Vanessa and Her Sister

Vanessa and Her Sister

by Priya Parmar

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804176392
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/13/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 394,875
Product dimensions: 5.18(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.81(d)

About the Author

Educated at Mount Holyoke College, the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Oxford, Priya Parmar is the author of one previous novel, Exit the Actress. She divides her time between Hawaii and London.

Read an Excerpt

Virginia Woolf
Asheham House
Rodmell
Sussex

2 December 1912--Asheham

Dearest Nessa,

She arrived in an inauspicious brown crate. Your painting is smaller and rougher than I expected. Mrs. Virginia Woolf in a Deckchair--what a marvelously blunt title. Without it, I am not sure anyone would know it is me given the empty face but Leonard says he recognized the set of the shoulders right away.

Where shall I put your beautiful canvas? Leonard thinks the upstairs hallway. Would you choose when you come down next week? You know how I like it when you decide these things. You are still coming down?

There is an unrushed calm about your Mrs. Woolf. Is this how you see me now, dearest? The woman in the painting looks whole and serene and loved. Am I still loveable? Or have I undone that now?

No, Nessa, it must not be. What happened cannot break us. It is impossible. Someday you will love me and forgive me. Someday we will begin again.

Always your
Virginia

Reading Group Guide

A Conversation Between
Sarah Blake and Priya Parmar

Sarah Blake is the author of Grange House and
The Postmistress (winner of South Africa’s Boeke Prize and a New York Times bestseller).

Sarah Blake: I first heard the famously dismissive (and apocryphal?) admonition from Virginia Woolf to her sister, Vanessa Bell—-You will have the babies, and I will write the books—-when I was in college and beginning to think of myself as a writer, and I’ll never forget the firestorm of debate and despair those words caused. Did a woman writer have to choose? And if we didn’t, did that make us less of a writer (or an artist)? Vanessa and Her Sister is a powerful answer to that question, but I’d love to know what drew you, as a writer and as a woman, to the two Stephen sisters and their story to begin with?

Priya Parmar: That remark might be apocryphal, but that specific, resentful sentiment pervaded Virginia Stephen’s correspondence in the months after Vanessa Bell gave birth to her first son, Julian. Virginia was desperately afraid of being left behind as Vanessa moved into her new life as wife and mother. Virginia’s letters are salted with spikey, barbed jabs aimed at her happily married sister.
Virginia Woolf was not an easy person—-gifted, charismatic, quixotic, charming, and brimming with creative genius—-but never easy. She believed in possession and in relentlessly coming first in the affections of those she loved. So what would it have felt like to be the person she loved best in the world?

That question kept surfacing as I tumbled deeper and deeper into the research. Vanessa Bell must have experienced a web of contradictory and shifting feelings. She must have felt trapped, exhilarated, exhausted, frustrated, proud, and protective when she dealt with her brilliant but selfish sister. And while Virginia adored Vanessa, she deliberately set out to destroy her sister’s marriage. As a novelist, I found this nexus of conflicting emotion irresistible. There is so much juicy humanity in the contradictions.

SB: And why did you choose to write the story from Vanessa’s point of view?

PP: Vanessa was the shadowy linchpin of the Bloomsbury Group. She was at the emotional, romantic, creative, social, and artistic center of the circle, and yet in many ways she left surprisingly light historical footprints. Many of her early paintings from this period were destroyed in the London Blitz, she did not keep a diary, and aside from a brilliant selection edited by Regina Marler, her letters are largely unpublished. So I began with the thought that this was a wonderful, underexplored vantage point for a novel. And then I spent some time with her.
I look for a historical figure with a magnetic core, someone who can draw the narrative to her and drive it forward with equal force. Vanessa astonished me with her humanity, her boldly lived life, and her canny self--deprecating voice. The story curved to fit her and then surged forward at her encouragement. Her archival letters are immediate and modern and Vanessa emerges as a woman who is flawed, magnificent, and relatable. As soon as I read them, I could not imagine telling the story from another point of view.

