It always surprises me to find how much novels change over the years—change, that is, in my reaction to them and my feelings about them. When I reread a book that I read in college, it often seems like an entirely new book. And the same is
true of writers that I knew and loved when I was young. As you grow older you sometimes see them in a new light. Virginia Woolf was a writer much admired by the English majors that I knew in college, at least all the female ones. She wrote sensitively about the innermost feelings of women and their relationships with friends, families and lovers in a way that was different from the male novelists whose books we read in other courses. Virginia Woolf had a sister, a painter named Vanessa, but I never learned much about her. Now I am finding out about Vanessa.
This week I finished Priya Parmar’s fascinating historical novel Vanessa and Her Sister, based on the lives of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf and their family and friends who formed the famous Bloomsbury group in early 20th century England. The two women at the center of the group were the daughters of Sir Leslie Stephen and his wife Julia. They grew up in comfortable circumstances and were close to their brothers Adrian and Thoby. After their parents died, it was the boys who brought university friends into the circle of young people who now formed the household. Neither Vanessa nor Virginia, of course, went to university as very few women did in those days. It was the men who went out into the world and learned about art, history, and the ideas circulating in the greater world outside of their sheltered London neighborhood. The Stephens girls were
beautiful, charming, and witty and more than that they had a comfortable home and plenty of free time to entertain and discuss ideas about the changing times in which they all lived. In the early years before World War I, Vanessa painted, Virginia wrote and no one worried about having to get a job or do the housework.
Priya Parmar has captured the feeling of the time and has given a voice to Vanessa Bell so that both she and her sister become three-dimensional characters. We can see how the two women interacted with one another and the strains which both of them felt growing up as artists in a world dominated by men. Virginia’s emotional fragility took a toll on the whole family, especially Vanessa, but her books become even more impressive in view of the restricted world in which she lived. Vanessa’s strength in developing her painting and becoming an artist while at the same time managing most of the logistics of holding the family, and later her marriage, together is remarkable.
Reading Vanessa and Her Sister will broaden your world if you care about books and writing and you can have the extra treat of reading Prya Parmar’s blog post about the research that went into writing it. You won’t soon forget Parmar’s novel and you may go back to reading Virginia Woolf’s books too. It’s the kind of reading that should make for a good year ahead.