Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Guys, I love Virginia Woolf. That ain’t no secret around these parts. And now I’ve read four novelisations of her life… or at least where she features. Those are The Hours by Michael Cunningham, Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers, Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee, and now Vanessa and Her Sister (2014) by Priya Parmar.

Vanessa and Her Sister

The Cunningham novel remains my favourite, but all of them have been good in their different ways – and Parmar takes the different angle of framing this as the diary of Vanessa Bell, which opens thus:

Thursday 23 February 1905 – 46 Gordon Square
Bloomsbury, London (early)

I opened the great sash window onto the morning pink of the square and made a decision.

Yes. Today.

Last Thursday evening I sat in the corner like a sprouted potato, but this Thursday, I will speak up. I will speak out. Long ago, Virginia decreed, in the way that 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 orb? Or oeuf? My sister always describes me in rounded domestic hatching words. And invariably, I believe her. So, not a writer, I have 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. 

Alongside these ongoing entries there is a collage-style selection of letters from various members of the Bloomsbury Group – most amusingly between Lytton Strachey and Leonard Woolf, the former trying to persuade the latter to marry Virginia Stephen. Spoilers: he does.

That does bring about one big factor in reading this novel, or any book about real people. The reading experience will depend a lot upon how much you know about the people in question. I read Vanessa and Her Sister for my book group, and some people there said they were forever flicking to the list of people at the beginning, and trying to work out how everybody was connected: I was in the lucky position that I already knew who everybody was, and what would happen to them, and even some nicknames (‘Goat’ for Virginia, for instance). I have rather immersed myself in Virginia and her circle, of course – as have many of you – and so I wasn’t surprised when Thoby died (for instance) and none of the novel held tension for me, per se.

This also meant that I had to read the book with parallel sets of people: the real individuals, and the characters that Parmar has created. She is keen to emphasise in her afterword that the novel and people are fictional – but, of course, one can’t help thinking constantly of the actual lives these people lived, and real events are constantly being referred to.

The focus of the novel, as both the title and the excerpt above suggest, is the relationship between sisters Vanessa and Virginia Stephen. The novel, indeed, ends before Virginia’s first novel is published – so we see them as sisters learning their craft as painter and writer respectively, without their later reputations clouding the scene. And most prominent in Parmar’s handling is the possessiveness Virginia feels over Vanessa.

Much happens in Vanessa and Her Sister that would probably have been cut from a complete fiction, as distracting from the main narrative – the Dreadnaught Hoax, for instance – but it is Vanessa’s marriage to Clive Bell and Virginia’s resentment of this that occupy most of the book. Virginia and Clive begin an affair of the mind, and Vanessa tries to deal with the fragility of Virginia’s mental health alongside the indignity of Clive’s other affairs, and this betrayal.

Tbh, Virginia comes off terribly in this book. We don’t see her talent, and we certainly don’t see her humour – which is always evident in her writing, particularly her non-fiction and letters. She is chiefly a clingy, selfish, extremely weak person in this narrative. But, then, who is ever charmed by their own siblings? Love them, yes, deeply – but we see our nearest and dearest in clear ways that nobody else would, and speak of and to them in ways that nobody else could. The angle is perhaps realistic?

Oh, and Parmar certainly writes well and very engagingly. We can’t know how Vanessa would have written her diary, because she did not. What worked less well, to my mind, were letters between people who did write letters to each other. When we can read the letters Virginia, Roger Fry, or Lytton Strachey wrote, why would we want to read versions that Parmar has made up? (Incidentally, Roger Fry is easily the novel’s nicest character. I don’t know much about him, and have yet to read the biography of him that Virginia Woolf wrote.)

My most pressing question throughout was: had Parmar read Susan Sellers’ novel? So much of it seems to be inspired by the same things, though Sellers wrote in a much more Modernist way, that worked very well.

You’re spoiled for choice if you want to read novelisations of the Bloomsbury Group. I’d still always recommend The Hours as a first choice, and would probably choose a biography before a novelisation anyway, but Parmar has tackled a difficult topic and approach very capably. This is certainly an enjoyable read, but perhaps for people who already know the figures well, rather than those hoping to learn about the individuals involved.

23 thoughts on “Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

  • July 1, 2016 at 7:07 am

    Like you, I can never get enough of Virginia Woolf and her circle, although it’s her diaries which I turn to again and again. I haven’t read this one, but really enjoyed The Hours.

    • July 3, 2016 at 10:17 pm

      I’ve still only dipped in and out of her diaries, so I must read them more thoroughly – but it does make me envious that somebody could write so well just in her diary!

  • July 1, 2016 at 7:36 am

    Many years since I read The Hours but I loved it. I am been circling these other novelisations for a while (this one very much appealed) but I am snowed under in books and still lots of actual Virginia Woolf books to read. Still I love the idea of Vanessa being the narrator and portraying her sister in a way we might not expect.

    • July 3, 2016 at 10:18 pm

      There really is no end of VW and books about her – which is lovely, but a bit overwhelming!