SB: One of the reasons I love writing historical fiction is the chance it gives me to take up the language of other times like a cloak I can wrap myself in and then walk around. There is the heady thrill of ventriloquism, and what you have achieved here is breathtaking. One can’t help but feel this must be just how Vanessa Bell thought and spoke and saw. When did you know you had Vanessa’s voice in your head? At what point did you start to become fluent in her? And how did that shape the course of the novel?

PP: I am so pleased you feel the voice rings true! “Fluent in her” is a lovely phrase. That is just how it felt. Vanessa’s voice did not creep up on me as Lytton’s and Virginia’s did. It arrived all at once and knocked on the door with a suitcase in hand. Choosing a historical figure is a dicey thing. The research is an invitation. I cook the dinner, set the table and light the candles in the hope that if I immerse myself fully into the historical documentation, her voice will arrive.
In 1905, Clive Bell proposed to Vanessa Stephen. She wrote a letter refusing him. But she did not write in the accepted, expected vocabulary of an Edwardian woman of her class. She told the truth. The whole truth. She liked him but not enough to marry him, but perhaps if he left the country for a bit she would like him more? She began the letter at home but finished it in pencil at the dentist’s office. With that letter, her voice galloped in. And the voice is everything. For me, the character flows from the voice and the narrative flows from the character. Once her voice moved in, the story began to crackle with life.

SB: What was your relationship to Virginia Woolf before beginning this book? Did you find that it changed over the course of writing it?

PP: I went to Mount Holyoke College—-all women, Seven Sisters, very big on Virginia Woolf. And then I majored in English. So I was steeped in the brilliance of Woolf’s novels from a relatively young age. I had roving Woolf favorites. Sometimes To the Lighthouse, sometimes Orlando. Always Mrs. Dalloway.
I knew that Virginia was difficult but felt that her personality took a backseat to her overwhelming genius. My mother has copies of all of the letters and diaries and I had dipped in and out of them over the years but never read them straight through. Once I began to research in earnest, I read the diaries, novels, essays, and letters concurrently in chronological order and my perception shifted. I began to separate the Virginia Woolf who was able to write with such enormous self--awareness and perception from the Woolf who was able to callously belittle a beloved friend or enter into an emotional affair with her sister’s husband.
My Virginia Woolf is very much a fictional creation. Her roots grip the historical facts of this early part of her life but her character is imagined. As I was writing, I found myself furious with Virginia. Hopelessly partisan, I sympathized with Vanessa unreservedly. It was only after I finished the novel that the balance restored itself and the genius of Woolf as a writer stepped back to the foreground.

SB: The novel begins with a letter from Virginia Woolf hoping that someday Vanessa will forgive her, and ends with the letter that is Vanessa’s answer. In between lies the story of these sisters as it unfolds over seven years. Vanessa’s last letter expresses one sister’s triumph at having pulled herself clear of the other, and into her own life. I couldn’t help but recall the end of To the Lighthouse when Lily Briscoe, the painter—-who has survived Mrs. Ramsay and all the intervening years—-puts down her brush and thinks to herself, triumphantly—-There. I have had my vision. Can you talk a little about how your book is haunted by Virginia Woolf’s novels, and which ones in particular?

PP: It is interesting. Most of the references were unintentional. I did purposefully include a few elements from the novels such as opening with a party to call up Mrs. Dalloway (Clarissa Dalloway is a character thought to be based upon Vanessa Bell) and tailoring aspects of Thoby’s character to suggest Jacob Flanders from Jacob’s Room. But since my novel is set in the years before Virginia published her first book, I tried my best to limit the Woolf references.
But my efforts failed. Virginia drew heavily upon her childhood and family in her writing, and I was stitching my narrative to her same -family history. One by one, her novels came marching obliquely in and echoed through the hallways of this story, pulled along by their historical origins. Lily Briscoe, Rosamund Merridew, Katharine Hilbery, -Godrevy Lighthouse, Clarissa Dalloway. I love the organic, grassroots way they found their way here.

