Vanessa and Her Sister is a very readable historical fiction by Priya Parmar about the Vanessa and Virginia Stephen, two accomplished women better know to the world as Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. The story beings, as it should, the day of a party as Vanessa (Nessa) is making a list and preparing for the day. This will be the first Thursday night party that launched the famed Bloomsbury Group.

It is hard to find something new to say about people who have not only been written about time and again, which Parmar acknowledges in the afterword of the book. She focuses on Vanessa, whose accomplishments have been dwarfed by her much more famous sister, Virginia and invents a diary in which Nessa shares her inner thoughts and the lives of the Stephens family. Along with the journal, we have fictional letters from Virginia, telegrams, railway and ship passage tickets, and receipts for painting supplies, all creating a sense of verisimilitude.

Stephen Family Photo with parents and children (except Stella and Laura)
Stephen Family Photo with parents and children (except Stella and Laura)

I was eager to learn more about Vanessa since Virginia’s life has been mined so thoroughly, but found myself hoping Parmar was off the mark. I dislike this Vanessa, the resentful martyr who holds her grudges hard and close, a passive-aggressive who loves and hates Virginia at the same time and picks over her every word and act looking for hidden significance.

Despite their privilege, the Stephen siblings had not had an easy life. Their parents had died and so had an older sister names Stella. Another older sister, Laura, had been institutionalized as mentally ill at age 15. Laura is never mentioned in this book which is a serious failing on Parmar’s part. Virginia is also mentally ill, likely with bipolar disorder at the least. Imagine having already been sent away once for a breakdown after a suicide attempt and knowing that your family had already tossed away the key on one sister? By tossing away the key, I mean that when Laura died, the home where she was institutionalized did not know she had any living relatives.

Vanessa saw herself as the one organizing and making a home, the one to whom all the responsibilities fell. Her resentment of this is clear again and again, but she does nothing to change the dynamic. There is such blindness to privilege on all their parts, and when Vanessa lists how hard she has worked, it is doing things like telling the cook what the make, giving handkerchiefs to the maid to sew, sending clothing to the staff to get cleaned, and opening the mail. Of course, compared to the rest of her family, she is a regular drudge of all work.

Virginia Woolf painted by Vanessa Bell.
Virginia Woolf painted by Vanessa Bell.

Virginia is difficult. She is driven by her need to write. She is also mentally ill. She has delusions that are very real to her. She perseverates. She refuses to eat. She rages. She is brilliant and sparkling when she is up and angry and frightening when she is down. She lacks emotional control and Vanessa is constantly watching for signs that she will need to be sedated or sent away for a “rest cure” or temporarily institutionalized. Vanessa scrutinizes her every word and action for signs of another breakdown, and resents that Virginia “gets away” with appalling behavior. I wonder if the real Vanessa was so lacking in empathy and also wonder if Parmar got that impression from Bell’s portraits of Woold as a faceless woman.

Iceland Poppies by Vanessa Bell

The Virginia in Vanessa’s fictional diary is brilliant, captivating and utterly vicious, calculating and amoral. It is well-documented that Vanessa’s husband Clive fell in love with Virginia and that Virginia encouraged the attention, though never crossing over to a sexual affair, the emotional betrayal damaged her relationship with Vanessa forever. This fictional Vanessa, however, suggests to mutual friends that it was physical. She enjoys Virginia’s guilt and writes gloatingly about how she will never let up. The Iceland Poppies depicts their three part relationship and while fictional Vanessa says she does not know who is the red poppy, she or Virginia, I think we all know who the bottle of poison is.

3pawsThis is good book. It is interesting and fast-paced. I dislike that Laura was left out of the book when clearly what happened to Laura explains how very frightening life must have been for Virginia and why she clung so desperately to her sister. That is a monumental injustice. I found myself in the end hoping that Parmar completely missed the mark–because I disliked her fictional Vanessa very much.