Vanessa and Her Sister: A Novel

  • By Priya Parmar
  • Ballantine
  • 346 pp.

A fascinating, fictionalized look at Virginia Woolf's lesser-known — but equally talented — sibling.

Vanessa and Her Sister: A Novel

Readers and admirers of Virginia Woolf and her milieu are no doubt aware of the ever-expanding shelves of books — fiction, diaries, letters, biographies, essays, photo albums, scholarly books, and more — that focus on virtually every aspect of what came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group.

One would think the subject had been exhausted, but not so. A book that did not emerge from this frequently visited terrain is a journal written by Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s older sister and a painter of some renown — a missing piece of Bloomsbury that Priya Parmar brilliantly creates in her new novel, Vanessa and Her Sister.

As the author acknowledges, “It is not easy to fictionalize the Bloomsbury Group, as their lives are so well documented. They were prolific correspondents and diarists, and there is a wealth of existing primary material.” Though it was no doubt a challenge to find “enough room for invention in the negative spaces they left behind,” she has richly succeeded in that venture. One can only imagine the daunting amount of research she undertook to establish historical accuracy for her characters’ lives and actions.

Impressively, within the factual constraints, Parmar brings to life the voices, writing styles, idiosyncrasies, preoccupations, daily activities, and social milieu not only of Virginia and Vanessa Stephen, but of the entire cast of their siblings, friends, lovers, and acquaintances, including Adrian and Thoby Stephen, Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, and others.

Though Leonard Woolf was far from Bloomsbury — a civil servant in Ceylon — even his voice enters the narrative occasionally through his exchanges of correspondence with friends, including Thoby Stephen and Lytton Strachey. The latter repeatedly prompts Woolf to return to England and marry Virginia Stephen—which, of course, he eventually does.

The novel begins in 1905, when the four Stephen children, all in their twenties — Vanessa is 26 and Virginia 23 — take up residence in a house in Gordon Square, London, following the death of their father, and ends in 1912, shortly after Virginia marries Leonard Woolf. During these years, the Stephen siblings host their friends in “at homes,” featuring discussions that range from the intellectual to the ribald.

Occasionally, they take holidays together in Cornwall, Italy, and Greece and visit Constantinople via the Orient Express. These activities are documented not only through their letters and postcards to friends — included complete with appropriate postage stamps — but also through facsimiles of ferry and train ticket stubs and telegrams.

Small dramas unfold: Vanessa twice refuses and finally accepts a marriage proposal from the persistent Clive Bell. Virginia is courted by several men and accepts an impulsive proposal from the homosexual Lytton Strachey, though both hastily withdraw. Literary and artistic careers begin to bud. Tragically, following the trip to Greece, Thoby Stephen dies of typhoid misdiagnosed as malaria.

Through Parmar’s fully realized characterization of Vanessa, we are privy to her reflections — invented details seamlessly interwoven with those known through factual sources — concerning her life and the lives of her intimates. She mothers the complicated and emotionally needy Virginia, who craves attention almost childishly, even as she supports her younger sibling’s literary aspirations.

She notes in her journal, “Writing is Virginia’s engine. She thrums with purpose when she writes. Her scattershot joy and frantic distraction refocus, and she funnels into her purest form. Her centre holds until the piece is over, and she comes apart again.”

Further on, she remarks that, at times, Virginia “wears a light halo of genius,” while Vanessa herself feels “horribly earthbound and built of base metals.” But there is a dark side: Virginia is an envious sister who wants what Vanessa has, particularly after she marries Clive Bell. Indeed, while Vanessa is preoccupied with her first child, Virginia flirts so openly with Bell that Vanessa later blames her in large part for the unraveling of the marriage.

Parmar’s blending of imagined and factual details is enhanced by lively writing and astute observations. For example, Thursday 25 January 1906: “Virginia’s 24th birthday today. She insisted on collecting her customary one hundred birthday kisses…Thobs [Thoby] got fed up after three and refused to donate any more to the cause. Affection is so much easier to give when it is not owed.”

Later, while Thoby suffers from the illness that soon proves fatal, Vanessa tries to write to family and friends but is too distraught to do so. “I let the ink dribble onto the thick spongy paper. My fingers hovered over the page as if they had forgotten the alphabet.”

Later years bring Vanessa’s success as a painter and her association with the art critic Roger Fry, who arranges two groundbreaking and controversial exhibitions in 1910 and 1912, beginning with “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” in 1910. During that year, Virginia works on her first novel and has a serious mental breakdown. As Vanessa describes the warning signs:

“The danger lives in the small details: the way she waits a fraction too late before she responds to a question; the way she repeats herself without knowing it; the way her voice slides uphill when she speaks; the way she eats less and walks more; the way her face is mapped in blueish circles and sharp bones; the way she locks her hands together in her lap while on the omnibus; the way she is not writing.”  

If you thought there was nothing left to discover about Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, or their circle, you will be pleasantly surprised to find in Vanessa and Her Sister an utterly absorbing story from a fresh angle of vision.

Though the novel will undoubtedly appeal to readers familiar with the Bloomsbury group, Parmar so skillfully conveys the bohemian, bursting-out-of-its-Victorian-corset twenty-something life in early 20th century London — sibling rivalry, love triangles, sex, jealousy, marriage, maternity, art, literature, travel, social change — that readers who know nothing about Bloomsbury will be equally rewarded.

Roberta Rubenstein is Professor of Literature at American University, where she teaches courses on modern and contemporary writers. She is the author of Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View and, most recently, Literary Half-Lives: Doris Lessing, Clancy Sigal, and Roman à Clef.

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