Yes, Vanessa Bell was Virginia Woolf’s sister. But Priya Parmar’s warm, winning historical novel, Vanessa and Her Sister, highlights the injustice of reducing her to that role.
“Vanessa was somebody that I just fell in love with,” says Parmar. “I’ve always loved people’s correspondence, primary documents, and I came across this letter she’d written to Clive Bell, when he asked to marry her. ‘No, I can’ t marry you, I don't know if I’m ever going to be able to. Could you go away? You’re a little too available. Maybe leave the country for a year, play a little harder to get’—it’s an incredible letter. It was written in 1905, and it felt like an email a friend had just sent.”
Parmar is the author of one prior historical novel, Exit the Actress, about an ingénue who becomes a theater star (and Charles II’s mistress), and a dissertation on the history of women playing men’s roles in the theater, 1660-1900. While Vanessa and Her Sister is inspired by intensive research, and based on real people, it’s fictive at the core.
“I’m so much more interested in a story when I know it’s got some sort of foothold in the past. In terms of what the role is, I think it’s great if [historical fiction] teaches you something, but it’s primarily meant to bring characters and a time and a period alive in the way that all fiction is. If it sticks to the historical bones, that’s wonderful, too, but it shouldn’t encroach too closely on the sphere of nonfiction,” she says.
Circa 1905, Parmar’s protagonist was still Vanessa Stephen, living with her three siblings in the big house they’d let in Bloomsbury, in the Camden borough of London. Their famous literary critic father, Sir Leslie Stephen, died one year prior, orphaning them as young adults, leaving them free to eschew stiff formality, to wait to marry, and to host scandalous weekly salons for their Cambridge friends—up-and-comers Lytton Stratchey, E.M. Forester, John Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Rupert Brooke and Desmond MacCarthy among them.
In letters, postcards, telegrams and tickets, Parmar paints a loving portrait of these talented young intellectuals who would come to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. At its center is Vanessa, the elder sister, the painter—and calming influence on her mercurial sister Virginia, the writer. Her diary entries and letters comprise the largest part of the narration, providing introduction to their deep mutual admiration.
She observes Virginia among the men: “She stands with them as an equal, even if she is afraid she doesn’t. She looked particularly beautiful tonight. In the way a woman does when she does not know it,” Parmar writes.
Vanessa’s esteem isn’t unadulterated. Equally prone to fits of madness as bursts of brilliance, Virginia demands her sister’s care and affection on her own schedule. When Vanessa defies her and marries Clive Bell, Virginia’s fierce jealousy leads her to meddle in the marriage.
“My sister captivates and does not ransom her prisoners lightly. Virginia has a vibrancy about her that makes time spent with her seem inherently more valuable than time spent away from her; minutes burn brighter, words fall more steeply into meaning, and you feel you are not just alive but living. I have understood this Virginia equation all her life—but I also understand what Clive does not. There is no rational, logical, reachable Virginia lurking beneath, and eventually Virginia becomes exhausting,” she writes.
While it’s unknown if Virginia and Clive ever consummate their affair, the betrayal stands as such for Vanessa. It made the unlikely threesome the talk of their set. (“Naturally, I promised him that I would forewarn Hilton that should he wish to propose to Virginia, he ought to ask her brother-in-law/lover before he does so. Ridiculous,” Parmar writes in a letter to Leonard Woolf from Lytton Stratchey—another standout character.) And it makes Vanessa and Her Sister a deliciously divergent take on a literary titan.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.