After the death of their father in 1904, Vanessa, Thoby, Adrian and Virginia Stephen went to live in a house in Bloomsbury. They wanted to be bohemian and throw away the Victorian rules of conduct, but this was not always so easy. Vanessa, the eldest, is still the one paying the bills and making sure there is enough food when they organize a party.
Thoby’s friends from Cambridge, like Lytton Stratchey or E.M. Forster were regular visitors who filled the rooms with talks about philosophy and literature. Vanessa felt she could not contribute as well as the others, since she was not a writer but a painter, but she was more important than she realized and soon she became the centre of what would be known as ‘Bloomsbury’.
When Thoby died, Vanessa accepted the marriage proposal by Clive Bell. He had asked her before, but only in the aftermath of the tragedy did Vanessa feel she could really trust him to take care of her.
The first months of marriage were amazing, only when their eldest son Julian was born and Vanessa had all her focus on him, it changed. Clive rekindled some old affaires, and also started a flirt of some kind with Vanessa, although that never got physical.
We know a lot about Bloomsbury and the people belonging to that group. They left letters, diaries and many, many novels. Vanessa is a member who stays a little in the shadow, since she was not one of the writers, but a painter.
We do know the relationship between Vanessa and Virginia was often troubled. Deep affection on one hand, bitter competition on the other hand. Susan Sellers already wrote a novel about the sister Vanessa and Virginia, and I really enjoyed that.
Therefore I was quite curious to see what Priya Parmar would make of it.
Vanessa and her sister is not very flattering for Virginia Woolf. In this book she is brilliant, but also has moment of madness and the people around her walk on eggshells daily, to make sure nothing upsets her. Vanessa, knowingly or unknowingly, uses this. She is afraid to be left alone in her madness and claims her sisters affections without consideration for others. She wants to be the center of her sisters attention, even if she has to begin an affair with her sister’s husband.
This relationship, although Virginia and Clive never shared something physical, did end the relationship between Vanessa and Virginia. Vanessa was never able to forget how her sister once betrayed her and from that moment there would always be a distance.
The book is told as a Vanessa’s diary, with letters from Virginia or from Lytton to Leonard that tell the rest of the story.
The story is set between 1905 and 1912, from the moment the Stephen’s are living in Bloomsbury, until the moment Virginia has married herself with Leonard Woolf, who was present in the background through the entire book, through the letters to and from Lytton.
Priya Parmar was able to use many sources, but I am glad to see she also found enough room for her own interpretation.
Was Virginia really such a burden to her family? It is very well possible, people who are ill often have the egocentrical idea that the whole world revolves around them. It is also possible it is just how Vanessa felt it. After all, with everything she did she had to take Virginia into account and see if it did not upset her. Only when Virginia marries and has another person who can be her primal caregiver, Vanessa is freed of this burden.
I thought it was a very interesting interpretation and I also loved how it was written. The style is really beautiful and I liked how Vanessa’s voice becomes clear. I especially liked how it is described how Vanessa slowly realizes how her husband regards marriage and how she can handle this.
In short, a very beautiful book and an interesting addition for everyone interested in Virginia Woolf or Vanessa Bell.
Published in 2014