Rarely do you encounter a woman who commands as much admiration as does the painter Vanessa Bell in Priya Parmar’s multilayered, subtly shaded novel, “Vanessa and Her Sister.” The sister of the title is, of course, Virginia Woolf, who understood how hard it is for a novelist to capture a character. “Few catch the phantom,” Woolf said in a lecture at Cambridge in 1924, the year before the publication of “Mrs. Dalloway.” “Most have to be content with a scrap of her dress or a wisp of her hair.” Parmar’s portrait brings Vanessa out of the shadows, into fully realized, shining visibility. The world remembers Virginia better than her enigmatic older sister: Parmar restores the symmetry of their relationship in the familial landscape, showing how essential Vanessa’s steadying force was to Virginia’s precarious balance.
Though Vanessa was only two and a half years older than Virginia, she took on a maternal role for her and their two brothers in 1895, after their mother’s death, when Vanessa was not yet 16. In 1904, after their father died, she moved the family into the then-unfashionable London neighborhood called Bloomsbury, in which she detected, Parmar writes, a “sturdy beauty,” finding its Georgian squares “defiantly graceful.” The sisters lionized their handsome brother Thoby (who was between them in age) and the brilliant friends from Cambridge — among them John Maynard Keynes, Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey and E. M. Forster — he brought home to Gordon Square for unchaperoned evenings of wine, whiskey and sandwiches, enlivened with daring conversation. His unmarried sisters, then in their early 20s, acted as hostesses and muses, scandalizing Edwardian London and coaxing the fabled Bloomsbury group into flower.
The lives of Vanessa and Virginia have been amply considered before now, not only by Woolf in her fiction and other Bloomsburyites in their correspondence, biographies and essays (and later by Vanessa’s son Quentin Bell and Virginia’s husband, Leonard Woolf), but by contemporary writers, from Michael Holroyd and Hermione Lee to Michael Cunningham and Katie Roiphe. Because she expressed herself through literature, not painting, Virginia’s history and internal life have been easier to access than Vanessa’s. Still, the members of the Bloomsbury group were compulsive letter writers, so the facts of Vanessa’s complicated life have long been available, even if her private thoughts are harder to surmise, since, unlike Virginia, she didn’t keep a diary. After immersing herself in the thousands of letters exchanged by Vanessa’s social circle, Parmar proceeded to invent a diary for Vanessa, along with a series of letters, postcards and telegrams that bring dimension and vitality to her headstrong entourage.
Of the many unconventional Bloomsbury marriages, Vanessa’s may have been the most unorthodox. In 1908, a year after she married the art critic Clive Bell and soon after she gave birth to their son Julian, she discovered that her sister had seduced her husband — emotionally if not sexually — largely, Parmar’s novel suggests, in a bid to restore her central position in her sister’s life. Virginia was “driven by the need to footprint, to own, to possess,” Parmar observes. The love affair continued even after Vanessa gave birth to her second son, Quentin.
In the wake of this double betrayal, the marriage continued as an open, and broken, relationship. Clive resumed an affair with his pre-marriage mistress, the “delicious and flashy” (his words) Mrs. Raven Hill, and Vanessa began a significant affair with the artist and critic Roger Fry (making both Clive and Virginia jealous), before falling in love with the homosexual painter Duncan Grant (previously her brother Adrian’s lover), with whom she had a daughter, Angelica, to whom Clive Bell gave his name. Amid such incestuous doings, Vanessa maintained a serene front and multiple households, looking after husband, children, siblings, lovers and the whole Bloomsbury crew, and soothing Virginia when she had breakdowns, which was often. In her spare time, she painted. However did she do it?
Parmar’s narrative spans nearly eight years in the early adult lives of the sisters, from 1905 to 1912. The novel begins on the morning of Thursday, Feb. 23, 1905, with a diary entry by Vanessa. As in “Mrs. Dalloway,” there are preparations for a party, the second “at home” Thoby will throw for his friends. Vanessa goads herself to “speak up” this time, not to molder in a corner like a “sprouted potato” as she had at the previous gathering. “Long ago Virginia decreed, in the way that Virginia decrees, that I was the painter and she the writer,” Vanessa confides. “You do not like words, Nessa,” she had told her. “They are not your creative nest.” Vanessa loves her sister, but doesn’t underestimate her competitive nature. “Virginia should not always be listened to,” she reflects.
Parmar’s fabricated journal is an uncanny success. Its entries, plausible and graceful, are imbued with the same voice that can be found in letters by or about Vanessa. And Parmar’s decision to interleave the invented diary with invented correspondence heightens the authentic feel of the portrait. Admiring her sister’s early success as a reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement, Vanessa recognizes her own comparative irrelevance in their circle, but doesn’t let that perception erode her sense of mission. “Painting does not qualify as work in this family of literati,” she concludes. “The distribution of colors is a curious sort of hobby to them.” When, over a family dinner, Virginia tells her, “Writing is real expression, Nessa,” the older sister ignores the slight, preferring to note that Virginia (prone to anorexia) isn’t eating her potatoes.
And when Clive Bell first proposes to Vanessa, in August 1905, she rejects him, caught up in her family allegiances. Still, Parmar shows her doubting her judgment: “What am I looking for?” she asks. “I have the outstretched feeling of wanting to seek Clive’s advice, on the Friday Club, on my paintings, on my hats. Perhaps because I know he would have a definite opinion. He does not waffle as I do. He speaks and then acts. I like those short, explosive verbs.” Questioning her own motives, she adds: “Do I just seek an excuse to speak to him? I rummage for the truth and find handfuls of my own deceptiveness.” Lytton Strachey thinks she’s being too hard on herself. “Vanessa is an ocean of majestic calm even if she does not know it,” he writes in a letter to Leonard Woolf, a Cambridge friend who missed out on Bloomsbury’s formative years, working overseas in Ceylon. “Virginia envies her sister’s deeply anchored moorings.” It’s the rest of the Bloomsbury group (including himself), he declares, who “flounder about in a state of breathless pitching exaggeration, carried by momentum rather than purpose.”
After Vanessa accepts Clive Bell’s proposal, late in 1906, in the aftermath of a rending family loss, Parmar shows her taking uninhibited joy in her husband and in sex; which continues until the day she finds Virginia’s blue enameled hairpins in her husband’s jacket pocket. “It may be nothing,” she writes. “But nothing is nothing when it comes to Virginia.” Vanessa doesn’t make scenes, but all their friends know about the scandal. Strachey writes of it to Woolf, imploring him to marry Virginia to solve the problem. The flirtation, Strachey assures Woolf, “stems from inexperience and jealousy rather than malice. She cannot bear to lose her sister to this man. She really does have the most spectacular mind, Leonard.”
In a rare moment of uncontained emotion, during a fraught holiday with her husband and sister in 1908, Vanessa breaks her silence in a letter to Strachey. “I am at last angry — very angry. Do they suppose that as Virginia presumes upon every other aspect of my life, I would not mind sharing my marriage as well?” She calms herself, she writes, by thinking “in color, in paint and pen and ink and shape. It is safer, and there are fewer lies.”
In “Vanessa and Her Sister,” Parmar gives truth and definition to the character of a woman whose nature was as elusive as her influence was profound. She has caught the phantom.
VANESSA AND HER SISTER
By Priya Parmar
348 pp. Ballantine Books. $26.