's belief in the sustaining power of creativity paraphrases Woolf's conclusion in an earlier draft of "Anon": "only when we put two and two together--two pencil strokes, two written words, two bricks [...] do we overcome dissolution and set up some stake against oblivion" (Silver 403).
Sellers's contestation of oppositional representations of Woolf and Bell culminates in a challenge to corresponding restrictions in the discussion of their work. She insists that their chosen disciplines were not hermeneutically sealed, but were instead characterized by mutual engagement, a suggestion that finds ample support in Woolf's own writing. While Woolf's assertion that "a story-telling picture is as pathetic and ludicrous as a trick played by a dog" echoes Fry and Clive Bell's hostility towards "literary" art ("Pictures" 142), her essay "Walter Sickert: A Conversation" (1934) argues, instead, that "painting and writing have much to tell each other" (241), and enumerates with interest those artists who "are always making raids into the lands of others" (243). (4) The artists include Sickert and Vanessa Bell, and the territory in question is, significantly, Woolf's own. "What a poet you are in colour" (L6 381), she writes to Bell, whom she describes elsewhere as "a satirist, a conveyer of impressions about human life: a short story writer of great wit" (L2 498). Thus while "Pictures" and Woolf's introductions "suppl[y] the orthodox creed" that in painting, "no stories are told," Woolf privately champions the co-existence of the "literary" with the visual in her sister's oeuvre (Goldman 156). She also counts herself among "the hybrids, the raiders" on occasion when writing about her own work ("Walter Sickert" 243). One of the most notable examples concerns her attempts to write about her sister in Roger Fry: "it's rather as if you had to paint a picture using dozens of snapshots in the paint" (L6 285). It is apparent from these extracts that Woolf and Bell's commitment to the formal completeness of a work of art was not incompatible with perceived excursions into the other's chosen form.
In Vanessa and Virginia, it is possible to trace the evolution of the sisters' working relationship from a combative to a complementary one, as their adolescent struggles to prove that "mine is the more difficult art" are succeeded by a mature appreciation of the interconnections between their disciplines (28). Their growing recognition of the influence of each other's art culminates in an act of collaboration, as Vanessa, admiring the woodcuts carved by Dora Carrington for the newly founded Hogarth Press, becomes fascinated by the idea that such images may be used not simply "on the dust-jacket" but "alongside the words" (115). Reading a copy of "Kew Gardens" later that evening, her
mind races with ideas. I find paper and charcoal. I sketch flowers, stems, leaves, around your words. I sketch the two women talking in the garden, hats tilted at an angle as they exchange confidences. I work quickly, excitedly. Soon I have covered your words with my pictures. (115)
While Vanessa is ultimately dissatisfied with Leonard's arrangement of the woodcuts, their design is radical in terms of the abolition of boundaries. Significantly, her images do not provide a decorative supplement for the front cover, but surround, and are inspired by, Virginia's prose. The suggestion that Vanessa "covered your words with my pictures," while perhaps indicating a residual competitiveness, provides a vivid illustration of the cross-fertilization between fiction and visual art.
As previously suggested, such illumination of Woolf and Bell's mutual engagement enables a targeted interrogation of the restrictive assumptions of Clive Bell and Roger Fry. In the above passage, Vanessa's sketch of "the two women talking in the garden" is an illustration of lines in Virginia's prose. It thus falls into Clive Bell's category of "Descriptive Painting," in which "forms are used not as objects of emotion, but as means of suggesting emotion or conveying information" (16-17). Along with portraiture, "topographical works," and "pictures that tell stories," he suggested that illustrations "leave untouched our aesthetic emotions" (17). This was because they lacked "the essential quality in a work of art[:] significant form" (100), the phenomena wherein "lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions" by conveying "a sense of ultimate reality" (8; 54).
