Review: Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Vanessa and Her Sister: A Novel - Priya Parmar

I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.


Published by Ballantine Books, December 30, 2014


Thousands, probably millions, of words have been written about the figures in and around the Bloomsbury Group, and no one has probably been examined and reprised more than Virginia Woolf. But this isn’t Virginia’s story; it belongs to her sister Vanessa, despite Virginia’s every effort to coopt it. Vanessa and her Sister takes place in the years between 1905 and 1912, essentially covering the ground from the Stephen family’s move to the iconic Bloomsbury neighborhood, to Virginia’s marriage to Leonard Woolf. Constructed as a cross between a journal and an epistolary novel, it is primarily in Vanessa’s voice, but often incorporates letters, telegrams and postcards from other significant figures, like Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, and, of course, Virginia.


The title may not include Virginia’s name, but this is certainly Vanessa’s story in relation to her. We hear about Vanessa’s dreams of being an artist, her marriage, motherhood, and various friendships, but it is always Vanessa’s fraught relationship with her sister that holds the spotlight and warps everything around it. I know this is historical fiction and Parmar takes liberties with the characters, particularly as Vanessa left very little writing to extrapolate from, but throughout this book it is impossible not to HATE VIRGINIA WOOLF for most of the novel. I never thought I would write that, but there it is.


Not long after Vanessa Stephen married her brother’s friend Clive Bell, Virginia and Clive entered into a liaison of sorts. As far as I can tell (and I am certainly no Woolf scholar), biographers disagree about the nature and degree of their attachment; some say it was an emotional affair, others that it was merely a flirtatious friendship. Vanessa, in Parmar’s telling, certainly sees it as a real affair, and neither Virginia nor Clive comes out looking very good. Of course, much of Virginia’s behavior is based on her notoriously imbalanced mental state, but in the novel she is unbearably selfish and childlike, and Vanessa is wary of her. To be loved by someone like Virginia is more of a curse than a blessing. Madness (or potential madness) may be tragically glamorous in later telling, but it can be nothing but infuriating as it manifests in daily life and forces everyone else to dance around it or be damned. Parmar’s ventriloquism as Vanessa is very convincing; I had an almost visceral emotional response to her feelings of betrayal and confusion as motherhood overtook her life and her husband turned to her own sister for solace.


Virginia’s motivations for disrupting her sister’s marriage are perhaps the more disturbing because she is not dedicated to stealing Clive for his affection or presence, but rather to separate him from Vanessa so she can have her sister all to herself. Virginia’s love for Vanessa borders on the incestuous in its intensity and single-minded pursuit to destroy anything that threatens to come between them. Again, definite liberties are taken, as biographers generally agree that Virginia loved her nieces and nephews, while in this version of events she refers to them as “parasites” when they take Vanessa’s attention away. But the drama is rich and believable, even if we assume it was heightened for effect.


Other famous figures of the Bloomsbury Group make appearances throughout, and their presence gives shape to a book that could have otherwise drowned in the high drama of lovers and betrayal if left to Vanessa’s experience alone. Lytton Strachey, with his bitchy, proto-camp personality is particularly wonderful, and Leonard Woolf, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, E.M. Forster, Maynard Keynes, Lady Ottoline Morrell- and others I’m sure I’ve forgotten- all make appearances. Aside from Vanessa’s journal and letters from her and Virginia, there is a recreation of the correspondence between Strachey and Leonard Woolf, in which Strachey repeatedly tries to convince Woolf to marry Virginia. Of course, he does marry her, and there is a note of hope at the end of the book, as Virginia finds someone of “her own” and Vanessa enters into a love affair with art critic Roger Fry and has her work entered in one of his famous and controversial Post-Impressionist shows. While the relationship dynamics are the focus of the book, it never forgets that Vanessa is a painter and Virginia a writer- their work is always there, even if it is in the background.


History has no written record of Vanessa’s private thoughts and she never mentioned the affair between Virginia and Clive in any of her letters. In the author’s note at the end of the novel, Parmar explains where she deviated from known record, and her story hinges on vague but telling details collected from Virginia’s letters and family recollections. To have begun with an event that most biographers only mention in passing, Parmar has constructed a powerful, emotionally convincing account of the lives of the Bloomsbury Group and has given a voice to the most enigmatic of them all. We may never know the whole truth about Vanessa and Virginia’s relationship, but as long as it provides the foundation for fiction as enjoyable as this, that’s just fine with me. Sometimes, the truth is overrated.


Cross-posted at Goodreads: Vanessa and Her Sister