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.
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.
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.