Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Art, Friendship, Love, Sex and Inventing Modernism

Vanessa and Her Sister_cover.jpgBefore reading Priya Parmar's book Vanessa and Her Sister I knew very little about the Stephen family and the Bloomsbury Group. I had read many books by Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. I recognized the names of Roger Fry and Vanessa and Clive Bell, and knew that Lytton Stachey wrote Eminent Victorians. John Maynard Keynes I knew was an important economist. But I had never studied them. I requested this book from NetGalley hoping to learn more.

The story is presented through the fictional pages of a diary kept by artist Vanessa Stephen, sister of Virginia Stephen (who later married Leonard Woolf). Their brother Thoby Stephen brings home his Cambridge University chums and they form a weekly meeting to discuss art and life and to gossip about their friends. They each go on to prominence as artists, writers, publishers, art critics, and philosophers. Interspersed with the diary entries are letters and telegrams to other group members, sent by Roger Fry, Leonard Woolf, and Lytton Stachey. The Bloomsbury men shifted their relationships between friend and lover, some later entering into relationships with women as well.

I was quite charmed from the first by Vanessa's voice. Although she tells us that Virginia insists she is not a "word" person, Vanessa is lyrical and visual in her descriptive language. Virginia needs careful handling; she can be charming and witty, cruel and selfish, and is prone to emotional breakdowns. She has also perfected the art of manipulation, and is always self-centered. Vanessa raises doubts about her sister's sexual orientation, and some thought that Virginia only ever loved her older sister Vanessa.

At first their gatherings seem splendid and full of fun with Thorby as the center. After his loss things go awry, and relationships alter. Vanessa marries Clive Bell, and Virginia jealously tries to inveigle herself between them. Alliances shift, lovers trade off, stodgy 19th c values are flaunted. We think the 1960s were radical? This group was breaking all the rules in the first decade of the century!

The novel ends rather in the middle of things, with the author offering a brief description of what became of the major players. The more well known group members included the author E. M. Forster; author Virginia Woolf ; artists Vanessa and Clive Bell; biographer Lytton Stachey; art critic Roger Fry and artist Helen Fry; artist Duncan Grant; poet Rupert Brooke; economist John Maynard Keynes; Leonard Woolf, Civil Service and later publisher and husband to Virginia.

I went online to research and learn more, and there was a lot more to learn. I suppose all books have to end somewhere. I would have liked to read about another decade or two about them. It was like a soap opera bred with High Art to produce a tale about geniuses throwing themselves against all the 'artificial' boundaries, trying to reinvent art and life.

The Virginia Woolf Blog has articles on Virginia and Clive Bell's flirtation. See Vanessa's paintings at

Vanessa and Her Sister: A Novel by Priya Parmar
Random House Publishing House-Ballantine
Publication Dec 30, 2014
ISBN 9780804276378

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