behind the Bloomsbury group: the rivalry between Vanessa Bell and virginia woolf
Priya Parmar’s new novel, Vanessa and Her Sister, traces the fraught relationship between sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf in the years shortly after they move to Bloomsbury and begin holding gatherings for family friends. The meetings mark the start of something immense — each member of this scintillating circle is on the cusp of great things — but in Parmar’s evocative novel, at their core are the two women.
While Vanessa, stalwart, calm and organised, runs the household, youngest sister Virginia is admired for her brilliance by all who know her, not least Vanessa:
“In four hours the serious, literate men will arrive and while Virginia will amuse them with her circus acrobatics of witty, well-turned phrases, cleverly layered and underscored by her ruthlessly subtle mind, I will worry if the cocoa is served and if Lytton likes the fish.”
Vanessa feels outdone by her more brilliant sister, her sharp mind, her sharply defined features, and seeks refuge in her art and duties. Words, she has been continually told, don’t belong to her.
“Long ago, Virginia decreed, in the way Virginia decrees, that I was the painter and she the writer. ‘You do not like words, Nessa,’ she said. ‘They are not your creative nest.’
Emboldened by the gatherings, Vanessa determines she will emerge from her sister’s shadow.
“I will speak up. I will speak out.”
She starts a Friday night salon devoted to art:
“I want to elbow words out of the way and give art the floor.”
The evenings are a success; she is courted by an art critic she admires. But as she begins to find her place, Virginia begins to feel thwarted and threatened. Fragile mentally since the death of their mother in her teens, she craves attention and solace from her siblings; in particular, Vanessa.
“When Virginia knows I am watching her, she does not try to be anywhere else.”
As the relationships between family and friends grow and face changes — many irreversible — tensions seethe, Virginia’s grip on those who surround her cannot hold, and the centre begins to fall apart.
Parmar’s novel — which was written with the help of Virginia Nicholson, Vanessa Bell’s granddaughter — is told through a mixture of journal entries, letters, telegrams and postcards, imagining what was written by Vanessa and Virginia, and other luminaries of the Bloomsbury Group, including Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell, Roger Fry and Duncan Grant. The effect is that of sorting through a trunk full of belongings tucked away in an attic, slowly becoming intimate with long-lost family members.
But what Parmar presents is fiction, of course, however many facts are woven throughout. And the difficulty with historical fiction is adding tension to a story already well documented. Parmar admits as much, saying she had to find “room for invention in the negative spaces....” That she does. She focuses on Vanessa’s reaction to Virginia’s attempts to manipulate her and others and how outsiders view the situation — a fascinating perspective to take. The rivalry between the sisters shifts from a near-inconsequential one to a devastating war of emotions. As the rift widens, Parmar’s attention narrows to the effects of betrayal — for such close sisters, a never-before-imagined landscape.
Parmar walks a fine line: Creating sympathy for Vanessa while not portraying Virginia, someone who is clearly ill, as wicked — her actions are referred to as “malicious,” she, it is noted, is not.
Parmar’s writing is splendid, awash with metaphors and analogies that bring to life this dazzling world and these brilliant, complicated characters:
“I felt a slim wire of unease pull the room into a tense flat line”
“I keep my questions planted in a tidy hedgrow,”
“The house settles onto its haunches when Thoby goes....”
“No....It is no longer a single straight-syllabled word solidly built and painted in the primary colours of conviction. Instead it is a tumbledown cottage of a word, furnished in curiosity and thatched in doubt.”
Parmar’s first novel, Exit the Actress, told the story of Nell Gwyn, an 17th-century actress who became a mistress of Charles II, so it seems she has decided to specialise in books based on historical figures. It is hugely engrossing to read her beautifully written imagining of what might have been, how things could have played out. I am curious to see who the subject of her next project will be — and I look forward to reading whatever she writes.