To quote the book jacket:
London 1905. The city is alight with change and the Stephen siblings are at the forefront. Vanessa, Virginia, Toby and Adrian are leaving behind their childhood home and taking a house in the leafy heart of avant-garde Bloomsbury.
So yes, as you might have guessed, Vanessa And Her Sister is all about the early years of what became the culturally influential Bloomsbury Group, with the focus very much on the two sisters. It covers the years from 1905 until 1912, and through Vanessa’s diaries charts the almost constantly changing relationships between this group of friends, ending shortly after Virginia’s marriage to Leonard Woolf.
Why did I want to read it?
I became a Bloomsbury obsessive in my early twenties having fallen in love with Virginia firstly through Mrs Dalloway which I studied when I took English Lit in my first year at University and then through her magnificent diaries which I have read at least twice. But in truth I find them all totally fascinating and although the heat of my interest may have died down now I still collect books about them, and this was a must read given the reviews.
What did I think of it?
I thought this was just wonderful. Vanessa is brought to life by Priya Parmar in an almost physical way through these fictionalised diaries (unlike her sister Vanessa never kept a diary (as far as we know) in real life); by that I mean that she is a tangible presence in the book, you feel that you are reading the genuine thoughts of a real person. And I really liked her.
One of the strengths of the novel is that it shows the emotional toll that the apparently consensual free and easy relationships had on individuals, the pain and the sorrow and the long-term damage. But the key relationship is between Vanessa and Virginia and we see the way that Vanessa’s marriage comes between them and how Virginia’s brilliance as a writer, which has not yet come to fruition, is underpinned by a brittle fragility and a desperation to be loved that drives her to do things that cause irreparable damage to the people she cares about. As the novel progresses this becomes more and more clear but we also see how Vanessa copes with it all and how she begins to achieve the happiness we know she finds in real life.
This feels like you are reading the diaries of the real Vanessa, and that is a huge achievement.
BTW I have said here before that I am a huge fan of the author’s note and there is a fascinating one at the end of this book which talks a little about how you write a novel about a group of people who are so well-known. And I am lucky enough to be attending a Bloomsbury Institute event with Priya Parmar later where I hope to hear much more about the writing of this superb book.