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'Vanessa and her Sister' gives a voice to Virginia Woolf's caring sibling

Priya Parmar's splendid novel imagines the thankless task of catering to the self-absorbed geniuses of the Bloomsbury group.

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Vanessa and Her Sister
By Priya Parmar
Random House
386 pp.

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It’s no fun being the practical one in a room full of geniuses.

Thoby Stephen is busy befriending some of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century and inviting them home on Thursdays. Adrian, the youngest Stephen, is still a university student. Meanwhile, the whole family coddles Virginia and tries to protect her from another nervous breakdown.

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Somebody has to make sure the dinner gets made and the bills paid, so oldest sister Vanessa shoulders all the thankless tasks in Priya Parmar’s captivating second novel, Vanessa and Her Sister.

“[W]hile Virginia will amuse them with her circus acrobatics of witty, well-turned phrases, cleverly layered and underscored by her ruthlessly subtle mind, I will worry if the cocoa is served and if Lytton likes the fish,” Vanessa Stephen writes in her journal about her role in the Thursday “at homes.” At the first one, she laments, she sat in a corner “like a sprouted potato.”

The “sister” of the title, of course, is the writer who will become Virginia Woolf. But when the novel opens in 1905, Virginia’s book review has just been rejected by The Times. Family friend John Maynard Keynes is unemployed. Vanessa has never sold a painting. The only one successful in his chosen career is E.M. Forster, known as Mole, whose first novel is being published in the spring.

So much has been written about the Bloomsbury Group – by the central players and their descendants, as well as writers ranging from Michael Cunningham to Hermione Lee – that a novel that opens with Virginia Woolf’s sister planning a party has no right to be as fresh and insightful as Parmar’s. (No word, by the way, on whether Miss Stephen bought the flowers herself.)

Parmar recreates the excitement of the interplay of ideas and the throwing off of convention that shocked Edwardian London, at the same time that she brings forward the woman who has largely remained in the shadows of her more famous sister. The painter Vanessa Bell is not known to have kept a journal, but the voice Parmar captures in her novel rings true on almost every page.

The writer Lytton Strachey shares narrative duties with Vanessa, penning letters about the Stephens and their circle to Leonard Woolf, who is serving as a civil servant in Ceylon. (Lytton thinks it would be better for everyone if Leonard came home to England and married Virginia.) Interspersed between Vanessa’s journal and Lytton’s letters are telegrams, postcards, tickets, and bills for art supplies.

Despite the “sprouted potato” comment, Vanessa is always wary about commanding too much attention: Virginia needs to be the most admired woman in any room. After their mother died when they were teenagers, 15-year-old Vanessa took on the maternal care of her brittle, brilliant sister. The Stephens then lost their father, the famous critic and mountaineer Sir Leslie Stephen, and their beloved half-sister, Stella. Helping Virginia battle depression requires constant watchfulness – if not the level of self-sacrifice that Virginia seems to believe is her right.

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“Long ago Virginia decreed, in the way that Virginia decrees, that I was the painter and she the writer. ‘You do not like words, Nessa,’ she said. ‘They are not your creative nest,’ ” Vanessa writes. (Words were the most highly prized currency in the intellectual family.) “So, not a writer, I have run away from words like a child escaping a darkening wood, leaving my sharp burning sister in sole possession of the enchanted forest. But Virginia should not always be listened to.”

The two brothers and two sisters, perhaps because they have lost so many loved ones, are very protective of one another – especially Virginia, who attempted suicide after their father’s death. Thoby coaxes her to eat; while Adrian tries (a little too hard) to make up for imagined slights; and Vanessa maintains a vigilant eye on her emotional stability, while protecting her sister from experimental treatments, such as one doctor’s suggestion that he remove Virginia’s teeth. 

“There is a lovely symmetry in four,” Vanessa writes about their convention-free life in an unfashionable part of London. After turning down a proposal, she writes, “I am not done with this free, four-step, Stephen part of my life.”

Another tragedy upsets the siblings’ balance. Reeling afterward, Vanessa marries art critic Clive Bell, who has been pursuing her for years. Initially, Vanessa throws her whole heart into married life.

But after the birth of the Bells’ first child, Virginia embarks on an emotional affair – if not a physical one – with her sister’s husband. Vanessa takes little comfort in knowing that Virginia seduced Clive to drive a wedge between spouses, because Virginia can’t bear the idea of her sister loving anyone more than her. (Clive, of course, has no clue.)

Vanessa is as dumfounded by the betrayal as she is by the fact that her husband and sister apparently think that she’s not very bright.

“Do they suppose I am a dimwitted woman? Do they suppose that as Virginia presumes upon every other aspect of my life, I would not mind sharing my marriage as well?” she writes to Strachey, before ending, “Burn this letter.”

With her trust in her husband irrevocably broken, Vanessa turns elsewhere for her emotional well-being. But she remains the emotional anchor for her family and friends, and strong enough to say, despite a string of losses and persistent fears for Virginia’s sanity, that “Hope is an unbreakable habit.”

Parmar has an absolute embarrassment of riches to work with, in terms of characters. Henry James writes to scold Vanessa for the Stephen siblings’ bohemian ways. John Singer Sargent was one of her teachers at the Royal Academy. The poet Rupert Brooke stops by of an evening, allowing his beauty to be admired by all.

“My dear, there is ferocious tension – a paramount need to say important things and discuss worthy subjects: Good, Beauty, Truth – all very Keatsian. The stakes are high. One feels quite gladiatorial stepping into this arena of ideas,” Strachey writes to Woolf about the Bloomsbury “at homes.”

If it took courage to step inside the arena, it took even more to be the one responsible for the intellectual combatants’ comfort and emotional support. “Vanessa and Her Sister” successfully makes the case that Virginia Woolf may not have been the most remarkable of the remarkable Stephen siblings.