Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 3, 2015

Vanessa and Her Sister (2015), by Priya Parmar

Vanessa and Her SisterI really, really enjoyed this book, and was sorry to come to its end.  It is a fictionalisation of the life of Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) and her sister Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) between 1905 and 1912, and I wanted to know what happened next.

Well, I know, of course, what happened next.  The war; Vanessa becoming a noted avant-garde artist; the founding of the Hogarth Press; and Virginia becoming a famous writer and her suicide.  But I wanted to read about all that from Vanessa’s point-of-view and savour her further voyage of self-discovery; and to relish this author’s delicious prose and startling imagery, so apt for a novel mostly narrated by a visual artist.  (The novel is a pastiche: there are also ‘telegrams’, ‘postcards’ and the occasional brief letter by other characters, but it is Vanessa’s narration that carries the book).

Fortunately for me, and for most other readers who are intrigued by the devoted, gifted sisters who defied convention, expertise in the oeuvre of Virginia Woolf is not required.  I’ve read eight of Woolf’s novels but (with the exception of Orlando reviewed here on my blog) that was so long ago I am not tempted even to write a brief review at GoodReads; and I have the Victoria Glendinning bio of Leonard Woolf, but I haven’t read it yet.  So I read Vanessa and her Sister as I think most people would, on its own terms, and I enjoyed it very much.

The novel begins when the Stephen sisters have set up house with their brother Thoby and Adrian in pre-war Bloomsbury.   Their parents are dead, and with their glittering circle of Cambridge friends, they are deliberately flouting convention.  In what must have been a nightmare for servants used to routine, friends drop in at any time, and they stay till the small hours of the morning.  They abandon conventions of dressing for dinner (which was probably a relief for the servants, less laundry), and – it seems droll now that this was noteworthy – they were careless about the gender balance of their guests. But they are not nonchalant about all this: they expect to be noticed.

… we are a surprising company.  For all our confidence, only Morgan [E.M. Forster] has done anything of any note in the outside world.  The rest of us are still living on the borrowed fuel of potential and have so far not left deep footprints. But together we carry a brackish air of importance.  As if we are doing something worthy in the world.  Maybe how we live our lives is the grand experiment?  Mixing company, throwing out customs, using first names, waiting to marry, ignoring the rules, and choosing what to care about.  Is that why we matter? Or perhaps Miss Warre-Cornish [the fiancée of one of their circle] is right and we do not matter in the least. (p. 90)

Well, history showed that Miss Warre-Cornish was wrong.  They did matter, and not just because they heralded a relaxation of stuffy conventions.  But this novel stops short of any of the triumphs to come: Virginia is still trying to get book reviews accepted and does not begin writing her first novel until 1910; Lytton Strachey is unpublished; Leonard Woolf is a civil servant far away in Ceylon; Maynard Keynes is still not sure of what he wants to do; and Vanessa is admiring post-impressionist artworks but is yet to find her own style.

And for all her delight in unconventionality, Vanessa is pondering her own unmarried status.  At 26, she doesn’t want to risk spinsterhood and she hasn’t found the right man.  She feels responsible for Virginia too, likewise unattached at 23.  Any potential marriage of these stars of the coterie is also of keen interest to the men (mostly gay or bi) because the suitor must fit in.  ‘Postcards’ and ‘letters’ between Lytton and Leonard and others show their anxiety that the brilliant, artistic atmosphere of the Bloomsbury Set should not be sabotaged.

Against her better judgement, Vanessa falls in love.  She shares a love of art with Clive Bell, and she decides to marry him.  And that’s when Virginia’s possessiveness veers into dangerous territory.  She is an unstable personality, and at the time of this novel had already had one episode of mental illness (now thought to be bipolar disorder).  She goes after Clive, when what she really wants is Vanessa who has always been her touchstone but now seems to be abandoning her.  And Clive, for his part, is jealous of the baby that arrives within a year of the marriage…

Priya Parmar juggles Vanessa’s experience of tragedy and betrayal with her optimism, her pragmatism, and her changing sense of self.  The novel shows how trying it can be to live with a sister’s caprice, and how hard it is to vanquish bitterness.  But she also shows the impregnable bond between the sisters: Vanessa loves Virginia dearly, and feels responsible for her.  She makes decisions to protect herself, but when the crisis comes, she cares for Virginia despite the hurt.

Other aspects of the novel still resonate today.  Vanessa’s unexpected delight in motherhood is balanced by her discovery that small babies don’t fit in sparkling intellectual circles.

Elsie [the nurse] had a toothache so I left her here and took Julian to visit Virginia.  It was awful.  I held him and rocked him and bounced him, but he still fussed, and Virginia soon adopted a martyred expression. I walked him in slow blunt squares around the room. Virginia said I was making her dizzy.  Fortunately Clive called in for me and told Virginia amusing stories that gave her the opportunity to make witty and incisive observations.

I was left undisturbed to cope with Julian.  When he is uncomfortable I cannot keep my thoughts on the spinning conversational plates.  They get tossed my way and I let them crash to the ground. Finally Clive put me in a cab.  Best I went home alone.  Julian’s crying unsettles him anyway.  (p.169)

Vanessa is, of course, of that privileged class to have servants and a private income.  She has a nurse for the child, and she continues to paint.  They travel extensively, they make trips to the countryside and they are out and about in the cultural milieu of Edwardian England.  And so in the course of events she discovers that the man who became an advocate of modern art in Britain, Roger Fry, admires her painting, and that they share other attributes too…

All this is more or less common knowledge amongst devotees of the Bloomsbury Group, but Parmar brings it alive with a sensibility that is both authentic and contemporary.  Ignore the ludicrous cover design: trust me, Vanessa and Her Sister is not a soppy historical romance, it’s a wise, thoughtful, sparkling rendition of a life too often subsumed by the profile of others.

Author: Priya Parmar
Title: Vanessa and Her Sister
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2015
ISBN: 9781408850213
Source: review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury ANZ


Fishpond: Vanessa and Her Sister


  1. As you say the cover of the book is awful, it looks like a chick book. I am so glad I read your review, because if I hadn’t I would have steered clear of the book. I trust you, and will look out for it at my library.


    • This type of cover sets my teeth on edge. It tells you everything about cuts to the design budget and all the artistry that went with it, and tells you nothing about the book except that the marketers, who probably haven’t read it, think it’s chick-lit because it’s about women. It does a book like this a terrible disservice: I know this, because I didn’t even open it when it arrived from the publisher.


  2. I didn’t read this very thoroughly but when I did pick it up I found it to be a page turner and hard to put down. I think that if an author is writing about real people they should really give the reader notice at the beginning of the book about how much is fact and what is fiction. I still don’t know whether the “pastiche of telegrams and letters” etc exist. I would have enjoyed this book more if the authors note, included after more details about the characters at the end, had been used as a preface.


    • I’m glad you enjoyed it – I found it was a page-turner too (and I wasn’t expecting that). Yes, I think I would have liked to see more detail about her sources, but at the end of the day, I do think that the book works as a story which is the main thing.


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