SB: Vanessa writes to Lytton Strachey at the height of the affair between Clive and Virginia, “I think in color, in paint and pen and ink and shape. It is safer, and there are fewer lies.” Did you find that your writing, or your thinking about your writing, shifted because you were thinking about your scenes as a painter would?

PP: I cannot paint. Not even a little bit. So it was difficult for me to think as a painter would. I had no contextual foothold and had to rely even more heavily on historical sources to understand Vanessa’s particular artistic experience of the world. Here, I was lucky. While Vanessa kept silent on many subjects, she wrote frequently and expansively about her painting, exchanging letters with Roger Fry, Margery Snowdon, Duncan Grant, and Clive Bell among others.
I also spoke to several artists and art historians to better understand the emotionally freighted journey a painting makes from inspiration to studio to gallery to new owner. Vanessa’s artistic voice began to ring true when I realized how profoundly isolated she was growing up. In a family of writers, her medium was visual. No one spoke her language and that told me so much.

SB: Over the course of reading Vanessa and Her Sister, I found myself falling deeper and deeper under the thrall of Vanessa’s diary, to the point at which you could easily have told me that this was a lost diary, something just discovered—-it rang so true. What made you want to write the novel as a diary interspersed by letters? What were the constraints and freedoms that choice gave you? Are there any other diaries that have particularly inspired you?

PP: I have always been fascinated by diaries. From Tsarina Alexandra’s poignant last days in 1918 to Samuel Pepys’s rowdy love affairs in 1660 to Cecil Beaton’s cutting comments about his friends in the mid--twentieth century, diaries have a “cannot look away even though you know you should” quality to them. There is a backstage thrill. We are reading something that was not meant for us. Something that the author did not edit and shape in the way a writer does when a work is destined for public consumption. Instead it is raw--edged, unfinished, and so very personal.
As for the format of the novel, it did not feel as though I had a choice. The narrative arrived in this shape and refused to budge. Perhaps it was because I had spent years reading diaries and letters from the period, but when I tried the third person, it came across as forced and awkward and the characters packed up and went home. From the start, this format felt natural. The saddle fit the horse. I had been warned about the dangers and limitations of a first--person narrative, but because other voices were able to weave in and out with letters and postcards and telegrams, the form felt open and airy and never restrictive. Instead it felt endowed with huge built--in narrative tension. The author of a diary does not know what will happen next week or next month or how it will all end, but we do. So the format was rich with possibility.

SB: In her essay “Women and Fiction,” Woolf writes: Often nothing tangible remains of a woman’s day. The food that has been cooked is eaten; the children that have been nursed have gone out into the world. Where does the accent fall? What is the salient point for the novelist to seize upon? I thought of this as I read your book and wondered what were the moments while you were doing your research—-the salient points—-that you knew were pointing you in the direction of your novel? Where did you hear the accent fall?

PP: “Women and Fiction” is such a brilliant essay. It is interesting that Woolf writes these lines but she herself led a life where she pursued none of these activities. Her accents all fell in other places.
As I was carving the narrative from the research, there were several moments that stepped forward and declared themselves to be seminal and crucial. Surprisingly, they were not the moments anchoring the central betrayal of Vanessa’s life. Instead, they were the defining landmarks along her personal, emotional trajectory. A family’s understanding of who you are can be a binding, limiting thing. The moment when Vanessa peels away these long unquestioned beliefs, sheds that understanding of herself and leaps into the current of her own life, is for me the bone--deep engine of the narrative.

