BOOK REVIEW: ‘Vanessa and Her Sister’: Engrossing Fictionalized Biography of Virginia Woolf and Her Painter Sister Vanessa Bell

REVIEWED BY DAVID M. KINCHEN

“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” — Margo Channing, played by Bette Davis in “All About Eve” (1950)

* * *

Vanessa and Her sister jacketThe quotation from the movie came to my mind when I read Priya Parmar’s “Vanessa and Her Sister” (Ballantine Books, 368 pages, $26.00), a captivating look at sisters Vanessa Stephen Bell (1879-1961) and Virginia Stephen Woolf (1882-1941).

Everybody’s heard of Virginia Woolf, if only from the movie “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and “The Hours,” a 2002 film starring Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf.

Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf were members of the Bloomsbury Group, a diverse group of intellectuals named for the section of London they inhabited. The Group included Vanessa’s husband, Clive Bell, and Virginia’s husband, Leonard Woolf.

In addition to art critic Bell, and civil servant turned writer Leonard Woolf, the Bloomsbury Group included novelist E.M. (Morgan) Forster; biographer Lytton Strachey, a good friend of Leonard’s who urged him to court Virginia; the future renowned economist John Maynard Keynes, and art expert Roger Fry, who became a lover of Vanessa Bell when she discovered her husband Clive was having affairs.

Parmar provides a front-of-the-book cast of characters, which is particularly helpful since many of the characters refer to each other by their nicknames. For instance, Julian Thoby Stephen, the brother of Virginia and Vanessa, is often called “The Goth.” Virginia’s nickname is “Goat.”

At the end of the book, the author provides us with brief summaries of what happened to most of the people in the book. Very helpful!

Parmar begins her mostly epistolary — written in the form of correspondence — novel/biography in 1905 when Vanessa, Virginia and their brothers Thoby and Adrian leave the family house after the death of their parents and rent a large house at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, an area of the borough of Camden, in central London, between Euston Road and Holborn.

The Stephen siblings are the core of the group, attracting talented and outrageous people like a magnet attracting iron filings. Vanessa and her sister Virginia — who has already experienced bouts with the bipolar mental illness that will lead to her suicide in 1941 — are competitive to an extreme point. Virginia doesn’t think any man is good enough for her talented painter sister Vanessa and is especially disapproving of Clive Bell.

Parmar’s book is especially good at describing the complicated relationship between Vanessa and Virginia. When Vanessa marries Clive Bell and has two children with him, Virginia suddenly decides that she wants him. She feels abandoned by her older sister, who has always been there to help her. She can’t stand seeing Vanessa happy and in her own way tries to drive a wedge between Vanessa and Clive.

If this description sounds a cross between a soap opera and “Downton Abbey”, I’m apologizing in advance! You’ll just have to read “Vanessa and Her Sister” to see why I think it’s not only the latest addition to this genre, but also one of the best.

About the author

Educated at Mount Holyoke College, the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Oxford, Priya Parmar divides her time between Hawaii and London.

For my feb. 26, 2011 review of “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/2067

For my oct. 29, 2014 review of “The Lodger”, about Bloomsbury Group member Dorothy Richardson and her affair with H.G. Wells: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/99555

Link to Dec. 28, 2014 NPR interview with Priya Parmar: http://www.npr.org/2014/12/28/373278737/novel-shines-literary-spotlight-on-virginia-woolf-s-sister

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