<i>Vanessa and Her Sister: A Novel</i> by Priya Parmar is the fictionalized diary of Vanessa Stephen Bell. The novel attempts to capture the Bloomsbury Group and Virginia Stephen Woolf. Parmar holds degrees in literature and theatre and is completing her PhD at the University of Edinburgh.
I saw this book was available for review and immediately started on it. Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite authors and the Bloomsbury Group is one of the most interesting groups of people in that period. With my background in history, historical fiction is usually hit or miss, with miss winning out most times. Last year, I read a novel about Machiavelli and Da Vinci . It consisted of Machiavelli throwing out quotes from <i>The Prince</i> and Da Vinci proclaiming “Science” as if caught in a Thomas Dolby song in a continuous loop. However, I started <i>Vanessa and Her Sister</i> with high hopes.
The reader views the story through Vanessa’s diary and telegraphs between Lytton Strachey and Leonard Woolf. Roger Fry also telegraphs in from New York. The Bloomsbury Group members are all well portrayed in the novel and seem to hold to the historical records. Of course with historical fiction conversations are based on interpolations of events and people. I really enjoyed the writing and the story with one exception: Virginia Woolf. I do understand Virginia Woolf had problems with mental illness throughout her life and was hospitalized several times. I also have read her diaries, letters, and her nephew’s biography. Not being an expert in mental health, there does seem to be long periods of stability.
I could not help get the feeling that Virginia Woolf was being portrayed as being much deeper in mental illness. There is a nearly perfect description of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in describing Woolf. From the story of wanting a friend’s table to her relationship with Clive Bell (Vanessa’s husband), Woolf seems to consider only herself. She also seems unable function without the help of her sister’s constant attention. The story seems to go much deeper than the bipolar disorder that Woolf has since been diagnosed (previously called nervous disorders). I also received the impression that Woolf was much like Dustin Hoffman’s Rainman — brilliant, but unreachable and untouchable. Only Vanessa could control her, and only Thoby could get her to eat.
I am torn by this novel. I enjoyed the story and the writing. I would have loved the book except for the portrayal of Virginia Woolf. I will freely admit that I do not have any formal education, beyond the basics, in English Literature and it writers. Parmar far exceeds me in this field, and I tried very hard to accept that. I do understand this is also a novel and not everything is completely factual. However hard I tried, I could not accept the Virginia Woolf character. Every other aspect of the story I enjoyed and found interesting. It is like all the characters are nails, pounded flush, holding down a floor board. They hold firm. Virginia Woolf is the nail that is not flush, and I trip over it every time. I am fairly confident that most readers will not be as critical as I am and will enjoy the book for the story. For someone walking in blindly I would rate <i>Vanessa’s Sister</i> at four stars. For someone with preconceived opinions of the characters, three stars.