Although this cast of characters, the Bloomsbury Group, has been much written about for about a century now, Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar is a fresh voice and she has created a beautiful book that will appeal to readers who love character-driven books, whether or not they have any interest in literary or artistic biographies.
The Stephens were a remarkable family of talented intellectuals, whose long pedigree in literary circles, and whose innate charm drew like-minded people around them. The Stephen children – Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia and Adrian – were “orphaned” in their twenties and this enabled them to begin to break free of Edwardian strictures and create a life which was considered quite bohemian at the time. Virginia Woolf is probably the best known to today’s readers, however the focus of this novel is her sister Vanessa Bell. Vanessa, the eldest of the four, was the caregiver of the group and was their focal point.
Their home in Bloomsbury was also the gathering place for their friends, and gather they did, shocking their family as they defied convention by abandoning the rules of polite society, speaking openly about sexuality and conducting open marriages. Their circle was shaken by Thoby’s death, which precipitated Vanessa’s marriage to Clive Bell, which had a negative impact on Virginia’s state of mental health. Parmar imagines the inner world of Vanessa Bell through diary entries which never actually existed, creating a portrait of a young woman who was conflicted by the desire to question society’s rules and live honesty, and by the reality of impact on her life when the conventions were discarded. Central to the novel was the difficult relationship that must have existed between Vanessa and Virginia. Despite the unpleasant tone the relationship sometimes takes, the writing is lovely and Vanessa’s voice is genuine and believable.