Throughout history pockets of particularly creative people emerge. Groups of friends who share ideas and philosophies with each other and then turn those ideas and philosophies loose on the world. This is how we end up with schools of thought and trends, particularly in literature and art. There is a lot of overlap between literature and art, but when taking classes that focus on one or the other, it is possible to get an incomplete picture of those groups of friends who encourage and challenge one another. As a lit major, I am pretty familiar with the writers of the early twentieth century in American and England, or at least with their works. And there was one semester when I had to take an art history course to fulfill credits and the only one available was an early modern art one. It wasn’t until reading Priya Parmar’s upcoming novel, Vanessa and Her Sister about the sisters at the heart of the Bloombury Group that the full extent of the overlap became clear.
As the oldest sister, Vanessa Stephen worries endlessly about her siblings, particularly her younger sister, Virginia. As the four Stephens move into a new home in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London and her brother, Thoby, begins inviting a circle of his friends around for regular evening discussions of literature and art, Vanessa watches Virginia closely. Having had and recovered from one mental breakdown, Virginia abhors most change and is very attached to her siblings. When dynamics in the group shift as romances arise and fizzle, marriages and children enter the mix, Virginia tests Vanessa’s patience and trust.
Most people are familiar with Virginia Woolf through her work and the stories of her mental health issues whose intricacies were not understood in her time. Michael Cunningham’s portrait of Woolf in The Hours is the one I was most familiar with prior to this novel but that feels more geared towards serving his larger themes where in Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister, who Virginia was and her behavior are at the core of the book as they affect Vanessa’s quest to define herself as an individual, apart from her sister and her struggle with madness. Told through a fictional diary kept by Vanessa as well as letters, telegrams, and postcards between various members of the Bloomsbury Group, Vanessa and Her Sister depicts the groups early days and the transformation of the sisters’ relationship.
While there were times when the book felt flat or drawn out, the issues at its heart remain relevant to so much of today’s society, particularly in the relationships between men and women. Both Stephen sisters fight against societal convention when it comes to what is proper and acceptable, but Vanessa acknowledges her struggles with aspects of it, how easy it can be to slip into those ingrained ways of thinking. The feelings of guilt, responsibility, and frustration she experiences in relation to Virginia are also very relatable. Virginia isn’t like others and can’t be treated as such but where does one draw the line and stop sacrificing oneself for the sake of someone who isn’t capable of appreciating it? How much of yourself are you willing to sacrifice for those you love when you receive less than nothing in return? Watching Vanessa answer these questions for herself is inspiring.
Vanessa and Her Sister will be available for purchase beginning December 30, 2014.