I read Priya Parmar’s latest novel, Vanessa And Her Sister, during International Women’s Week, which feels somewhat appropriate. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is often deemed to be one of the most important feminist writings, and the prolific author’s life was liberating and unconventional.
This novel from covers the period of 1905-1912 when the Stephens sisters are in adjustment. Following their father’s death, Vanessa Stephens, having been used to being the maternal figure, moved the family to the graceful and sturdy yet unfashionable London neighbourhood of Bloomsbury where they crafted a sparkling and bohemian lifestyle that transfixed society. Virginia dazzles their social groups with witty conversation and majestic beauty, whilst Vanessa out of both necessity and virtue is the maternal and responsible one, seeing that Virginia eats, attending to her mental wellbeing, and organising the parties, at which she feels she sits in a corner ‘like a sprouted potato.’
The narrative is driven by diary entries by Vanessa, as well letters between Lytton Strachey and Leonard Woolf who is serving as a civil servant in Ceylon, interspersed with telegrams, postcards, tickets, and bills for art supplies. The thrill of parties and the aversion to social convention colours the pages, sparkling and luminescent characters life through art and beautiful commotion.
As well as navigating the nature of sibling relations and complexities of relationships, the novel touches on the nature of art. Words are the most highly prized currency in this intellectual family, and Vanessa feels marginalised as a painter. ‘Painting does not qualify as work in this family of literati,’ she concludes. ‘The distribution of colours is a curious sort of hobby to them.’ Virginia tells her sister ‘Writing is real expression, Nessa.’
But whilst Virginia may have words, she also envies the anchored state in which her Vanessa lives. Used to being the charismatic centre of attention she becomes so jealous of Vanessa’s marriage with Clive Bell that she starts to form a relationship with him. She wants to have all of Vanessa’s attention, and curses her for her ‘real family.’ As the affair starts to unfold, Vanessa writes, in 1909, that ‘Virginia had never expressed a wish to have a man of her own or a place of her own.’ But as we know, she does want a place of her own, and it turns out a man as well, so she starts to infiltrate Vanessa’s.
This strange desire to be independent but also connected is what fuels the novel. As liberated as they may seem, Vanessa is still very much trapped by convention. She feels that due to her marriage with Clive and position as wife, not lover ‘I am conquered territory and I have no currency. Annexed and occupied.’ There’s a sense that as a married woman no longer elusive and enigmatic in her unavailability, her worth has declined. But that she needed to marry to have worth, at 26 years old heading toward spinsterhood, that ‘clingy grey spectre that hugs the body and chokes the soul.’
The somewhat interspersed and chaotic romantic relations of the Bloomsbury set is well documented, their scattered and bohemian approach to life becoming evident in their work, and whilst the focus is very much on the two sisters, the network of individuals. We’re privy to first readings of EM Forster’s Howard’s End, John Maynard Keynes’ search for employment, and Lytton Strachey’s frustrated desire for publication.
I’m a bit obsessed with Virginia Woolf. Because of her creativity, brilliance, charisma – and writing. As Vanessa observes right at the start, ‘Writing is Virginia’s engine. She thrums with purpose when she writes. Her scattershot joy and frantic distraction refocus, and she funnels into her purest form. Her centre holds until the piece is over, and she comes apart again.’
Things don’t end happily. Vanessa cannot forgive Virginia, and when asked whether they can start again she says that ‘There can be no beginnings again. The problem was never in the beginnings, but in the ends.’ For me, this is another beginning. As a result of Priya Parmar’s writing, I could become just as obsessed and fascinated by Vanessa Bell.