SB: This novel holds so many riches—-bringing to life Vanessa Bell, letting us eavesdrop on the Bloomsbury Group, a deeply satisfying portrait of an artist becoming herself—-but in some ways, the richest vein of all is the story, rarely told, of the relationship between artists who are sisters. Little has been written about the vital mix of competition and support (where, for instance, is the novel Anne and Her Sisters, depicting the Brontës?), and I wonder if you could talk a little about sisters and that bond and how it informed the writing of this novel?

PP: My own experience of having a sister has been unequivocally happy. But I know that I am lucky and that is not always the case. Affection, rivalry, competition, warmth, support, beauty, charisma, interest, similarity, and talent are all ingredients that mix together to form unique and sometimes difficult bonds, but the effect seems to always be one of particular intensity.
At the start of the research process, I began asking women a single question. I asked friends and strangers and women sitting next to me on planes and buses and women I met at dinner parties and in line at the DMV. “Do you have a sister?” If she answered yes, I would explain my novel, apologize in advance, and then ask that if her sister and her husband had an affair, which would be the greater betrayal? I asked this question again and again over the course of four years and the answer was always the same. The sister’s betrayal was greater. There is a magical alchemy in a sister relationship.

SB: What was the most surprising thing you learned about the members of the Bloomsbury Group over the course of writing this novel? What did you learn in researching, but then further, what did you learn in writing them, in inhabiting their voices?

PP: I was constantly surprised by how hard they worked to make their lives match their ideals. I had always had the impression that their bohemianism was clear and effortless, but I found that was not the case. It was an ongoing choice. A decision to follow an inner directive and live by their deepest convictions, and I do not think it was always easy. Conflicting, untidy, unruly emotions were tricky to navigate.
They all fervently believed in the importance of personal relationships and felt that friendship should be preserved at all cost, but sometimes the cost was immense. For a heartbroken Lytton Strachey to stay close to Duncan Grant and Maynard Keynes as they entered into a romantic affair was a bold and pricey decision. For Leonard Woolf to understand and accept that his dearest friend Lytton had accidentally proposed to Virginia, and she had accepted, must have been terrifically uncomfortable. For Vanessa Bell to create an affectionate and respectful lifelong co--parenting friendship with an unfaithful Clive Bell must not have been easy or straightforward. And it must have taken huge strength for Vanessa to shape a loving if not a trusting relationship with Virginia.
Each character and storyline held surprise as they slid out of their neat chronological confines. The fiction blurred the history as my novel and its characters became more and more real. These people lived courageously and they accepted the sometimes painful consequences of their choices with extraordinary humanity and grace.

1. When the novel opens, the Stephen siblings’ father has died and they have moved from their childhood home in Kensington to bohemian Bloomsbury. Why do you think Vanessa chose to uproot her siblings and move to such a radically different part of town? What sort of change was she trying to bring about for her family?

2. Vanessa tells us that her family values words and books over painting and visual arts. How do you think growing up in such a family affected Vanessa’s view of herself as an artist? Would you rather be a writer or a painter?

3. Vanessa always protected and supported Virginia, and excused much of her difficult and unsocial behavior. Do you think Vanessa’s tolerance gave Virginia permission to behave in the way that she did?

4. What is your opinion of Virginia and Vanessa’s relationship? Before Vanessa’s betrayal, did you find them to be legitimate friends, or do you feel something was missing between them even before Vanessa married Clive? How did Vanessa’s view of her sister change after she married?

5. Vanessa turned down several proposals from Clive, but decided to accept him after Thoby died. Do you feel that if Thoby had lived, Vanessa might have chosen a different path? Or that Virginia might not have behaved as she did? Do you think Vanessa and Clive were well suited to each other?

6. Virginia felt contempt for Clive and thought him an unsuitable husband for her sister. Why did she seek to “find a place” in Vanessa’s marriage? What do you think Virginia hoped to achieve?

7. We often think of the early twentieth century as being a time of almost Edwardian restraint, yet the Bloomsbury Group was open about both homosexual and heterosexual love. Do you think they were utterly unique? Do you believe such openness was actually more common at the time than we traditionally believe?

