Priya Parmar (Bloomsbury) 2015, 352pp, RRP $29.99
Vanessa Stephen, her sister Virginia and their brothers Thoby and Adrian are bereft at the death of their beloved father soon after their mother passed away. The four siblings take up residency in the questionable neighbourhood of Bloomsbury. It’s 1905 and London is burning with change. Vanessa and her siblings light their own fire, challenging the norms of society, art and love. Vanessa paints, Virginia (who is soon to become the famous author Virginia Woolf) writes and Thoby and Adrian gather a collection of artists, critics and students in their home. They become the Bloomsbury Set, one of the most influential groups of English writers, intellectuals and artists to ever assemble.
The story is told through Vanessa’s diary entries and letters and postcards within the group and it is as much the story of social, cultural and artistic change as it is the story of the complex relationship between Vanessa and her difficult, demanding sister, Virginia. Virginia suffers from mental illness, and it falls to Vanessa to manage, mitigate and suffer her sister’s mood swings and illness:
“Virginia has been veering towards a breakdown all this spring. The danger lives in the small details; the way she waits a fraction too late before she responds to a question; the way she repeats herself without knowing it; the way her voice slides uphill when she speaks; the way she eats less and walks more; the way her face is mapped in blueish circles and sharp bones; the way she locks her hands together in her lap while on the omnibus; the way she is not writing.”
While Vanessa navigates Virginia’s moods, Virginia sets about interfering in Vanessa’s life, jealous of the attention and respect she commands from the Set and the devotion and love of Clive Bell. Meanwhile, Vanessa is forced to reinterpret her ideas about marriage as the men and women in the Set decide that monogamy is old fashioned and impossible.
“There was a profound dignity in the way she said it. This is not a sordid nor a loose woman, but a woman searching for a particular brand of love. Love sketched in paint and ink. Love to share unreservedly with another human. She was not ashamed of her quest, only disappointed in her failure. And why should she be ashamed? I thought, reproaching myself for my instinctive disapproval. She was not betraying Philip. They had come to an agreement.”
Vanessa And Her Sister is a profoundly moving novel addressing questions that feel as relevant today as they were in the early twentieth century: women’s roles as mothers, artists and wives are still complexly fraught, and mental illness is still a devastating problem impacting on many lives. It is beautifully written in style that evokes the time and mood and is a delight to read. Priya Parmar has that rare gift of being able to take historical knowledge and breathe life into it with an exquisite depth of emotion. I don’t know if it’s possible to love a book any more than I love Vanessa and Her Sister: it is in many ways, perfect.
This title is available through the Bloomsbury website: Click HERE to purchase your copy.