A devoted, emotionally intense portrait of the Bloomsbury group focuses in particular on sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, whose complicated relationship is tested to the breaking point by their competing affections for two men.
Plunging into her story—the lives, love affairs,
intellectual debates, arguments and achievements of an extensive, creative
group of English friends—Parmar (Exit the Actress, 2011) allows the
background facts about her real-life characters to emerge as needed. The
curious, comfortably middle-class ménage
of the four orphaned Stephen siblings—Adrian, Thoby, Vanessa and Virginia—living
together in a large house in central London in the early 20th century is the
foundation of the book. It’s in this house that Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell,
Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster and many others congregate for bohemian evenings.
Bell falls in love with Vanessa; Strachey is a friend of Leonard Woolf, who
will eventually return from the Colonies to marry Virginia. Narrated by Vanessa
in diary format, punctuated, as if in a scrapbook, by letters, tickets, bills
and postcards, this slice of fictional biography spans the years 1905-12, in
particular the triangle that forms among Clive, Vanessa and her sister after
the birth of the first Bell child. Vanessa, the artist, emerges as “an ocean of
majestic calm,” almost infinitely tolerant of her sister, the writer, whose
capricious, jealous nature, though tempered by intellectual brilliance and
immense charm, tips over at times into madness and suicidal thoughts. This
fictional Virginia is far less appealing than her sister, whose nuanced account
of her shifting feelings for Clive and eventual love for another invites
sympathy. Leonard Woolf’s arrival marks the beginning of the next episode in
the group’s extraordinarily intertwined history.
Not exactly uncharted territory, but Parmar enters it with passion and precision, delivering a sensitive, superior soap opera of celebrated lives.