Monday, February 9, 2015

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Vanessa and her Sister is
a fictionalised
 imagining of some of the
events in their lives.
There are some secrets that haunt us forever. We vow to never repeat it, but still, the mistakes keep on haunting us, becoming a thread that runs through our lives.

Such an event is at the heart of this wonderful novel, based on the lives of the writer Virginia Woolf and her painter sister, Vanessa and is a fictionalised account and imagining of some of the events.
Vanessa and Her Sister opens in 1905 when the sisters and their two brothers, Thoby and Adrian Stephen, have just moved into 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, after the death of their father, their mother having died some years before. At home in the Bloomsbury district, they will soon come to scandalise “polite society” with their unconventional ways. They will start a “salon”, giving rise to the moniker the Bloomsbury group, and will have men and women conversing in their home at all hours of the night. Throwing convention to the winds and living free from the strictures of Victorian society is more appealing.

Painter Vanessa Bell,
sister to writer Virginia 

“And what if people are shocked that we have no curtains and hold mixed at home and invite guests who don’t know when to leave? Only we live here, and we can do it how we like,” says Vanessa.
This is long before Virginia marries, and the two are still the young and beautiful Stephen sisters, desirable and desired.

The story is told through Vanessa’s diary – although in reality Vanessa never kept a diary. Instead it was Virginia who kept famously kept one. 

But this is primarily Vanessa’s story and the story is told through her prism, and the fictional device is an effective one here. Vanessa’s imagined diary is like a painting – light seeps in through the lines, and there’s a poetic feeling to her words. Vanessa is a gentle, artistic sort – and this is rendered through the writing.

Interspersed through the diary entries though are letters and telegrams sent from the Stephens and the friends who orbited them and also formed part of the group – and so these move the narrative along too. This also provides another view of the group and the events, including some letters from Virginia as well, presenting another, sometime oblique view of things.

For those with an interest in the Bloomsbury group, there’s a frisson of delight in reading about them all in this fictionalised way. 
Lytton Strachey, member of
the Bloomsbury Group

There’s Lytton Strachey, biographer and writer, instrumental in getting his friend Leonard Woolf to seriously consider Virginia as a wife, socialite and literary hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell, poet Rupert Brooke, art critic Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, and so on. 

When art critic Clive Bell sets his sights on the Stephen sisters, he sets in motion a chain of events that will alter all their lives. Virginia is strangely distant and aloof, and he begins to court Vanessa. There’s no great love though for him, a fact she repeats to herself over and over, “I like him. But it stops there. I do not think I could love him. I remember Stella when she decided to marry Jack. I watched her with the critical eye of a younger sister but I could find no flaw in her certainty. ... She recognised him. ... She had been waiting for him. I do not recognise Clive. He is not mine.”

The young Virginia 
Woolf, whose attachment  
to Vanessa is beyond
the ordinary
And she’s able to resist his efforts, until suffering grief over the death of their brother Thoby, she gives in. There will be a wedding, Clive has his Stephen sister. But when his infidelities push to the fore, after she has given birth and isn’t as attentive to him as he’d like, she’s told that they are different and theirs is to be an open, more unusual marriage.

And when his eyes start roving towards her sister, we sense the delicate balance of the sisters’ love for each other might be threatened. Vanessa is protective of Virginia, ever watchful too that Virginia doesn’t slip back into her periodic bouts of madness: “It is when she is in a quiet mood one should be careful. The stillness that presages that squall.” 

And, “I could feel Virginia pulled taut, on the brink of something, and I was not up to a mad scene today.” 

Virginia with her intense attachment to her sister has not taken easily to Vanessa’s marriage or to her involvement with her two children. There’s a line where they ask if Virginia is Sapphic, and indeed her attachment to Vanessa seems to go beyond ordinary sibling love. Busy with her children, and her painting, Vanessa watches as Clive pursues Virginia, and Virginia dances dangerously on the edge of this precipice.
Virginia Woolf and
Clive Bell in 1910

Throughout Vanessa’s voice is carefully matched and measured against the others who will watch this scenario play out. The years play on, and the book comes to its d√©nouement with Virginia’s marriage to Woolf.

A delicate and fine study of sibling love with all its complications, this finely written novel brings the Bloomsbury Group to life in a way that is masterful and astonishing. Vanessa’s soft voice beautifully holds the thread of the narrative, and we’re left contemplating the complicated bonds of sisterhood, as well as the broader complications of the relationships that encircle us.

A fine, beautiful novel, a definite highlight. Priya Parmar’s research is worn delicately, lightly, yet brings this historical period to wonderful, broad life.

First published in the Pretoria News, February 1 2015 

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