Well, this wasn’t what I was expecting. After reading volumes of Virginia Woolf’s letters, including scores of loving letters to sister Vanessa Bell, I was looking forward to seeing the other half of the conversation in the Selected Letters of Virginia Bell and enjoying the warmth between them. But such was not the case.
Up until Vanessa’s marriage to Clive Bell, most of the letters in this collection are to her friend and fellow painter Margery Snowden, and they are mostly about painting. After her marriage, you do see the flow of love and affection to Virginia, but it cools … most likely around the time when Julian is born and Virginia and Clive begin their flirtation. After that period, her correspondence focuses on Roger Fry and goes on seemingly endlessly about painting (which is to be expected, of course, but coming from a Woolfian angle, not quite so interesting). Although we get a few personal letters after she dumps Roger for Duncan Grant, and clearly feels terrible for the heartbreak she’s caused, she still goes on and on about painting.
After Roger begins receding from her life, she channels all her attention to son Julian as he moves to China and, later, Spain to work as an ambulance driver in the war that will kill him. Virginia again becomes the focus after Julian’s death, but after she dies just four years later, Vanessa finds daughter Angelica as the outlet for her epistolary affection. And so it continues until the end of her life.
There’s very little illumination about Vanessa’s character in these letters. Of her ‘scandalous’ bohemian lifestyle, you hear very little. You see her consoling Roger for their breakup for a few letters; for another letter or two, you hear her frustrations with Duncan as he considers leaving her for another man; you see her accepting sympathy for the deaths of Julian and Virginia. But there’s nothing dramatic – no declarations of freedom and love, no descriptions of her finally telling Angelica about her parentage, no ruminating on her past or her decisions. It’s just mostly about painting, a bit on war-time life, a lot on her thoughts of France and Italy.
I had similar feelings reading Jennifer Lash‘s book On Pilgrimage, about her journey to key religious sites in France (although culminating in Compostela) after recovering from breast cancer treatment. I’ve long wondered about her books because I knew how the Fiennes children revived her backlist in the 90s, but I chose to try On Pilgrimage because I too am a breast cancer survivor.
However, rather than writing about her thoughts and feelings as she confronts her diagnosis, she writes about the most superficial aspects of her journey. I learned the quality of her bedding at each stay on her journey, and I know what color napkins she had at most meals, and I know what the inside of many train stations looked like, but I still don’t really know who she was. I’m not even sure she knew, to be honest … it was almost like the pilgrimage was a way to distract herself from thinking any of the actual, deep questions of life that she was facing after her diagnosis. (Anytime she got close to facing some of those serious questions in the book, she seemed to instantly glance off them.) In fact, even after finishing the book, I’m still not even sure why she was on the pilgrimage, because she wasn’t religious at all. So I come away feeling like all the trivial issues were addressed, while life’s most pressing topics were studiously avoided.
Perhaps I’ve just been spoiled by the letters and diaries of the caliber of Virginia Woolf, which illuminate and expand on so much of Virginia’s character, but I still craved so much more depth and context to both Bell’s and Lash’s compelling real-life stories. Time, I think, to switch to biographies.