Vanessa And Her Sister by Priya Parmar

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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.