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Book review: Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar

BY Anna Walker

1st Jan 2015 Book Reviews

Book review: Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar

Priya Parmar’s stirring second novel paints a convincing portrait of a woman struggling to step out from her sister’s shadow.

Buy Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar for £7.99 

When it comes to the Stephen sisters, it is the domineering intellect of Virginia Woolf that history has put in the spotlight.

In Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister however, she is the stormy second sister in a subtle, yet affecting account of sisterhood, friendship and the birth of modernist thinking.

The novel spans seven years, from 1905 to 1912, in the lives of the artist Vanessa Bell and her remarkable set of friends. Priya presents these eminent literary figures—which include EM Forster and Lytton Strachey—before they were celebrated, back when they were just a group of friends.

It’s a remarkable historical moment to capture. The group excitedly chatter about the cultural changes unfolding around them as Victorian English society casts off its corset, both literal and symbolic, and takes the first steps into modernity.

Narrated through the fictionalised journal entries of Vanessa Bell and charmingly authentic letters from her friends, even Bloomsbury group devotees may be surprised by some of the details of the Stephen sisters' early lives.

That they suffered the loss of their parents, their beloved step-sister Stella and eldest brother Thoby all by their early twenties, for example, is rarely spoken of. The life of the Stephens tends, regrettably, to be defined retrospectively by the suicide of the youngest and most famous sibling, Virginia Woolf.

On one level, this is patently a narrative of grief. Vanessa mourns for her parents' passing and the childhood she was forced to abandon to become a mother figure to her orphaned siblings. She mourns devastatingly for her brother Thoby, and for the marital affair that festers at the heart of the novel.

Along with their sparkling gatherings and witty asides, came the Bloomsbury set’s impressively shadowy dark side. On this topic, Parmar is admirably brazen.

Vanessa Bell
Images: Bell's portraits of Virginia Woolf via Art Fund

She writes of the death of Thoby, for example, with a bright-eyed clarity and her beautiful prose is rarely over-adorned. Vanessa confesses that she still “collects funny things all day long to tell Thoby”. When she tries to write to announce the death, her fingers “hover over the page as if they had forgotten the alphabet”.

The sincerity of Vanessa and Her Sister is also apparent through its treatment of mental illness. In particular, the way it captures the emotional struggle of loving a mentally unstable sister.

When Vanessa first meets the artist Roger Fry, whose beloved wife Helen was interned into a mental institution from 1910 to the end of her life, she writes, “I wanted to say that watching over a beloved who is prone to insanity is a treacherous, guilty and lonely road, but I did not presume that far.”

“Virginia would set the house on fire just to watch everyone come running out in pyjamas.”

Parmar’s portrait of Virginia Woolf, while sure to upset some purists, is confident and refreshingly direct. The Virginia she paints is at times narcissistic, selfish, jealous and, at her worst, a bully.

In a letter to Woolf's future husband, Leonard, Lytton Strachey proclaims: "Virginia would set the house on fire just to watch everyone come running out in pyjamas."

Though Vanessa indulges and forgives her sister much, it is when Virginia embarks on an emotional affair with her husband, Clive Bell, that something finally snaps between them. The second half of the novel is carried on the tide of this revelation just as surely as the first half is driven by Thoby’s tragic death. 

Priya Parmar
Image: Author Priya Parmar via Bloomsbury

Ultimately, Parmar’s evocative, searching novel will make you long for more fiction, for a different ending to the tragedies that ultimately befell these characters. Vanessa and Her Sister takes us into the beating heart of the Bloomsbury set by giving us direct access to its often passed-over crown jewel.

Perhaps the highest praise for Parmar is that Vanessa and Her Sister leaves the reader with an urge to revisit the art of the Bloomsbury set with fresh and hungry eyes.

Feature image via National Portrait Gallery

Priya Parmar answers questions on Vanessa and Her Sister in December's Reader's Digest podcast. Listen here: