Review: Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Vanessa and Her SisterWhat would it be like to live with someone like Virginia Woolf? Precociously talented, prone to tip over the edge into insanity, the Stephen family and Vanessa Stephen in particular were driven by Virginia.
In Vanessa and Her Sister Priya Parmar takes us into the heart of the family after their father’s death. The book is placed in the mind of Vanessa, and we watch as she initially denies her attraction to Clive Bell, then eventually marries him despite Virginia’s opposition.

The book is written in letters and diary entries, mainly from and by Vanessa, but interspersed with postcards between Lytton Strachey and Leonard Woolf, plus the occasional telegram and letter from the States from Roger Fry to his wife and his mother. Without knowing what happens, these postcards, telegrams and letters seem slightly random: perhaps we are all expected to know the tangled love affairs of the Bloomsbury group in advance.

I’ve written a lot about Woolf in the last 18 months, and have mainly read literary criticism of her work, her diaries, and historical comments on her life. It was interesting to get this fictionalised version which very much brought to life events such as what happened to Thoby, the family trips to Europe and Cornwall, and life in Bloomsbury and Sussex. I think Parmar captured the atmosphere very well, with barely an error.

I’m fascinated by the thin line between fact and fiction, and want to learn more about writing other people’s lives. This sort of fictionalised account has to be firmly rooted in fact or it will lay itself open to criticism, but some of the joy of writing fiction must be the ability to imagine and conjure thoughts and motives. Worth a read if you are a fan of the Bloomsbury Group, and you too can feed your imagination.