8. Members of the Bloomsbury Group not only challenged the norms of the time but also challenged one another during their numerous discussions about art, writing, philosophy, economics, and even love. Vanessa at times felt she was out of her depth, and marveled at Virginia’s brilliance. Do you agree with her assessment of herself? How difficult do you feel it would have been to be a part of such a talented and intelligent circle?

9. At one point Vanessa reflects, “If Virginia were not my sister, we would be a pedestrian cliché. Instead, we are a bohemian nightmare.” How do you feel the ideals of the Bloomsbury Group influenced Vanessa’s reaction to not only Clive’s affair with Virginia but also his choice to resume physical relations with Mrs. Raven Hill? If you had been in her shoes, do you believe you would have responded differently?

10. The story opens with a letter from Virginia to Vanessa stating, “What happened cannot break us. It is impossible. Someday you will love me and forgive me. Someday we will begin again.” How did this letter color your reading of the rest of the novel? Did you expect Vanessa to forgive Virginia at any point? Do you think it is fair to say that Vanessa still loved her sister, despite the fact that she ultimately decided she could not forgive her? Do you agree with Vanessa’s decision?

11. Vanessa and Her Sister is told largely through excerpts from Vanessa’s diary and her letters, with snippets of correspondence between her family and friends. What did you think of this narrative style? Was there any one person whose perspective you wished to see more often? How objective did you feel Vanessa’s portrayal of the story was?

12. Of the two sisters, Virginia is undoubtedly the more famous. Were you surprised by anything you learned about her in this novel? Did it challenge any previous ideas you had about her?

13. At the end of the novel, the author gives a brief description of what became of each member of the Bloomsbury Group. Was there anything in there you found unexpected? Disappointing? Particularly satisfying?

