Apr/May 2015  •   Reviews & Interviews

Vanessa and her Sister

Review by Ann Skea

Vanessa and her Sister.
Priya Parmar.
Bloomsbury. 2015. 352 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 5021 3.

And what if people are shocked that we have no curtains and hold mixed at homes and invite guests who donít know when to leave. —Vanessa. 23 Feb 1905

In an Edwardian era when entertaining was still very formal and young, unmarried women were still expected to be chaperoned in mixed company, such behavior was, indeed, shocking. So, too, was their practice of calling their visitors by their first names. But Vanessa Stephen and her siblings were independent, modern and determined to live life as they chose.

Who would have thought, then, that their weekly "at home" at 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, would become famous as the first haunt of the radical intellectual and artistic set known as The Bloomsbury Group?

Who would have thought that Vanessa, who eventually married fellow artist Clive Bell, would be the first British woman to exhibit her own free-form art, influenced by Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Cezanne, and that her paintings would one day hang in many of the major art museums around the world?

And who knew, then, that her younger sister, Virginia, would marry Leonard Woolf and that she would become well-known, even to people who have never read her novels?

Vanessa Stephen never kept a diary but Priya Parmar has written one for her—a fictionalized version of the eventful years 1905-1912 which is, she says, "rooted in fact." In it, Vanessa writes of the daily events in her life, of her painting and of dramatic changes in the art world. We meet her brothers Thoby and Adrian and their friends, Lytton Strachey, E.M Forster (Morgan), Ottoline Morell, Duncan Grant and others. She records family travels, and she comments on Virginia's teaching and writing and on her strange and unpredictable behavior.

Interspersed with Vanessa's diary entries are artistic re-creations of tickets and other papers which track family activities. There are some wonderfully camp letters from Lytton Strachey, full of gossip about various homosexual love affairs (not always his own). Also, letters from Leonard Woolf who has taken a Civil Service position in Ceylon but becomes increasingly interested in Lytton's exhortations to return to England and marry Virginia.

Vanessa is quite clear that she is the artist and Virginia the writer, but her own writing is vivid, lively and interesting, and the few times that Parmar creates notes from Virginia it is hard to tell the difference between the two. What does come across very strongly is how difficult it must have been to live with Virginia and how often her mental health was of family concern. All this, although fictionalized, is based on documentary evidence of Virginia's hospitalization, her collapses, and her affair with Vanessa's husband, although there is no record of Vanessa ever confronting her about this as she does in this book.

Parmar does a superb job of giving Vanessa a voice and a character which is likeable and believable. Her vivid recreation of the bohemian life lived by the Stephen family and their friends, strongly based on their actual letters and their work, immerses the reader in their world and is fascinating. Having finished reading the book, I found myself days later wondering how Vanessa and the rest of these people were getting on, as if I almost believed I had become part of the group. And I certainly wanted to hear more from Vanessa about her life and the innovative people with whom she mixed.


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