Some novels about literary figures are stunning, others are trashy.
Anybody can cash in on our favorite writers. Novels about Virginia Woolf are especially copious.
Two novels about Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf have recently been published, one about, Emily Dickinson, and another about Dorothy Richardson.
1. Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister has been well-reviewed: this novel is written in the form of the diary of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s painter sister. It is said to be “an intimate glimpse” into the lives of Vanessa and Virginia and the Bloomsbury group.
Why haven’t I read it yet? Novels about the Stephens sisters, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, can be dicey, because the members of the Bloomsbury group are so much more talented than most writers. What if I’m disappointed?
But I did admire Susan Sellers’s Vanessa & Virginia, a novel published in 2009. written from the point of view of Vanessa Bell. Broken into a series of short, beautifully written sketches, this is a poetic account of Vanessa’s painting, her ambivalent relationship with her difficult diva of a younger sister, Virginia Woolf, and her long, somewhat shocking love affair with Duncan Grant, an artist who prefers men and has a series of homosexual affairs.
2. Norah Vincent’s Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf will be published April 7. I’m not sure how many novels about Virginia Woolf I can digest in a year, but it is the kind of thing I read.
On April 18, 1941, twenty-two days after Virginia Woolf went for a walk near her weekend house in Sussex and never returned, her body was reclaimed from the River Ouse. Norah Vincent’s Adeline reimagines the events that brought Woolf to the riverbank, offering us a denouement worthy of its protagonist.
With poetic precision and psychological acuity, Vincent channels Virginia and Leonard Woolf, T. S. and Vivienne Eliot, Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington, laying bare their genius and their blind spots, their achievements and their failings, from the inside out. And haunting every page is Adeline, the name given to Virginia Stephen at birth, which becomes the source of Virginia’s greatest consolation, and her greatest torment.
Perhaps it will be good. They like it at Goodreads.
3. William Nicholson’s Amherst, a new novel about Emily Dickinson, would be a wonderful excuse to reread her poems. Nicholson is a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. He is best-known for Shadowlands.
Here is an excerpt from the description:
Alice Dickinson, a young advertising executive in London, decides to take time off work to research her idea for a screenplay: the true story of the scandalous, adulterous love affair that took place between a young, Amherst college faculty wife, Mabel Loomis Todd, and the college’s treasurer, Austin Dickinson, in the 1880s. Austin, twenty-four years Mabel’s senior and married, was the brother of the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, whose house provided the setting for Austin and Mabel’s trysts.
It, too, has been well-received.
4. Louisa Treger’s The Lodger is a novel about Dorothy Richardson, the author of Pilgrimage and the creator of stream-of-consciousness. (No, Joyce did not invent stram-of-consciousness. It’s the boys who think so!)
I have been a fan of Richardson for decades.
Dorothy exists just above the poverty line, doing secretarial work at a dentist’s office and living in a seedy boarding house in Bloomsbury, when she is invited to spend the weekend with a childhood friend. Jane recently married a writer, who is hovering on the brink of fame. His name is H.G. Wells, or Bertie, as he is known to friends.
Was there any woman writer in those days who did not have an affair with H. G. Wells? Rebecca West, Violet Hunt, and Elizabeth Von Arnim. So many women writers.
If you have any favorite novels about literary figures, let me know. There are so many!
I just finished Vanessa and Her Sister. I liked it. It made me want to read their biographies. I also have Vanessa and Virginia and Adeline is on my tbr mountain.
I hadn’t given any though to The Lodger but I think now I might try it.
Glad to hear Vanessa and Her Sister is good! I have this one and have been meaning to read it.
Oh my this post is very bad for wish list. I love the sound of all those books. Particularly the ones about Vanessa and Virginia.
I feel that way, too! Books about VW and VB can let us down because those two were so talented, but I love the Bloomsbury set.
I really want to read Adelime. Joyce Carol Oates wrote a fantastic book of short stories called Wild Nights! That fictionally reimagines the lives of several writers including Hemingway, Twain, Henry James, Poe & Emily Dickinson
Oh my goodness, I’ll have to read Wild Nights. Oates is brilliant.
I have slight reservations – novels about real people are starting to make me feel a little uncomfortable as they’re effectively one person’s interpretation of another once-living person’s life, but subjectively, not objectively like a biography. I think at the end of the day I’d rather read a biography…
I’m fascinated by novels about writers, but I do know what you mean. Biographies are where we get our information (though I think these are subjective, too). I tend to be very particular abou tfiction about literary idols because, without brilliant prose,we won’t care. Odd how many novels have been written about Woolf!
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I guess it shows how much we care about her! And yes, I accept biographies are subjective – but I suppose they’re not meant to be…. 🙂
I too tend to prefer biographies. I once read a novel incorporating the Bronte sisters and it was so bad it has made me cautious about trying another of that type. If you do read one of the ones you list, let us know.
Now that I think about it doesn’t The Hours have a section with Woolf? If so, it was well done because I remember the book fondly.
Yes, The Hours is a retelling of Mrs. Dalloway. That one was brilliant! I also liked Richard Flanagan’s Wanting, based on a correspondence between a Polar explorer’s widow in Australia and Dickens!
Kat, I follow your blog and wait for it everyday. I belong to Ellen’s friends and we probably are members of the same reading groups and listservs she owns. Do you have a FB page or any way of, if you wish and agree to it, communicate? Thank you for your blogs and long live to them! I publish them on my page with your references as much as I can…
Oh, how very nice of you, Camille! Yes, Ellen’s groups are the best. I do appreciate your generous words. I’ll look at your Facebook page if I can get there. I’m in the Dark Ages: I don’t have Facebook!
Margaret Foster’s novel based on the painter, Gwen Johns’s life is very moving — Augustus Johns’ sister, part of wider Bloomsbury Circle.
That sounds good. Mr. Johns is mentioned in Vanessa and Her Sister.
Just looked. It’s Alicia Foster and it’s called Gwen John. Thanks, Ellen.
Oops, I’m completely wrong. Ellen, is it Keeping the World Away by Margaret Foster? So sorry. The book by Alicia is non-fiction.
Ellen, I love Margaret Forster! And, Cynthia, thanks for looking up the title.
Hello! I recently discovered your wonderful blog. (I have a faint Rumer Godden obsession and she led me to you.) I am an author and was so delighted to see my novel Vanessa and Her Sister mentioned here today. It was a lovely surprise. Do not worry, I completely understand the trepidation about fictionalisations of Woolf. As a reader, ironically, I share them. I was very lucky and was able to work with Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf’s family to get the details right. I hope it rings true for you. And I want to thank you for the Rumer Godden second novel information. I had never read it and would never have heard of it but for you. Thank you!
It’s very kind of you to come to my blog! I’ve heard nothing but good about Vanessa and Her Sister. How wonderful that you got to work with the family. I will definitely get reading. I have a ghastly cold today that has prevented my getting anything done (I keep falling asleep) but I will read and post about your book soon.
Yes, we’re fans of Rumor Godden!