Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar
There was a time when I was passionate about anything written by and about the Bloomsbury Group, especially Virginia Woolf. Thinking I knew all about Virginia and Vanessa Stephen I put off reading Priya Parmar’s novel Vanessa and Her Sister until this summer. Then desperate for something to read, I picked it up. There has been so much written about Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf and their circle that I could not imagine that there would anything new or interesting to read in this novel. But, I was wrong, and surprised at how much I enjoyed the story.
Vanessa, Virginia and their brothers Thoby and Adrian lived together in London in 1905 after the deaths of their parents. They were very much determined to live their own lives, regardless of the rather rigid expectations of society. Their friends included some very bright young men from Cambridge, many of them homosexual. The sisters were included in the Thursday evening gatherings of these young men simply because they lived there with their brothers. Vanessa was a painter and Virginia a writer at the beginning of their careers, and all of the men in one form or another were involved in the arts, economics or politics. All were throwing off the confines of the Victorian era and fully embracing the freedom of the new century under the reign of King Edward VII.
Virginia Stephen was known to be emotionally unstable from a young age. Her sister Vanessa did all she could to make her sister’s life as undisturbed as possible during the years they lived together, and they lived close by after Vanessa’s marriage. T
The years covered in this novel are 1905 until 1912. They are years of personal and professional growth for these young people, years of peace preceding the First World War. The members of what became known as the Bloomsbury Group wrote and published, they painted and exhibited. They travelled in Europe, and took summerhouses in the British Isles and Italy.
All the while there was a very uneasy relationship between the sisters. Virginia was devotedly attached to Vanessa, and could not accept that Vanessa should marry and have a family, since this naturally would exclude Virginia to some extent.
Other important characters include the brilliant Lytton Strachey, and Duncan Grant who is as desirable to Vanessa as he is to Lytton. Clive Bell of course becomes Vanessa’s husband. There is the beautiful young Rupert Brooke, and the more mature and worldly Roger Fry. There is Morgan (E.M.) Forster, the first to publish, his novel Where Angels Fear to Tread. They are all so keenly intelligent. They are perceptive; they have the ability to see, to discuss, and to examine the world around them. They are involved in the arts, they write, they are excited by conversation and the emergence of post impressionistic painting. They are now known as the Bloomsbury Group.
Interest in the Bloomsbury Group has come and gone over the past 40 years. My own fascination began in 1974 when I was given a wedding present of the newly published biography of Virginia Woolf by her nephew Quentin Bell.
Whether you already know much about these people, or not, I think you will find Vanessa and Her Sister an entertaining and informative novel – one that perhaps will send you off to read or re-read books written by the members of the Bloomsbury Group.