Fry was similarly critical of what is variously referred to as description, representation, or the creation of illusion in art. Like Bell, he prized "The Movement" of Post-Impressionist painters after Cezanne for a perceived return to Primitive art's "ideas of formal design which had almost been lost in the fervid pursuit of naturalistic representation" (203). As defined in "The French Post-Impressionists," "these artists [...] do not seek to imitate form, but to create form; not to imitate life but to find an equivalent for life" (167). Fry coined the term "Structural Design" to describe this approach, and added that "the logical extreme of such a method would undoubtedly be the attempt to give up all resemblance to natural form, and to create a purely abstract language of form--a visual music" (167). Both critics' prioritization of form over representation demanded one essential quality on the part of the artist: detachment. The artist's sole concern must be with "the relation of forms and colours to one another, as they cohere within the object," necessitating, for Fry, "the most complete detachment from any of the meanings and associations of appearances" (33-8), for Bell, "the most absolute abstraction from the affairs of life" (266).
For the purposes of my argument, that the sisters' arts were mutually engaged and open to biographical as well as structural readings, Fry and Bell's ideas have two significant implications. Firstly, their emphasis on formal unity, and their associated hostility towards descriptive or representative qualities, are precepts which may be applied to literary as well as visual art. As indicated by Gillespie, a novelist "taking cues from modern painting [...] can render the self elusive through multiple and partial points of view; she can place her individuals in larger patterns, and subordinate them to the overall form of her own work of art" (17). Similarly, Banfield finds in Woolf's "elimination of the first person and representation of a third person privacy" a parallel to Fry's "reduction of the ego to the perspective" (293). Gillsepie and Banfield thus extrapolate from Fry and Bell a 'way of looking' at Woolf's fiction that prizes impersonality, formal coherence and structural unity. Such an approach would reject the accumulation of autobiographical details, as these would prevent a work being contemplated "as a whole" and instead require the viewer to "pass outside it to other things necessary to complete its unity" (Fry 22). This attitude is intrinsically at odds with the approach to the sisters' arts prioritized by Sellers. To frame Virginia's writing and Vanessa's painting as reciprocally engaged is to emphasize the outward-facing qualities of both, and to contest Fry and Bell's emphasis on a self-contained formal unity.
Secondly, Fry and Bell's insistence on the necessity of detachment has implications for the viewer as well as the artist. Fry states that in order "to appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions"; we require only "that clear disinterested contemplation which is a characteristic of the aesthetic attitude" (25; 21). This attitude is again at odds with the generic features of biofiction in general, and with Sellers's technique in particular. For while Clive Bell asserted that "for the purposes of aesthetics we have no right [...] to pry behind the object into the state of mind of him who made it," Sellers's representation of artistic objects as moments of ekphrasis within a biographical narrative encourages the reader to do precisely that (11). And whereas Fry praised Clive Bell's efforts to "isolate the purely aesthetic feeling from the whole complex of feelings which may and generally do accompany the aesthetic feeling when we regard a work of art," Sellers champions the biographical "complex of feelings" as legitimate criteria for interpretation (207). This approach is supported by Vanessa Bell herself, who, while seeming to validate her husband's belief in "a language simply of form and colour," acknowledged that "the form and colour nearly always do represent life and I suppose any allusions may creep in" (406). It is corroborated by Quentin Bell, who remained unconvinced by his mother's denials, towards the end of her career, "that the story of a picture had any importance whatsoever," and found her work "replete with psychological interest" (Bloomsbury 84).
A prototypical example of the coexistence of formal and biographical interest in Vanessa and Virginia is the passage detailing the creation of Bell's 1912 portrait of Woolf:
I think of Mother in her deck chair in the garden at St Ives, her eyes closed as she allowed herself a few minutes' peace after lunch. My brush restores the caress of hands, the longed-for shelter of loving arms. I fill out the brim of your hat, the band of hair framing your face. I form the arch of your nose, the bow of your mouth. When the features of your face are done I stop and examine the effect. I have failed. I pick a knife and scrape the paint clear. I gaze at your closed eyelids, the back of your head resting against the chair. I wash the entire oval of your face in a flesh tone. I look again. This time your expression is a blank. I set my brush aside. I have painted what you are to me. (108)
By foregrounding the resonance between Virginia's pose and that of Julia Stephen, reclining "in her deck chair in the garden," Vanessa situates the objects in her composition as "means": her deck chair is "a means to physical well-being, [...] an object associated with the intimate life of a family, [...] a place where someone sat saying things unforgettable" (Clive Bell 52). This runs counter to the ideal artistic vision described by Clive Bell, in which the artist feels emotion "for objects seen as pure forms--that is, as ends in themselves" (52). For Fry, "the disadvantage of such an art of associated ideas is that its effect really depends on what we bring with us: it adds no entirely new factor to our experience" (169). He opposed this to "classic" art, synonymous with that of the Post-Impressionists, which "records a positive and disinterestedly passionate state of mind," and conveys "a new and otherwise unattainable experience" (169). Yet a careful reading of Sellers's passage reveals an implicit challenge to Fry and Bell's dualisms. Vanessa's painstaking attempts to reproduce "the arch of your nose," "the bow of your mouth" are succeeded by the decision to "wash the entire oval of your face in a flesh tone"; in Fry's terms, she ceases to "imitate life" and instead "find[s] an equivalent for life" (167). By suggesting that Vanessa's elimination of facial detail was a spontaneous strategy to render the impenetrability of her subject, Sellers allows "an art of associated ideas" to give rise to an incidence of "pure form" (Clive Bell 169; Fry 92). She thus challenges the restrictive assumptions of Fry and Bell by permitting the reader to consider the biographical resonances of the portrait in conjunction with its structural relations.