  • July 1, 2016 at 7:39 am

    I really loved this book. I knew quite a lot about the people already and/but found it all very convincing. I must say VW came out very badly and it’s put me off her rather, but I was never such a massive fan as you are!

    • July 3, 2016 at 10:19 pm

      I wish you could have been at book group with us, Harriet!

      I have to admit, much as I love VW as a writer, I do have to temper my love of her as a person. She definitely had plenty of flaws – though perhaps not to the extent that this novel suggests.

  • July 1, 2016 at 9:11 am

    I read it for my book group too and was very disappointed. I do know the Bloomsbury characters passably well, and for me the imitations and interpretations didn’t cut it. I was left with a firm determination to stick to real letters henceforth (after all, VW’s are among the best of any) and not waste my time. Sorry to feel differently from you, Harriet, but it really got up my nose like a pebble!

    • July 1, 2016 at 10:00 am

      I did not think it flowed well and gave up on it after 40 pages.

    • July 3, 2016 at 10:20 pm

      Aw, that’s a shame. Horses for courses!
      (And I have never heard that pebble image before.. how, erm, evocative.)

      • July 4, 2016 at 3:47 am

        Course you haven’t heard it before, cos I just made it up…;-) But it refers to Alcott’s Jo who as a child is told not to put beans up her nose and put pebbles up, much to her discomfort…

  • July 1, 2016 at 9:38 am

    I tend to be a bit wary of novelisations of real people’s lives – particularly when it’s people I love, like Woolf. And as she’s documented so well through letters and diaries, tbh I’d rather make up my own mind about how they were instead of reading someone else’s interpretation. Which is why I didn’t watch the recent TV Bloomsbury Group prog! :)

    • July 3, 2016 at 10:22 pm

      I am conflicted because I definitely feel like that in theory, but keep returning to examples in practice!

  • July 1, 2016 at 11:46 am

    I agree with Kaggsy here (as I so often do!) – and your phrase “When we can read the letters Virginia, Roger Fry, or Lytton Strachey wrote, why would we want to read versions that Parmar has made up?” resonated here. The Hours seemed different, because it had so many different layers and characters in it. But a good review and I bet Virginia and Bloomsbury fans would get a lot out of this.

    • July 3, 2016 at 10:22 pm

      I think you’re right about The Hours being different for that reason – and perhaps that’s why it stays above the others in my mind.

  • July 1, 2016 at 1:14 pm

    The Hours is beautifully written and definitely worth reading. I threw away the Manhattan one (or gave it to the Oxfam bookshop). It was based on a brilliant idea but just seemed forced and false. I think the more keen you are on Virginia and Bloomsbury group the less likely you are to enjoy novels based on their lives. Re-read to ‘To the Lighthouse’ and see why – nobody else writes like her. Having said that writers like Rachel Cusk and Graham Swift have a Woolfian style which is successful.

    • July 3, 2016 at 10:24 pm

      In theory I agree with you, but I recently read a novelisation of the lives of some artists and didn’t much like it (or dislike it) – and put that down to not knowing who they were. I don’t think there’s any group I know as well as the Bloomsbury Group, and I keep returning to them!

      But obviously I agree with you – I can never get enough of VW herself.

  • July 2, 2016 at 8:11 am

    Which edition(s) of VW’s diaries would you recommend, Simon ? Mariner Books have published them in 5 annotated volumes which look fantastic but come at a price, do you know them ?

    • July 3, 2016 at 10:28 pm

      I have the Penguin books editions – paperbacks from the ’80s edited by Anne Olivier Bell. I think they’re probably quite pricey bought now, but I come across them in secondhand bookshops relatively often.

      Alternatively, A Writer’s Diary is very good – it’s an edited version which just deals with her entries about writing. Persephone have published that, I think.

  • July 2, 2016 at 12:21 pm

    The novelisation thing is something I would avoid – with certain exceptions, like Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness. There’s so much ‘worship’ connected with the Bloomsbury group that I feel events and characters have often become distorted.
    Whenever I’m reading about an event or publication which occurred during their lives, I turn to VW’s diaries, just to see what her thoughts were. As Victoria says, no one writes like her. Why try? It would be like trying to paint a Caravaggio. And as for making a film of a book about her…!

    • July 3, 2016 at 10:30 pm

      I always check out her letters and diaries too, to see if she wrote about specific people or events, or just what was going on at those times.

      And I’ll have to look out for Zennor in Darkness! I assume about Katherine Mansfield, DH Lawrence etc.? I saw Amy Rosenthal’s play about their time there (name of which I now forget) which was very good.

  • July 3, 2016 at 2:59 am

    I read this last year and think that your description of it as “admirable” is perfect. It wasn’t amazing, but it was enjoyable.

    • July 3, 2016 at 10:30 pm

      Exactly that :) I’d still be intrigued to see what her first novel is like, sometime.

  • July 4, 2016 at 7:58 pm

    I’ve never been much of a Virginia Woolf guy myself, so I didn’t mind this book’s negative portrayal of her. :p It was neat getting to know the Bloomsbury Group a bit better, and you’re right — Roger Fry was an absolute dear.

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