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Vanessa and Her Sister 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Mirella More than 1 year ago
The tragic life of English writer, Virginia Woolf, continues to fascinate today. A brilliant talent, Virginia suffered from mental illness (likely bipolar disease) and depression for most of her life. Despite her afflictions, she churned out beautiful literature that is still popular in our modern era. She was a member of the Bloomsbury Group, a group of gifted writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists.  Author Priya Parmar has written a fascinating accounting of a brief period of Virginia's life through the point of view of her sister in the form of a diary. This epostilatory novel delivers a poignant retelling of one of the most tumultuous periods of Virginia's life, when she was at the height of her troubles.  At the heart of the story are Virginia and her three siblings, Thoday, Vanessa, and Adrian. The story is full of dramatic encounters, minor scandals, and the social life of the main characters and the ever growing circle of intellectuals that comprised the Bloomsbury Group. Through postcards, letters, and numerous conversations, the story unfolds in a gracious, leisurely manner.  This is a character driven novel, not a plot driven one. So, if you're looking for a fast paced story, this story might not be for you. Rather, the author took her time to illustrate the Edwardian era, the intricacies and complications of the characters' personalities, and how they interacted with each other. It is a story of how one woman struggled to come to term with her life, her mental illness, her talent, and how it affected those around her. The cast of characters is huge and I struggled to recall them and their roles as I read along. This did take away a little from being able to fully immerse myself in the story as it caused me some frustration. But I persevered by focusing on the 4 main characters and their personal strifes and ignoring all the other characters who didn't offer much to the story. In this way, I was able to finish the novel, and came to enjoy it. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This novel must have been difficult to pull off. Creating a believable voice for Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell and their glittering, famous, intellectual friends? Not easy. But this novel succeeds--wildly succeeds. The racing, addictive plot, endearing, loveable, hatable characters, and beautiful writing all come brilliantly together to create an unputdownable novel. I have hardly looked up from it for 48 hours and am already looking forward to reading it again. Read it today
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was initially skeptical of the diary format, but I truly loved the book! I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I put it down. The characters are so richly written that it truly pulls you to read on. I will never look at Virginia Woolf the same way again!!
SMHarris More than 1 year ago
I won a copy of VANESSA AND HER SISTER via a Goodreads giveaway. The book is an historical fiction account of the life of Vanessa Stephen, an artist, her sister Virginia Woolf, a writer who also suffered from mental illness, an the Bloomsbury Group, a group of artists and writers from 1900's London. Told via imagined diary entries and written correspondence, the book is entertaining and definitely an enjoyable read
MaraBlaise More than 1 year ago
In this book we get to know the people in Bloomsbury Group through Vanessa Stephen's (later Vanessa Bell) journal. This book also contains postcards and letter sent from various members of the group. I can't say I was overly pleased with the journal approach of this book, and I was a bit confused why there was dialog in the journal. I mean I haven't written a journal in years, but who writes dialog in it? It would have been just better to have this book written from Vanessa's point of view without the journal entries. I read Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers some years ago and loved that book so I was intrigued by the thought of reading another book about the sisters, but this book was not nearly as good in my opinion. But still Vanessa and Her Sister wasn't all that bad, if you are interested in Bloomsbury Group, in Vanessa's relationship with Virginia that you will probably find this book interesting to read. Also, even though I wasn't overjoyed about this book, I still liked it, and I especially liked the last part of the book, then the story really picked up. I would have loved to read more about Vanessa's relationship with Roger Fry and Virginia's marriage to Leonard instead there it ended. A bit of a letdown...
gaele More than 1 year ago
A story that tells a tale of the Bloomsbury Group using a journal-style approach from Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf.  From the start, the construct was a bit of a sticking point for me: the story if not purported to be a journal would have felt much more ‘present’ but the dialogue and other insets to specifically present Vanessa’s story as a journal just kept me slightly removed from the story early on.  I will say that the clever descriptions, details and little bits of information dropping throughout each moment soon did take over my hesitancy, and I dove into the story not putting it down until completed.  As a fiction, this is a wonderful account of a sister’s relationship: the petty (or not so) jealousies, the conflicts, competition for attention and acceptance and tiny grievances that are always apparent in every sibling relationship surface and play a part in tone and a reader’s ability to believe in every minute detail.  I rather loved the ‘salon’ feel to the evenings and gatherings detailed, and it was easy to involve and engage myself in the discussions.  What was most interesting to me was the portrayal of Virginia Woolf, and her difficulties with mental illness. Vanessa details an almost classic narcissistic personality: self-involved and concerned, with little thought to others except in the fulfillment of her own needs. The real intrigue here was not in the difficulty in dealing with Woolf, but in the seeming reliance on Vanessa to make things “right” and rein in Virginia’s often demanding and difficult behavior.   The inclusion of multiple pieces of correspondence, detailing conversations and connections and the insets of the known with the unknown and extrapolated grounded this fiction piece: yes place and time and some events that are known to have occurred are detailed, but the true joys in this story are in the characters, the building and development, their interactions and the overall feeling of an entrée into a world gone by.  I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I so enjoyed this story and the format.
ashyrootz More than 1 year ago
I love how the only person to give the book a horrible review is the only one with major grammatical errors in their review Personally I loved the book. I didn't know much about the Bloomsbury group, but I felt like I was able to become a part of the story and I felt entangled into their drama. Priya has a way of bringing the characters to life, it's magical. I highly recommend this book for anyone who has a brain and an imagination.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Uuuuuuuuuuummmmmmmmmmmm...mmmmmmm....good?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very interesting as well as historical. A novel based upon the Stephen sisters: Vanessa Stephen Bell, a painter, and Virginia Stephen Woolf, an author.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was amaizing
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not for readers looking for action or drama. The book was well written and paints an interesting picture of the culture and morals of the time and this elite group. Pleasantly surprising.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is one that I hate the whole story is borin and dull. There is however,a few parts that ar not copletely horible. I do not reccomend this book for anyone. Thank you for reading my comment.