Sellers reads To the Lighthouse as similarly balancing associative elements with formal significance, even while appearing to prioritize biographical inspiration. Vanessa describes a "recurring dream" that emphasizes Bell's usefulness to Woolf as a template for Mrs. Ramsay:
I am sitting by a window, looking out over a garden. I am wearing mother's green shawl and there is a boy by my side. He is cutting shapes from a magazine, frowning as he concentrates on his task. You are in the garden, reclining in a deckchair, your notebook open on your knee. I watch your hand moving implacably across your page. Suddenly I become aware of a presence in the doorway. I look up and glimpse a man's outline, but the brilliance of the light prevents me from making out his features. I suspect it is Duncan, though I cannot be sure. He comes over to me and lays his hand on my shoulder. I feel the child stir beside me, restive and jealous. I sense that I am needed, though part of me longs to go on sitting quietly by the window, my child by my side. (127)
The tableau described by Sellers mirrors that of "The Window": Vanessa takes the place of Mrs. Ramsay, the child at her side represents James, and Duncan Grant is Mr. Ramsay, interrupting the mother and the resentful child with his demands for sympathy. Superficially, it is suggested that Virginia, her "notebook open on [her] knee," transcribes the scene directly into her novel. However, the observation that Vanessa is "wearing Mother's green shawl" frustrates attempts to find specific analogues for the work in the life, instead suggesting that Mrs. Ramsay was a composite of both Vanessa and Julia Stephen. This is supported by a letter from Woolf to Bell in which she admitted to blending elements of her sister's character with those of their mother's: "probably there is a great deal of you in Mrs. Ramsay; though, in fact, I think you and mother are very different in my mind" (L3 383). Even when foregrounding the use of biographical inspiration, Sellers thus emphasizes that To the Lighthouse was not an imitation of life but a work of art that collated and blended detail in order to create life. Despite invoking the real-world associations of its characters, the novel thus maintains the artistic autonomy prized in the work of the Post-Impressionists.
Attention to the biographical resonances of To the Lighthouse is then juxtaposed with overt emphasis on its aesthetics, represented via the interplay between the novel and an image designed by Bell in 1930 for a tile fireplace at Monk's House. The image as described by Gillespie features "a lighthouse on a rocky island" which "provides a line down the centre, and unites the two masses" (157). It thus recalls Lily Briscoe's painting in To the Lighthouse, in which "a line there, in the centre" represents the culmination of her "vision" (281), the tree of her pre-war composition having been simplified into Significant Form (Goldman 171). Yet in Vanessa and Virginia, the tile is painted shortly after Vanessa's move to Charleston in 1916, inverting the dynamics of sisterly influence:
You gesture towards one of the tiles. 'Is this meant to be the sea?'
'I suppose I was thinking about the sea, though of course it was the colour and pattern I had most clearly in mind.'
You consider my answer.
'So if you weren't thinking about a particular seascape, what did you intend this mark to be here?' You draw your finger along a straight black line down the centre of the tile. 'I had assumed it was a lighthouse.'
I look at the line. I remember painting it, sensing that the swirls of blue required an anchoring point.
'I'm not sure I meant anything in particular by it, though of course I've no objection to you seeing it as a lighthouse.'
