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 (2008)
This article offers one of the first sustained explorations of Susan Sellers’s biofiction Vanessa and Virginia (2008), tracing the text’s intersections with biographies of Woolf and Bell and placing it in dialogue with Bloomsbury art theory. It explores how Sellers uses fiction to renegotiate popular representations of her subjects, which oppose “the carnal sister” to “the intellectual”, “the sane” to “the mentally unstable”. Such portrayals may be traced back to the sisters themselves, and are propagated in the other works of biofiction under consideration. Building on biographical and critical writing, particularly that of Jane Dunn and Diane Gillespie, Sellers challenges these reductive taxonomies, thereby posing an innovative intervention into her subjects’ legacies. The psychological then provides a route into the aesthetic, as Sellers proceeds to emphasise the dialogue between the sisters’ arts in terms of their structural dynamics. By reading the novel in conjunction with Clive Bell’s Art (1914) and Roger Fry’s Vision and Design (1920), I reveal its challenge to these critics’ prioritisation of form over representation, and their insistence on the necessity of artistic “detachment”. As suggested by Gillespie, McLaurin, Torgovnick, and Banfield, these precepts are applicable to Woolf’s fiction as well as Bell’s painting. Vanessa and Virginia reveals how a work of art, whether visual or literary, might display the “essential” qualities of Structural Design and Significant Form while remaining open to biographical or associative readings. In reconciling the biographical with the dictates of the Bloomsbury critics, Vanessa and Virginia opens up new interpretations of Woolf and Bell’s art, particularly in terms of its interrelationship.
The file attached to this record is the author's final peer reviewed version.
Citation : Layne, B. (2015) 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 (2008). Woolf Studies Annual, 21, pp. 78-106
Research Institute : Institute of English
Peer Reviewed : Yes
- School of Humanities