Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar is a surprising novel that focuses on the Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers that included such notables as Duncan Grant, Henry Lamb, E. M. Forster, and the titular Vanessa Bell (née Stephen) and her sister Virginia Woolf.
The novel is predominantly written from the perspective of Vanessa herself in journal entries. Although there’s no evidence that Vanessa actually kept a diary, Parmar does a beautiful job of not only infusing her narrator’s voice with eloquence and poetry, she creates a fully rounded character, a woman with a complicated history and self-doubt. Interspersed are also letters, postcards, telegrams, and other missives sent from one person to another. In fact, the novel begins with a letter sent to “Nessa” by her sister Virginia, a short one that establishes a tone for the sister’s relationship before immediately moving back in time to when the two sisters and their two brothers were living together in London.
I had not realized how risqué it was for these young women to have other young men in their homes. Had anyone pointed it out to me, I would have thought, “Oh but of course.” Nonetheless, the men and women are striving together to evolve beyond the accepted Victorian social construct, as evidenced not only in their intimate intellectual gatherings but also in the literature and art they created. Of course, none of the men and women in the group could realize how pivotal a time it was. They were all just living their lives.
Oh and their lives are fascinating. Parmar alludes to some of the more salacious stories of the Stephen’s family without making them the focus. Some scholars believe that there was some incest within the family and that this, along with an obvious genetic predisposition, resulted in Virginia Woolf being so emotionally damaged. Although this informs some of the interactions the characters experience, this back story does not define the novel. Instead, the author leaves such things in the past and maneuvers her characters on the stage of her narrative in surprising ways, always sticking close to the historical facts, such as they are known through the many journals and letters that actually were written and survived.
I don’t know how to praise this novel enough. It was almost impossible to put down and I learned a few things about the Vanessa and her sister’s relationship of which I was unaware. Most of the characters are as complex as you would expect them to be, with only minor characters remaining two-dimensional and, therefore, of little interest. This is not the first novel I’ve read about the two. I read and did not especially enjoy Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers. I hope anyone who read that novel will choose to read this one because it is, in my opinion, the superior one. If you haven’t read the other, read this novel and skip the other altogether and read Mrs Dalloway, if you haven’t done so already. Heck! Even if you have read it already, Woolf's novel merits multiple readings.