'But if it isn't a lighthouse--or anything specific--why is it there?'
'The blue needed it, the pattern needed it. It gives the eye something to rest on.' (106)
The exchange is underpinned by the arguments of Fry and Clive Bell, which Virginia interrogates and Vanessa symbolically defends. Virginia seeks in the "anchoring point" amid the "swirls of blue" what Fry called a "resemblance to natural form," implicitly the lighthouse of the sisters' childhood summers at St. Ives (167). Like Bell's biographer, Frances Spalding, Virginia thus analyzes Vanessa's "simple geometric shapes" for signs of "a deeper significance" (xiv). This resonates amusingly with Clive Bell's assertion that "the majority of [...] charming and intelligent people [...] appreciate visual art impurely" and that "the appreciation of almost all great writers has been impure" (35).
Conversely, Vanessa's prioritizing of color and pattern over the accurate depiction of "a particular seascape" recalls Clive Bell's suggestion that any representative element in art "must do double duty; as well as giving information, it must create aesthetic emotion by being simplified into significant form" (225). Vanessa insists of the lighthouse that "the blue needed it, the pattern needed it. It gives the eye something to rest on." This attests to a concern with the "aesthetic," rather than the "cognitive" value of representative forms, a desire to "treat them as though they were not representative of anything" (Clive Bell 225). Thus while the image has "cognitive" interest as a lighthouse amid the waves, Vanessa, like Lily Briscoe, is primarily concerned with what Fry called "the balancing of the attractions to the eye about the central line," which gives the image its essential "unity" (22). Significantly, her acknowledgment that "I'm not sure I meant anything in particular by [the line in the center]" is suggestive of Woolf's own use of "terms suggestive of significant form" in a letter to Fry (Goldman 167): "I meant nothing by The Lighthouse. One has to have a central line down the middle of the book to hold the design together" (L3 385). Along with Vanessa's earlier description of her painterly quest for "a single joining line" that has no bearing on "the world at large" (91), this resonance allows Vanessa symbolically to convert her sister to "the Bloomsbury belief that art only achieves unity and completeness if it is detached" (Spalding xiv).
However, Goldman has noted how Woolf "does not dismiss altogether the possibility of meaning" even while "appealing to Fry's aesthetics" (167); she accepted, in short, that "the central line down the middle of the book" would be turned by readers into "the deposit for their own emotions" (L3 385). Sellers's description of the finished novel resolves this tension between form and meaning, defending the "unity and completeness" of a work of art that reunites aesthetics with "associated ideas" (Fry 206; 169). Upon reading To the Lighthouse, Vanessa marvels at how Leslie and Julia Stephen become "archetypal as well as vivid, instructional as well as real" (76). For Vanessa, the affective power of the novel lies in the way in which it manages to achieve aesthetic unity while simultaneously reaching back into the sisters' shared past, "bridg[ing] the gap between biography and art" (75). She notes how she "began to see equivalent hurdles and prospects in my own work," that "what you had achieved was so momentous it advanced us both" (76). Her subsequent attempts to capture Julia Stephen are initially hampered by comparison with "the portrait of Mother you drew in your novel," the visual analogy echoing Woolf's assertion, in "Sketch of the Past," that "to give a sense of my mother's personality one would have to be an artist." For Vanessa, To the Lighthouse represents her sister's discovery of "a language with the powers of Cezanne's painting" (Banfield 296); the "portrait" is
so convincing that I heard her voice, saw the perpendicular of her back, as I read. I gaze at my picture. The emptiness remains. I paint a random figure, hurriedly, haphazardly, to fill the space, then take the canvas down. It is only years later when I look at the picture again I realise the figure is my daughter. (134)
Like the novel itself, the portrait of Angelica inspired by To the Lighthouse reunites pure form with associative or biographical qualities. The subject is "a random figure," painted in an attempt "to fill the space," echoing the way in which, for Clive Bell, "the subject [...] is of no consequence in itself. It is merely one of the artist's means of expression or creativity" (68). In accordance with the dictates of Bell and Fry, the portrait aims not to represent life, but to satisfy the composition's need for "certain forms and relations of forms" (Clive Bell 68). Yet upon subsequent inspection, the figure is revealed to have a deep personal significance for the artist, demonstrating how "form and content may cohere in a painting without making it imitative or 'descriptive'" (Goldman 146-47). Sellers thus represents To the Lighthouse and Vanessa's painting of Angelica as mutually-inspiring works that reengage narrative elements with aesthetics, enabling an abolition of the boundaries raised by Fry and Clive Bell.
