I’m wary of novels written about real people whose lives are in living memory; because I think it’s too easy for the line between fact and fiction to be blurred. But I found so many reasons to pick up this book. It has such a lovely cover, it’s set in a milieu that I love, it’s a story of sisters, and it’s a story that places the lesser known of two celebrated sisters at the centre of the stage.
The two sisters are artist Vanessa Bell and writer Virginia Woolf, and this is Vanessa’s story. It’s written as a journal; a fictional journal inspired by her own correspondence and by the writings of many whose paths she crossed.
The story begins in 1905. The mother of the Stephens family has been dead for some years, the father of the has died more recently, and their four children – Vanessa, Virginia, and their two brothers, Thoby and Adrian – have moved from the family home in Kensington to a more bohemian shared home in Bloomsbury.
They are preparing for a party – a lovely nod to Mrs Dalloway – and as the book moves forwards there are so many thoughtful details lie that, details that will strike a chord for thoughtful, careful reader.
There will be many parties, and neighbours will gossip about the gatherings at which mixed groups of unchaperoned young people drink and talk about about art and literature until the early hours of the morning.
Some of their names, and the names of others who pass through this story will be familiar to many: Otteline Morrell, Maynard Keynes, Morgan (E M) Forster, Lytton Strachey ….
Vanessa loves her unconventional new life, but, maybe because she is the eldest of the four, she becomes the responsible adult. She manages the housekeeping, she does the household accounts, and she does whatever she can to smooth her sister’s mood swings. There are references to a severe breakdown in the recent past, and it is clear that Vanessa is carefully stage managing family life to try to make sure that nothing like that will happen again.
I could see much that was admirable in Vanessa’s actions, but I could also see cause for concern. Virginia became so accustomed to having her own way, however selfish and unreasonable that way sometimes was. And she maybe came to believe that she would always be at the centre of Vanessa’s world.
That would become evident when Vanessa became a wife – to art critic Clive Bell – and then a mother.
Parmar follows the lives and the relationships of these three people with keen understanding and with wonderful subtlety. Vanessa’s has doubts about Clive’s courtship, but her resistance softens, and she finds such joy in marriage and in motherhood. Clive though feels ousted, first by his wife’s pregnancy and then by the arrival of his son. Virginia’s desire to be the sole object of her sister’s attention is thwarted, and, though her behaviour may seem spoilt and selfish, it is clear that she is living of fear of being left alone, and of what her unstable mind might do.
Years later she would write: “My affair with Clive and Nessa turned more of a knife in me than anything else has ever done”.
The writing of Vanessa’s fictional journal is beautiful, and, though it tells a quiet story of lives being lived, there were moments when it caught real emotions so clearly, moments when words caught ideas so very well.
That record is set against telegrams and postcards between other members of her social circle. That is very effective. The correspondence between Lytton Strachey and his friend Leonard Woolf, who was working for the civil service in Ceylon, was a delight and I could have happily read a whole book of it.
Lytton was delighted when the friend who he thought would be the perfect match for his friend Virginia came home.
“I have grown so accustomed to singing for you, like a siren beached up on a friendless rock. Whatever will I do with my time, now that I no longer need to lure you home?”
And of course he was right!
Not all of the correspondence was so successful, and it was a little disappointing to only have a glimpse of many fascinating characters, and that the story came to a conclusion rather too quickly.
This book isn’t definitive, of course it isn’t, but I found the story of Vanessa’s emotional life, and of her progression towards a grown-up, independent future, wonderfully readable.
I particularly liked that it presented so many people usually presented with a label – ‘writer’, ‘artist’, ‘socialite’, ‘critic’ – simply as young people who loved art, who loved literature, who loved Cornwall; who had hopes, dreams, fears, ambitions …..
That, and its lightness of touch, say to me that this would be a lovely introduction for anyone who is a little scared of Virginia Woolf, or for anyone who is wondering who Vanessa Bell was.
For me though, it was a lovely re-introduction …..