Vanessa and Her Sister: A Novel by Priya Parmar follows the early days of the London Bloomsbury Group through the eyes of Virginia Stephen Bell, a painter and the sister of Virginia Woolf. The book does an excellent job fictionalizing the lives of well-known literary figures of the early 1900s. Vanessa Stephen’s family was intellectual and produced successful upper class writers including Vanessa’s father and sister.
Priya Parmar used a fictional diary interspersed with notes, telegrams and tickets to tell the story of Vanessa Stephen Bell, her sister Virginia Woolf and their friends in the intellectual Bloomsbury circle. The daily notes are full of dialogue and action plus Vanessa’s observations about her friends and her thoughts about how and whether she fits in. This method was a perfect fit for people who lived in the now and in in the world of ideas and words.
The novel begins shortly after Vanessa’s father dies and she, her sister Virginia and brothers Thorpy and Adrian move to a house in an unfashionable part of London, Bloomsbury.
Vanessa’s younger brother, Thopy, started Thursday evenings At Home (informal gatherings on a set day), that brought a wide range of younger people, all active on the literary or art scene. Eventually the circle expanded to those who married or in love with one of the friends, regardless whether they themselves wrote or painted.
We see the group evolve, split into smaller sub groups yet always remaining part of a larger set of friends, through Vanessa. She was raised to view her own gifts, art and painting, as lesser than the literary gifts of her sister. She commented that she was less valuable than Virginia as after all, Virginia was a rare intellect. Yet the circle of friends connected through Vanessa after Thoby died, not with Virginia. Today Vanessa is recognized as a fine artist in her own right and her paintings hang in museums.
I enjoyed the characters and the contrast of seeing the self-consciously avant-garde Bloomsbury group through Vanessa, portrayed in the novel as someone who loved family life and stability as much as she loved being part of something new. Virginia Stephen Woolf, Vanessa’s sister, was the second main character. Vanessa is shown as a loving sister who nonetheless was no fool and recognized Virginia as demanding, self-centered, difficult and greedy.
Vanessa and Her Sister shows Virginia so jealous and in love with her sister that she wanted everything Vanessa had. She wanted her friends, she wanted her husband. Yet Virginia did not want Vanessa’s life. Not for her to be the quiet hub; she sought attention and to be first and primary. The fictionalized Virginia is altogether unattractive.
Other characters are Clive Bell, Vanessa’s husband, Lytton Strachey, Thoby’s and Vanessa’s dear friend, and their extended circle. Clive was a womanizer. When Vanessa confronted him about his first affair Clive was surprised; didn’t she know he wanted a modern marriage? Vanessa found nothing modern about infidelity. In real life the couple stayed married but both had extended affairs and lived with other people as well as together. According to the author’s note, Vanessa never forgave Virginia for her liaison with Clive; in the novel she couldn’t forgive either Virginia or Clive.
The setting was late Edwardian London up to about 1911. Priya Parmar wrote about serious people. The Bloomsbury group sought the new, the different, the experimental; not for them conventions in manners or in art or in literature.
Vanessa shocked her much older brother George Duckworth by attending Thoby’s At Home as the only female and unmarried at that. Roger Fry, with whom Vanessa later had a 3 year affair, organized the first Post-Impressionist art showing in London, a show that Vanessa felt would change everything. E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf were novelists; Lytton Strachey a noted biographer. These were interesting people.
Priya Parmar wrote an interesting novel about interesting people. Her diary technique was excellent, very well done. The evolution of Vanessa from a hesitant girl, unsure of her own worth, to a confident woman who could put her sister aside and relish the Post-Impressionist work and her own success. The dialogue and actions felt real and provided enough realist tension to make a readable, enjoyable novel.