Sellers's attribution of personal significance to abstracted forms in Vanessa's painting enables a new reading of To the Lighthouse itself. The suggested reading combines two dominant critical approaches, the biographical and the symbolic, by demonstrating how Lily Briscoe's painting exerts a transformative influence over real-life figures, affording them an emblematic meaning. This reading accords with the popular interpretation of the painting as "an analogue for the novel itself (Hussey 312), in which Lily, like her creator, "bridged the gap between biography and art" (Sellers 76). Even in Part One of To the Lighthouse, Lily's longing for intimacy with the Ramsays is starting to evolve into a perception of them as fading Victorian symbols. As she looks at Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay "standing close together watching the children throwing catches," "suddenly the meaning [.] came upon them, and made them in the dusk standing, looking, the symbols of marriage, husband and wife" (99). This shift in perception ultimately allows Lily to move past her fascination with Mrs. Ramsay's physical beauty towards an artistic understanding of the couple's potential as aesthetic symbols, enabling the Ramsays to leave "the private world of memory" and enter "a shared world of art" (Hussey 316). Such a reading accords the painting inventive as well as commemorative potential; it is, in the words of Banfield, "no pale reflex" of Mrs. Ramsay but "a transformation of the vision of which she was part" (289).
Resuming work on her abandoned painting in the aftermath of the First World War, Lily is newly sensitive to the importance of formal perspective to her artistic design, recognizing that "so much depends on whether people are near us or far from us" (99). She realizes that her "feeling for Mr Ramsay changed as he sailed further and further across the bay," and "seemed to become more and more remote" (99). Finally, "'He has landed,' she said aloud. 'It is finished'" (280). It is the knowledge that Mr. Ramsay has alighted on the island, has attained the furthest geographical distance from the bay, that enables Lily to finish her painting. The juxtaposition indicates her need to distance herself from the familiar associations of the Ramsays in order for them to assume their place in her composition as abstracted forms. But the Ramsays are not abandoned or left behind; they are instead transformed into symbols. In short, the "form and colour" in Lily's painting "do represent life," while at the same time having aesthetic significance as abstract shapes (Vanessa Bell, Letters, 406). In this reading, enabled in part by Sellers, Lily's painting represents, in microcosm, To the Lighthouse's successful reunion of biographical elements with formal aesthetics.
Sellers's emphasis on the mutual engagement between her subjects' art forms culminates in the interplay suggested between The Waves and Bell's lost painting, The Nursery. Bell's letter to Woolf from Cassis describing moths "flying madly in circles round me and the lamp" provided inspiration for the novel that was to become The Waves (314), and with it, one of Woolf's most explicit corroborations of the reciprocal inspiration between her sister and herself: "perhaps you stimulate the literary sense in me as you say I do your painting sense" (L3 372). Sellers reconstructs the scene described in Bell's letter, transporting Virginia to Cassis to witness the moth at first hand. Virginia then elucidates the symbolic meaning of the scene through conversation with Vanessa, telling her that
'You hold the light. Then there are lonely moths like me circling the lamp, searching for a way in.'
'I knew you'd make a scene out of it! So what about all the other people sitting round the table tonight? How do they feature in your sketch?'
You lean back and gaze at me steadily.
'They personify the different voices--emblematised by the moth.'
'Sounds like the start for one of your novels.' (143)
By locating the roots of one of Woolf's most abstract, formally experimental works in a familial, domestic scene, this exchange once again emphasizes the potential for aesthetic and biographical qualities to co-exist and complement each other. This is a significant departure from the representation of Virginia's earlier work, in which a dependence on outside elements was perceived to hamper formal unity. Whereas The Voyage Out was dismissed as "mere journalism" and therefore "not literature," the attempt to reproduce lived experience is instead seen to catalyse the formal radicalism of this later work (75). From the clash of voices at a family dinner emerges the experimental polyphony of The Waves, in much the same way as Vanessa's elimination of facial detail evolved from a piece of associative art.
