Not Afraid of Virginia Woolf: Susan Sellers Explores The Works of the English “Literary Pioneer”

Susan Sellers

English novelist, essayist, feminist, publisher, and critic, Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) was one of the most influential literary figures of the early 20th century. Her most famous works include Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), A Room of One's Own (1929), and The Waves (1931). She was also a co-founder, with her sister Vanessa Bell, of the Bloomsbury Group, an informal association of English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists.

British writer, translator, editor and novelist, Susan Sellers is Professor of English and Related Literature at the University of St. Andrews, and co-General Editor of the Cambridge University Press edition of the writings of Virginia Woolf. She is the author of Vanessa and Virginia, a fictional account of the sibling rivalry between Virginia Woolf and the painter Vanessa Bell.

Q: In addition to being a prominent Woolf scholar, you’re also a writer of literary fiction in your own right. What first drew you to study Woolf? Has her work had any influence on your own? 

A: I first read Virginia Woolf as a fourteen-year-old. The novel was To the Lighthouse, and I was captivated by the beauty of the prose and by Woolf's portrayal of a family on holiday. On the opening page of the novel, young James Ramsay is told by his father that the trip to the lighthouse he has been looking forward to all summer cannot take place because of the likelihood of bad weather. James' reaction to the insensitive way his father delivers this news is to wish for an ax to kill him! I was hooked by this powerful exploration of the emotions that usually lie concealed beneath the surface. Since then, I have read everything Woolf has written, including her ten novels, volumes of groundbreaking essays, prolific journalism, the diary she kept almost daily, and thousands of letters.

Virginia Woolf has had an enormous influence on me as a writer. She was a literary pioneer who helped expand the novel as a form. She also wrote about the process of composition and her thoughts on this have often guided me through moments of difficulty and doubt. Woolf knew that murder is the only effective means of silencing all the reasons we give ourselves as to why we can't create. Perhaps one of her most important lessons is that good writing is the product of multiple, painstakingly reworked drafts—that and wide and avaricious reading.

Virginia Woolf's inspiration has extended into my fiction: she features, along with her sister, the talented and innovative painter Vanessa Bell, in my novel Vanessa and Virginia. This work explores the intense and sometimes rivalrous relationship between the sisters. They were close in age and grew up in each other's company, especially after their brother Thoby was sent away to school. They remained intimate even after their respective marriages, visiting or writing letters to each other most days. After reading everything I could, fiction presented an arena in which I felt able to pursue my remaining questions imaginatively and ethically.

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