‘Vanessa and Her Sister’ Is Enchanting

Those of us who write only wish for half of author Priya Parmar’s talents, whose writing is a lovely, lilting thing.

Fictionalizing the lives of real individuals is a sure bet for nervous publishers and undecided readers. Why risk an unknown author or a completely imagined novel when the fictionalized lives of Sylvia Plath, Zelda Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Hadley Hemingway, or Gertrude and Alice beckon? So when Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister appeared, I groaned. Evidently Woolf had been thoroughly ransacked. Now it was Vanessa’s turn.

Snooty fellow readers, stand down. I was dead wrong.

Vanessa and Her Sister is enchanting. Those of us who write only wish for half of author Priya Parmar’s talents, whose writing is a lovely, lilting thing. Her sentences are small miracles. It happens that Parmar chose Vanessa Stephen as her subject; it doesn’t matter. She could write exquisite automotive parts manuals.

Vanessa Stephen was the eldest child of Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) and Julia Duckworth Stephen (1846-1895). In addition to sister Virginia, Vanessa had two brothers: Thoby and Adrian. The family counted William Makepeace Thackeray and Julia Margaret Cameron among their ancestors; Julia Stephen was one of Cameron’s famed photographic subjects.

In 1905, the Stephen siblings set up housekeeping at 46 Gordon Square, London. Their Thursday evening “at homes” drew friends Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, E.M. (Morgan) Forster, Desmond Morris, and Saxon Sydney-Turner. These were nights of verbal jousting, rapier wit, and cutting sarcasm. Couplings of all persuasions were encouraged and accepted. The group, dubbed “Bloomsbury” for their London neighborhood, went on to lasting fame as writers, artists and, in the case of Maynard Keynes, economists.

What emerges from Vanessa and Her Sister is a corrective to Woolf’s dark star, too long eclipsing Bell’s gentler sun. Parmar’s Vanessa is nurse, mother figure, handmaiden, and general servant liaison, entrusted with the burden of coping with Virginia’s insanity. This thankless role requires endless vigilance, resulting in a relationship less sisterly than motherly.

Brothers Adrian and Thoby are boyishly forgetful oafs, though Thoby alone can persuade the anorexic Virginia to swallow some breakfast. But it’s Vanessa who constantly listens for signs of madness: repetition, nonsense speech, swooping vocal patterns. And it’s Vanessa Virginia wants. For Woolf, in Priya Parmar’s telling, is nothing less than a devouring, ravening maw of need. When permitted, she literally clings to Vanessa, covering her with kisses, burrowing into her lap.

As the biographies of Bloomsbury’s denizens are well-known, it’s impossible to forget them while reading Vanessa and Her Sister. Woolf’s fervent worship of her sister is well-documented, as is her platonic yet passionate relationship with Clive Bell. So is Vanessa’s lifelong exterior of unflappable calm, interpreted by some writers as chilly detachment.

Vanessa and Her Sister opens as Vanessa is planning an “at home “. She alone possesses common sense enough to remember Strachey’s cocoa, the supplies of wine and whiskey, trips to the grocers and cheesemongers. Bloomsbury is a circle disdaining domesticity while reaching for another sandwich. But even ordering provisions harbors an edge, for, “Virginia of course will drink nothing. ” Nor will she eat.

For all the group’s verbosity, Vanessa prefers the visual realm, a reality Parmar depicts poetically. Left alone, Vanessa thinks in shapes, colors, weight. The hours leading up to the at home are “A wobbly three-legged day. A current of expectation has rounded through the house since this morning. “

Of life at 46 Gordon Square: “This house has not such an anaemic leanness as 22 Hyde Park Gate. It is more generous in its proportions, a house that takes deep, pure breaths, lives on a diet of ripe melon and cold milk, and goes for brisk walks in the early afternoons.”

Vanessa meets art critic Bell when he calls on Thursday evenings. Wolf is appalled when Vanessa falls in love; her engagement is met with threats of breakdown. When these fail to break off the wedding, Wolf gradually wheedles her way into the marriage, insinuating herself in Bell’s affections. Her plan backfires: the marriage is indeed destroyed, but she permanently damages her relationship with Vanessa.

The first fissures appear when Vanessa gives birth to Julian. Annoyed by the baby’s crying, Bell begins sleeping in another room. He regards Vanessa’s absorption in Julian jealously, preferring his son be handed off to a nurse.

Wolf shares Bell’s feelings. Pregnancy and childbirth repulse her. Nor does she wish to share Vanessa with yet another interloper. Only after great consideration does she decide to love her nephew, formally announcing her decision to Vanessa, “I shall love your barbarian angel dearly.”

Using her formidable intellect, Wolf ensnares Bell; to his lasting dismay, their relationship is never consummated. A devastated Vanessa maintains a cool facade, finding unexpected solace in friendship with curator Roger Fry. Fry’s wife, Helen, also suffers intractable mental illness. When she becomes violent, Fry is forced to permanently commit her. Both artists, both caregivers to mentally ill loved ones, Fry and Vanessa will cultivate a deep relationship lasting until Fry’s death.

Parmar’s characterization of Strachey deserves special mention. His campy, hilarious letters to Leonard Woolf are gossipy marvels. Strachey pokes glorious fun at all of Bloomsbury, himself included. Writing to Duncan Grant, he says “Clive is so Clivy, but you will get used to that. ” Of Fry, he writes to Leonard Woolf, “Do you know him? I ought to check before I begin my rant. Even Virginia likes him, and she never likes anyone.”

Vanessa’s marriage and pregnancy occasion the drop of Strachey’s propriety. Now the two happily exchange salacious gossip, ignoring Bell’s growing rage. Vanessa has a friend to share her pain with. Strachey, whose wicked humor shields a deeply sensitive native, shares his heartbreak over the beautiful Grant.

E.M. Forster has a minor but affecting role, a quiet writer whose steady output galls his friends. When A Room With a View is published, he confesses to starting the manuscript years earlier, yet being unable to complete it. When Strachey sarcastically asks if the problem is writing honestly about homosexuality, Forster painfully assents. The small moment contains all the suffering closeted individuals have endured through the ages.

Vanessa changes, subtly but not invisibly. Wolf, unable to share her, has wedged herself where she is least welcome. Now Bell is snowed by a celibate affair of the mind. Vanessa is livid at her sister and her spouse. But making scenes is not the English way. Nor is it the acceptable practice for a member of Bloomsbury, where the unquestioned sharing of lovers is expected.

Vanessa and Bell never divorced. They separated, loving others. Vanessa and Her Sister concludes as Vanessa begins her affair with Fry. Parmar offers notes on what happened to each person, adding that Vanessa’s daughter, Angelica Garnett, vividly recalled her mother’s wariness toward her Aunt Virginia Wolf. Wolf, in turn, expressed “a desperate plea for forgiveness.”

Parmar was assisted by Vanessa’s granddaughter, Virginia Nicholson, who praises the novel. Hers is a glowing recommendation, which I can only second, from a far less illustrious position. What a glorious book.

Note: Nigel Nicholson’s Virginia Woolf and Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf were helpful references in writing this review.

RATING 9 / 10