Gillespie writes that The Waves, once completed, heralded "a new phase in [Bell's] response to Virginia's writing," namely "an attempt to see in her sister's work a creative struggle similar to her own" (159). Writing to Woolf after her first reading of the novel, Bell ventured a tentative comparison to her current work-in-progress, suggesting, as Kostkowska has written in a different context, "not just general affinities between [the sisters'] aesthetics but also a possibility of specific influence" (90):
Will it seem to you absurd and conceited or will you understand at all what I mean if I tell you that I've been working hard lately at an absurd great picture I've been painting on and off for the last 2 years--and if only I could do what I want to--but I can't--it seems to me it would have some sort of analogous meaning to what you've done. How can one explain, but to me painting a floor covered with toys and keeping them all in relation to each other and the figures and the space of the floor and the light on it means something of the same sort that you seem to mean. (367-68)
Bell's letter significantly informs an understanding of her attitude to "literary" or interdisciplinary qualities in art. It emphasizes her quest for an internal formal unity in The Nursery, a unity comprised of what Clive Bell called "pure forms in certain relations to each other," in this case the toys, the figures, the space, and the light (51). Yet while preserving this sense of formal unity, Bell is able to reach out to Woolf's parallel project, The Waves, detecting "a common sense of intersubjectivity" between painting and novel (Goldman 150). Bell's suggestion that the two works "mean something of the same sort" is indicative of a different conceptualization of "literary" art to that of Fry and Clive Bell, who used the term to denigrate an incomplete work that is dependent on external associations for its effect. Instead, we see how the term might characterize a self-contained work, which, when viewed in relation to a work of literature, has an "analogous meaning." This new interpretation of "literary" art enables Woolf and Bell's works to be experienced in dialogue, without diminishing the achievement of either.
Bell's acknowledgment of mutual influence between herself and Woolf is corroborated in Vanessa and Virginia, where Sellers incorporates what can be seen as an ekphrastic description of The Nursery into a scene in Vanessa's life:
You gesture towards the hearth, the ripe peaches and apricots I have worked round it. Your hand finds the pattern in the stems and leaves, connecting the fruit, weaving the chaos of my decoration into shape. I hear Julian and Quentin playing happily again in the garden. Soon Duncan will appear, and I will go into the kitchen and see to lunch. Gradually the scraps of my life--the debris from the party, the children's discarded clothes, my half-finished fireplace--coalesce into a whole. You have made a painting. (96-97)
As with her aforementioned description of Vanessa's portrait of Virginia, Sellers emphasizes Vanessa's perception of the objects in her composition as "means" rather than as "pure forms" or "ends in themselves" (Clive Bell 52). Whereas Fry observed that "the greatest art seems to concern itself most with the universal aspects of natural form, to be the least preoccupied with particulars" (207), Vanessa is sensitive to the "unaesthetic matter" or "associations" of her chosen forms (Clive Bell 55), the particularity of her own "half-finished fireplace" and her "children's discarded clothes." Sellers's description suggests that had The Nursery survived, its formal significance would have arisen, in part, from these associative elements; the "scraps" of the artist's life would, together, have "made a painting." This is supported by Tickner, for whom Bell's enlisting of "domestic subject matter" for "radical experiments in style and technique" is suggestive of a Woolfian "consciousness of everyday life as something to be caught and held in new forms of expression" (75). Both novelist and critic thus challenge Fry's preoccupation with the "universal aspects" of form, asserting the innate aesthetic potential of domestic female lives (207).
The mutual resonances that Bell perceived between The Nursery and The Waves are also represented, symbolized by Virginia having a "hand" in Vanessa's art. By "connecting the fruit, weaving the chaos of my decoration into shape," Virginia reveals The Nursery's "design," defined by Clive Bell as the means by which "every form in a work of art [is] made a part of a significant whole" (228). Rather than the formal unity of the work of art being hindered by the engagement between painter and author, it is the hand of the writer that enables the forms to "coalesce into a whole." This passage is therefore symptomatic of Sellers's overall approach, challenging the controlling assumptions of the Bloomsbury critics by revealing how formal significance can coexist with, even arise from, associative or "literary" qualities in art.
