Vanessa and her Sister – Priya Parmar

On holiday in beauteous Northumberland and I am working my way through several books from the wonderful library. They have recently managed to get me some lovely books on request. Which goes to prove that even if you think you have books of your own, there’s always something to be found in your library…yet another reason to keep them open!

Anyway, one of the books was a novel I had been looking forward to reading. Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar


This is a novel which describes the relationship between Vanessa Stephen/Bell and her sister, Virginia Woolf.

I have read a fair few Woolf writings, including her novels, essays and diaries. I have not read everything, and I am not an expert by any means. I recently went to  talk by Maggie Gee, who is an expert, and caught a lot of the enthusiasm that is felt for this writer. She would, by any understanding, been a difficult person to live with on the showing of this novel (and some of the underlying text of her diaries).

The novel is largely in the form of Vanessa’s fictional diary, with some letters within the Bloomsbury set. It describes the difficult life Vanessa led keeping her sister’s fragile mental health on an even keel in the face of family tragedy and the interesting artists, writers and critics that surrounded the sisters.

I honestly enjoyed this book. It was not a gripping mystery, as we knew that Virginia eventually marries the largely absent Leonard. To be honest, it was a bit tricky to keep the characters clear in my mind as nicknames and the early life of well known historical figures was a little confusing. The central story, of Vanessa trying to survive and develop as an artist came through, as well as coping with her own courtship, marriage and children. This is against a well drawn background of the artists and critics who behaved in completely unexpected ways. The jealousies and romances, the achievements and challenges are suggested in  clever ways. Virginia is seen as fragile but manipulative, complicated yet transparent, an all too human genius.

I found this an informative, well written, fascinating book. Perhaps it would be as well to have a little knowledge of the main players, but equally I imagine that this book could be read as a book about family relationships and complex friendships. The afterword about the later progress of the characters in real life completed the novel well. This is a good book about women in the early twentieth century who are not financially struggling, but finding many other parts of life difficult. It is a good read, and more cheerful than I have probably made it sound!