Vanessa And Her Sister by Priya Parmar



A novel about the Bloomsbury Set presents some challenges but Priya Parmar has stepped up to the plate in her book to be published by Bloomsbury on 30th December 2014.

The cast of characters is large and shifting, made doubly confusing by their love of (multiple) nicknames for each other together with their habit of hopping in and out of each others beds with alarming regularity.

Parmar has chosen to look at the group through the prism of Vanessa and Virginia’s complicated relationship. The book spans the years 1905 (just after the death of their father) to 1911 and Virginia’s marriage to Leonard Woolf.

The story is told by a series of fictionalised diary entries created by Vanessa as well as ‘ correspondence’ from her and other members of the set. It begins with the Stephens family’s move to Gordon Square, Bloomsbury and the start of the Thursday ‘at homes’ . Together with their brothers, Thoby and Adrian, the sisters preside over a household determined to kick at convention

Adrian was being pedantic and trying to persuade Virginia to change into evening clothes.

‘I do not see why I should wear a corset in my own drawing room,” said Virginia crossly. “You can breathe? Why shouldn’t I ?”

“Because you are a lady, Ginia,”Adrian repeated.

“And therefore not entitled to breathe?Since I do not need air, I will swim around the drawing room like a fish.The what will you do?”

Virginia’s logic.

Vanessa and Virginia’s relationship is tense. Virginia’s fragile health causes Vanessa to be ever watchful. Her sister’s moods can warn of an impending storm.

When Virginia is in a good mood, she enjoys hysterics. It is when she is in a quiet mood one should be careful. The stillness that presages the squall.

We follow the family through their travels and adventures however the central event in the novel is Vanessa’s courtship by and eventual marriage to the painter, Clive Bell.

Vanessa resists Clive at first only to marry him and become blissfully happy – for a short time. Her happiness is shattered by Clive’s infidelities,  first with her own sister and then with an ex-lover.

Apparently, I have misunderstood our marriage. He never thought we would be constricted by provincial fidelity. He never thought I would be so narrow minded, so Victorian, so unimaginative , as to confuse a marriage and a love affair. He never thought I would interrupt his personal freedom in this way.

Vanessa’s relationship with her sister is irrevocably altered. When Vanessa meets Roger Fry, the art critic who eventually became her lover, she warns her sister ,

No Virginia. You ruin. You ruin whatever you see coming between you and me. Roger is to my lover. He is my friend, but that hardly matters. We have a fragile, particular friendship, and you will destroy it if you can. As you destroyed my marriage. You cannot help yourself. You do not want something of your own. You want what is mine.”

I enjoyed this book immensely. At first it was a little difficult to follow who was who despite the list of characters which appears at the front. Things did eventual fall into place and telling the story through diary entries and letters did create the atmosphere surrounding the sisters, their acolytes  and of the times in which they lived.

Of course the story is ultimately tragic but there is a thread of humour running through it, particularly in Lytton Strachey’s correspondence with Leonard Woolf, then stationed in India. Strachey is constantly promoting the idea of Woolf marrying Virginia – hilariously he even prepares the ground by proposing to her himself only to have to somehow dissolve this disastrous engagement.

Behing it all stands the cpmplex but alluring Virginia, determined to write groundbreaking fiction

‘Why must a novel begin at the beginning? Who declares such a rule? Who defends it?” 

Vanessa And Her Sister is published by Bloomsbury on 30th December. My thanks to Netgalley for the proof.

10 thoughts on “Vanessa And Her Sister by Priya Parmar

  1. Interesting to look at this area through the prism of the sisters’ relationship (which sounds quite complex and fractured in its own right). Your review reminds me of our trip to the Woolf exhibition earlier this year.

  2. Sounds like it will be a popular read, I recall she came from quite a large, blended family. Always interesting to read such stories and then to follow the chronology of the authors own publications.

    i’m trying to read Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and really struggling with it, it’s big on description and being in the physical present, with six characters, whom we are never certain of, their thoughts similar and no plot to speak of. It’s one that deserves rereading according to Eric @lonesomereader, if I can ever get it actually read! Thankfully I’ve been diving into others while I have some days free to read!

    Bon Appetit by the way!

    • Its kind of along the lines of The Paris Wife or Mrs Hemingway ….these fictionalised lives seem to be wuite popular atm. I got her Selected Letters and Diaries for Xmas so will be dipping in and out of those through the coming year. Not read Tge Waves altho i loved To Tge Lighthouse when i read it years ago .
      I was in Girl Guide Be Prepared mode when cooking today . Friends from France coming fir lunch tomorrow and we are out this evening ! Plenty More is a lovely book with lits of different ideas for vegetables !!

      • I actually really enjoy those fictionalised well researched lives of authors, I loved David Lodge’s Author, Author! on Henry James, but was a little thrown when I then found James so long winded and unedited or just, well, last century I guess. I’m tempted to read his A Man of Parts about HG Wells, even though I haven’t read HG Wells. I’m not a fan of Hemingway, preferring to read about him too! Sometimes their lives are as interesting if not more so than their fiction.

        Oh yes, I think I shall gift myself a new Ottolenghi book. 🙂

      • I loved author author too ….have you read The Master by Colm Toibin , even better i thought ! Both infinitely mire readable than HJ himself !!!

      • Yes, I read The Master not long after and then had to laugh (though didn’t read it) when David Lodge then went on to publish ‘The Year of Henry James’, apparently there was a third young lesser known author who was also writing a shadow biography/novel of Henry James as well, not sure he got published, I mean two heavyweights in the same year! I still have What Maisie Knew on the shelf, thinking perhaps a shorter work might be possible, and especially one that was made into an interesting film.

  3. This sounds like a book for me and I hadn’t heard of it. I’m so glad you reviewed it.
    I’m just reading a book of essays about some famous writers and she’s one of them. (The book is by the Goncourt winner Lydia Salvyre. It’s not translated yet.)

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