To conclude, Vanessa and Virginia has a hitherto unexplored potential to intervene in the popular representation of its subjects. Creating in the gaps and silences of Woolf's and Bell's letters, diaries, and memoirs, Sellers uses biographical scholarship to inform her fictional portrait, troubling the oppositional portrayals that haunt the sisters' posthumous reputations. As reproduced in other works of biofiction, these include the contrasting of Woolf's supposed sexual timidity and her periods of mental illness to Bell's fecundity and apparent ease of mind. Through a layering of historical and invented detail, Sellers bridges the dichotomy between "the virginal, barren woman [and] the sensual, maternal one," "the mentally unstable" and "the sane" (Gillespie 5). In doing so, she reveals how narrowly reifying are the taxonomies between the "real" and the "incomplete" woman, instead producing a more nuanced, synthesized, understanding of the interconnections between the sisters' lives. This process of fictional re-negotiation culminates in her revelation of the sustained interplay between their arts. Whereas, for instance, Cunningham's reference to "the children and paints and lovers, the brilliantly cluttered house" presents Bell's art as an incidental spillover from her life, Sellers's use of ekphrasis enables sustained analysis of her artistic process, and foregrounds Woolf's developing engagement with her sister's work (169). Sellers thereby advances Gillespie's acknowledged aims: to "shift the emphasis in the ongoing discussion of Virginia Woolf and the visual arts from Roger Fry to Vanessa Bell" and to "reveal more fully the role of the visual arts in Woolf's writing" (2). Vanessa and Virginia offers a companion achievement to The Sisters 'Arts, redistributing attention in the discussion of Vanessa Bell and the literary arts from Roger Fry to Virginia Woolf, and using ekphrasis to suggest the influence of literature on Bell's painting.
By embroidering these moments of ekphrasis into a biographical narrative, Sellers suggests that appreciation of the formal elements of a work, be it visual or literary, is enhanced rather than diminished by "outside associations of character and story" (Gillespie 2). This represents a significant challenge to the scholarly tendency, noted by Spalding and Gillespie, to "cherchez l'homme" (Gillespie 3) and to assume that the sisters' arts adhered uncritically to Fry and Clive Bell's opposition of "pure form" and "unaesthetic matter" (Fry 92; Bell 55). Sellers instead illuminates moments in Virginia's writing and Vanessa's painting wherein attention to their subjects' real-life associations gave rise to formal significance, and insists that art may have biographical resonances without sacrificing its structural unity. As demonstrated by my analysis of Lily Briscoe's painting in To the Lighthouse, such reunion of an "art of associated ideas" with Structural Design and Significant Form has the potential to generate new and intriguing readings of the interrelation between narrative and aesthetic elements in Woolf's and Bell's works (Fry 169). Thus blending fiction with "critical hypothesizing" (Gilbert 3), the novel provides a unique insight into the work of Woolf, "the supreme (portrait) artist," and Bell, the "mistress of the phrase" (Bell 316; Woolf L3 340).
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(1) See, for instance, Edwin M. Yoder Jr.'s Lions at Lamb House and Carol de Chellis Hill's Henry James's Midnight Song, both about Freud and James, Cynthia Ozick's "Dictation," about Conrad and James, and Martha Cooley's The Archivist, about Eliot.
(2) Both Fry and Bell added caveats with regard to representation, namely when such representation was placed at the service of form and aesthetic emotion. Fry wrote that "We may, then, dispense once for all with the idea of likeness to nature, of correctness or incorrectness as a test, and consider only whether the emotional elements inherent in true form are adequately discovered, unless, indeed, the emotional idea depends at any point upon likeness, or completeness of representation" (27). Similarly, Bell wrote "Let no one imagine that representation is bad in itself; a realistic form may be as significant, in its part of the design, as an abstract. But if a representative form has value, it is as form, not as representation" (25).
(3) See, for instance, John Dowland's "Come Again": "Come again! Sweet love doth now invite / Thy graces that refrain / To do me due delight, / To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die / With thee again, in sweetest sympathy."
(4) Anthony Uhlman reads "Walter Sickert" as illuminating "a difference between Fry and Woolf'; for Woolf "the literary painter is not worse than the pure painter: rather, he or she is a different type of painter, one who thinks in a different way, and who, therefore, is capable of different things" (60).
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|Publication:||Woolf Studies Annual|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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