I’ve read quite a lot about Virginia Woolf but almost nothing about her sister, who has always been treated almost like a peripheral person in the works I’ve read. I’ve always been curious about her and the snippets I’ve read about their relationship; however, so I got excited when I saw that Priya Parmar had written Vanessa and Her Sister. What sealed the deal for me though was a quote I read about the novel by Vanessa’s granddaughter, “Vanessa and Her Sister is an account of my grandmother’s early life, told with faith, elegance, and an almost uncanny insight into the subject…Priya Parmar has made Vanessa’s story her own.” That quote aside, this is a work of meticulously researched historical fiction. It’s fun for historical literature fans to read because it’s not only the story of the Stephen family but of the rowdy and infamous Bloomsbury Group. I could hardly wait to share it with you.
It’s 1905 and that means we’re in the midst of the Victorian Age when all is prim and proper, well almost all, well at least on the surface. The four children in the Stephen household aren’t actually children anymore. Thoby, Adrian, Vanessa, and Virginia are looking at how to make their mark on the world or at least figure out how to be adults.
Vanessa is the eldest daughter and, as such, has somehow become the family caretaker. It’s not a role she sought out or even wants but it seems to have been thrust upon her and she cares too much about the family to shirk that role. She’s a talented artist who thinks she might like to be a writer, but she can never be that because that’s considered her sister’s unique gift.
“Last Thursday evening, I sat in the corner like a sprouted potato, but this Thursday, I will speak up. Long ago, Virginia decreed, in the way Virginia decrees, that I was the painter and she the writer. ‘You do not like words, Nessa,’ she said. ‘They are not your creative nest.’ Or maybe it was orb? Or oeuf? My sister always describes me in rounded domestic hatching words. And, invariably, I believe her. So, not a writer, I have to run away from words like a child escaping a darkening wood, leaving my sharp burning sister in sole possession of the enchanted forest. But Virginia should not always be listened to.”
Virginia is pretty much the exact opposite of Vanessa and has been given the role of the fragile one in the family. To be honest, she is fragile mentally if not physically. She can be grandiose one moment and have spells the next, which is a polite way of saying that she is in fact mentally ill. She starves herself periodically so Vanessa must make sure she eats at least something. She goes into terrible depressions and seems fascinated by death. And, yes, she has been hospitalized at least once when things got too bad. Vanessa must remain vigilant in assessing Virginia’s mental state to ensure she doesn’t miss the signs that Virginia might carry out any of her suicidal fantasies in earnest.
“The morning’s heavy quiet was split in two.
Virginia was shrieking downstairs.
I ignored it. Thoby was insisting that she eat her breakfast, and Virginia, enjoying his attention, was refusing. Virginia, as a rule, does not eat her breakfast. But last week Dr. Savage told us that eating is crucial if we are to avert another disaster. He was dismayed when Thoby told him that Virginia’s room was at the top of the house. He suggested we either relocate her to the ground floor or nail her windows shut…
‘Nessa!’ she said loudly, ignoring me. ‘I am being oppressed! Thoby forced oatmeal down my gullet. Libre Virginia!’
The morning was off to a roaring start.”
But all is not sad in the Stephen household. These four energetic siblings have put themselves square in the middle of an artistic vanguard filled with bohemian rabble rousers known as the Bloomsbury Group. Members of the group practically live at the Stephen home, dropping in on Thursdays initially for their salon but eventually at all hours of the day or night to hold spirited discussions on esoteric matters that may or may not be of any consequence. Vanessa and Virginia often find themselves the belles whose attentions are vied for by this quirky group of men, although Vanessa often steps back to allow Virginia the center stage she thrives upon.
None of the people involved in The Bloomsbury Group has any inkling of the fame any of them will garner later in their lives. They all have faith in each other but they don’t seem to have much faith in their own abilities, although they bolster each other to keep going. Vanessa is painting portrait after portrait of Virginia and no one outside of their group has ever seen one of her paintings, and she’s unsure anyone ever will or if they’re good enough to be seen by anyone. Virginia talks a lot about writing and dabbles but hasn’t really produced anything of note. In fact, she can’t even get a book review she wrote published by The Times. Lytton Stratchy is more worried about his lovers rejecting him, although he too despairs that he’ll never publish anything. John Maynard Keynes is unemployed and fears he’ll never get a job. Although E.M. Forrester has them all beat because he’s actually finished a novel, he hates the title and keeps changing it every five seconds. At this rate, it will never get published. Leonard Woolf (Virginia Woolf’s future husband) is off in Ceylon, working in civil service, and is getting letters from Lytton urging him to come home and marry Virginia, who Lytton swears is exactly the wife he needs.
And then Vanessa meets and gets to know Clive Bell, a good friend of Thoby’s, and she slowly but surely falls in love. She’s torn between continuing to be Virginia’s keeper and her strong desire to have her own life. In the end the desire for freedom proves stronger than the pull of duty and, after numerous proposals, she agrees to marry him. Suddenly a huge weight is lifted from her shoulders. But, of course, Virginia is determined to sabotage the relationship so she can have Vanessa all to herself. Vanessa is hers and no one is going to take her away. The cunning and manipulative Virginia will do anything and everything to prevent the marriage and, once it occurs, to sabotage it in any way possible. Can Vanessa and her marriage survive Virginia’s constant plots? Can Vanessa keep from slipping back into the role she escaped?
“Clive as a suitor. I sat on a damp wooden bench. Virginia will say that Clive is prosaic. She will compare him to Thoby’s clean, marble nobility and find him meaty and overcooked. Why should I care what she says? What anyone says? Why indeed, and yet I do. It is a weakness. Thoby likes him enormously and that counts for much. That said, I am not sure.”
“I had no idea Clive’s flowers had upset her so much. I thought if I brushed the topic aside, it would disappear like dust and Virginia would forget about it. I know she is terrified I will get married, just as I am afraid that Thoby will get married. As soon as one of us goes, the thing unravels and the whole of us comes apart. But I thought she would realize that Clive could never hurt us…I misread her mood yesterday.”
What can I say about this eccentric family and their friends? I haven’t said much at all about Thoby and Adrian, although they figure prominently in the dynamics and the events that take place. They will have to remain something for you to discover. All four siblings are quite enmeshed, partially because of events that made them band together more closely than some siblings might; however, the most enmeshed are Vanessa and Virginia. I didn’t have a sister so I’m not sure how sisters normally behave. I’ve always thought the relationship between my mom and her much younger sister was odd but I don’t have any frame of reference for it. Maybe all sisters are somewhat enmeshed…no clue.
I became hooked very quickly when I began reading Vanessa and Her Sister, and that was that – nothing got done until I finished it. I was completely spellbound. Priya Parmar has included notes and letters between family members and between Lytton and Leonard Woolf, which are fascinating to read and which add even more reality to the novel. It’s obvious on every page just how meticulous her research was; however, it does not intrude on the beautifully flowing story at all. These literary and artistic legends come to life on the page. At the end, the author gives a follow-up on what became of each member of the Bloomsbury Group. She also says in The Author’s Note, “Many of the unlikelier details in the novel are rooted in fact.” I loved that because I was sure the details she calls out had to be fiction! As if you haven’t already guessed, I’m recommending Vanessa and Her Sister for historical fiction fans.
Can’t wait to read it?
Vanessa And Her Sister was published on December 30, 2014, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks). Just click the link and download it to read instantly.
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