Friday, 11 September 2015

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

The Bloomsbury Group are credited with having a huge influence on literature, social thought, aesthetics and economics. Priya Parmar delves into the origins of the group with her fictional diary of Vanessa Bell, a well-known painter in her own right, but perhaps more famous for being Virginia Woolf’s sister.

Before marrying, the two young women shared a house in Bloomsbury, London, with their brothers Thoby and Adrian Stephen, where the boys invited their clever Cambridge friends for soirees every Thursday. This was the early 1900s, so these late nights spent changing the world and no chaperones were considered shocking for the time. Among the characters Parmar treats us with are Lytton Strachey, Ottoline Morrell and Roger Fry.

But more interestingly, this is a view of the relationship between two sisters. As the eldest, Vanessa looks after the family accounts and worries about Virginia who is prone to mental breakdowns. When Vanessa is courted by Clive Bell, Virginia becomes so jealous she schemes to create a rift in the couple's relationship.

Stories written in diary format don’t always grab me, but this one just hummed along and I couldn’t put it down. Vanessa is such a sympathetic character and what a fascinating bunch the Bloomsbury Group were. Mingled with Vanessa’s diary entries are witty letters between Strachey and Leonard Woolf, telegrams and assorted correspondence.

Parmar has done a lot of research to imagine Vanessa Bell’s voice and her feelings for her charismatic but difficult sister. She allows her character to grow and change as events affect her to make a compelling and intriguing read.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: Vanessa and Her Sister

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