VANESSA AND HER SISTER by Priya Parmar
Virginia Woolf was never introduced to me in school with a three-week analysis of her work like Emily Dickinson, or Edgar Allen Poe. No memories reveal a conversation with a friend saying, “If you read nothing else you must read Mrs. Dalloway.” Like Sylvia Plath, Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, my exploration of Woolf’s writing came after my fascination with her life. The Bloomsbury Group, founded in part by Virginia and her siblings, Vanessa, Thoby and Adrian, was a group of writers, philosophers and artists, intent on the development and promotion of the arts, as they flexed the rules of Victorian society. Information about the liberal nature of this influential group is abundant, but it wasn’t until reading Vanessa and Her Sister that the intellectual stimulation, the professional frustrations and personal jealousies of these extraordinary friends truly came to life. Priya Parmar’s novel made me wish I could travel back in time to mingle with the Stephen sisters and their peers.
Settling in with Vanessa and the Bloomsberries was unlike any other reading experience. Initially, I was overwhelmed by the cast of characters, ten family members and eighteen friends to keep straight, and feared an exam would be given in the end. For readers who have no background in the era of the Bloomsberries getting cozy with the characters might involve more patience than usual, but the payoff is more than worthy of the early uncertainty of who is who. The bulk of the story is conveyed through Vanessa’s diary entries and the rest is filled in through letters and postcard exchanges. This format, too, requires the reader to double check the cast of characters from time to time until all the relationships tumble into their notches. Then whoosh, the reader is in the flow.
What’s interesting about the storytelling for Vanessa and Her Sister is the structure itself allows the reader to feel as if they are in midst of an actual gathering of the Bloomsbury Group. The chaos of keeping tabs on everyone’s love life, the invitations to travel to nurture their creative interests and explore the innovations of the characters’ contemporaries, and the observations of character that are integral to regular interactions swirl around the reader with such specificity it was sad to remember I wasn’t really there.
The tug of these characters was so strong, when I wasn’t reading I often found myself thinking of Gil Pender’s obsession with Paris during the 1920’s in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. So, I asked myself, what is “calling to me” about these particular people in the early 1900’s in London?
And what if people are shocked that we have no curtains and hold mixed at homes and invite guests who don’t know when to leave? Only we live here, and we can do it how we like.
The boldness to be at the forefront of change is enviable. What artist doesn’t long to be the first to break with rules, question expectations and ignite self-awareness? Witnessing the Bloomsberries in action has nudged me to think twice about where I’m going as a writer. Another aspect of these extraordinary individuals that kept me plugged into the story was the timelessness of their frustrations. Today we speak of Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and those they admired at the time like Matisse and Picasso, because of the impact they had on their particular field of expertise. Yet, they too, were struggling and wondering if they would ever break through.
The rest of us are still living on the borrowed fuel of potential and so far have not left deep footprints. But together we carry a brackish air of importance. As if we are doing something worthy in the world. Maybe how we live our lives is the grand experiment? Mixing company, throwing out customs, using first names, waiting to marry, ignoring the rules and choosing what to care about. Is that why we matter? Or perhaps Miss Warre-Cornish is right and we do not matter in the least.
Delving into the lives of Vanessa and Her Sister also reminded me of what no longer seems appreciated: silence. One of my secret wishes is for the internet, all cell phones and television to go on the fritz long enough for everyone, who is wired in, to have enough time to discover the wonder of sitting with their own thoughts, and then take those discoveries and develop and channel them into something other than a sound bite.
Tonight the talk was purposeful, intentional. No one spoke unless there was something to say. When there was nothing to say, we made room for silence, like a thick blue wave rolling through the house.
The most delicious element of Parmar’s novel is again, wrapped in the storytelling structure. Letter writing has become an underrated, if not lost, art form. However, Parmar’s use of diary entries and letters to illuminate the intimate story of two sisters and their legendary friends shows us, and will remind many, of how breathtaking it is to bare one’s soul on the page. And how the exchange of thoughts through letters encourages the writer to not only share how he feels, but to thoroughly understand why he possesses those feelings.
Nessa is powered by some internal metronome that keeps perfect time, while the rest of us flounder about in a state of breathless pitching exaggeration, carried by momentum rather than purpose.
Virginia has a vibrancy about her that makes time spent with her seem inherently more valuable than time spent away from her; minutes burn brighter, words fall more steeply into meaning, and you feel you are not just alive but living.
Vanessa and Her Sister is an intimate portrait of Vanessa and Virginia Stephen as they struggled to define themselves as women and artists in an era dominated by men, and in the process helped launch a movement of artistic freedom that continues to resonate. Since finishing Vanessa’s tale I have reread A Room of One’s Own and The Voyage Out and still feel compelled to revisit the rest of Woolf’s published works and learn more about her sister and their contemporaries. And that, dear reader, is the reason I believe Vanessa and Her Sister exemplifies the power of historical fiction.