In the end notes of Priya Parmar’s book, Vanessa and Her Sister, the author says “It is not easy to fictionalise the Bloomsbury Group, as their lives are so well documented. They were prolific correspondents and diarists, and there is a wealth of existing primary material. The difficulty came in finding enough room for fiction in the negative spaces they left behind.”
It may not have been easy but Parmar makes it appear effortless. Her novel, a fictional diary by Vanessa Bell, painter, and sister to author Virginia Woolf is so convincing, so compelling, that my ‘belief’ never wavered for a moment. The diary entries are interwoven with correspondence between members of the Bloomsbury Group – letters, telegrams and postcards.
Not once did I feel that Parmar was adding facts for the sake of authenticity. Each entry in Vanessa’s diary was plausible and the writing, beautiful. Testament to how wonderful I found Parmar’s writing to be are the eleventy-million passages I marked in my book. Parmar has given Vanessa a unique, strong voice. Despite Virginia declaring in the opening scene that “You do not like words, Nessa… They are not your creative nest.”, Virginia’s diary is superbly written. It’s revealing, honest and peppered with everyday details that create a firm sense of place and time –
“Dinner with the Balfours tomorrow with George and Margaret. No doubt they will have several eligible young men they would like us to meet. A white glove and seed pearl evening. It will be dreadful.”
Fans of Virginia Woolf will be keen to know how she is portrayed. The word ‘brat’ comes to mind.
Vanessa describes Virginia as “a burrowing animal in search of perpetual notice…”. Her need for attention takes various forms – from wheedling over possession of a writing-table and having to be coaxed to eat, to bouts of ‘madness’ and being intentionally nasty and manipulative. Virginia’s efforts are focused predominantly on Vanessa, whom she treats as more of a mother than a sister (despite being only a few years apart in age).
“…it is a narrow precipice with Virginia. Too much affection given to someone else and she can topple over, too little and she gloats.”
Importantly, Virginia assumes Vanessa’s steadfast loyalty and yet the betrayal of trust that is at the centre of the story tests their relationship –
“This way has a subtle cruelty. This way will torment. She will spend years trying to map the rift she caused and sound the damage. She will push on the bruise and grow frantic trying to repair the creeping remoteness. It is the unkindest thing I’ve ever done. And I will not relent. I will not do otherwise. Damn her.”
I won’t say much more about what constituted the betrayal (that would be a spoiler). Readers who are familiar with the Bloomsbury Group may know what happened between Vanessa and her sister – even if you did, the flamboyant, avant-garde Bloomsbury set with their constant switching of lovers and alliances makes for compelling reading.
In Vanessa, Parmar has created a character that you wanted to know more about. Any historical fiction that has me hitting Google hard is great historical fiction. You can see Vanessa Bell’s paintings here.
4/5 A joy.
I received my copy of Vanessa and Her Sister from the publisher, Ballantine Books via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
At one point, a doctor prescribes “…four large glasses of champagne a day…” for Vanessa’s ‘nervous condition’.
“Virginia was not eating her breakfast. I was drinking my prescribed champagne with orange juice and was not in the right mood to get tangled up with Virginia.”
Isn’t that marvelous?! I’m going to self-diagnose a nervous condition quite regularly. Try this champagne orange cocktail, fittingly called English Breakfast.