I am a huge fan of Virginia Woolf. I have read most of her novels, her letters, her diaries, Quentin Bell’s biography, and Leonard Woolf’s autobiography.
In addition to my veneration of Woolf, I have always been fascinated by her painter sister Vanessa Bell.
I am reading Priya Parmar’s delightful new novel, Vanessa and Her Sister. Set in London between 1905 and 1912, it is told in the form of Vanessa Bell’s diary, with entries broken up on the page with postcards and letters. Vanessa did not actually keep a diary, but Parmar has created a strong, observant writer’s voice. In addition to running the household, Vanessa worried about the moods of brilliant, unstable Virginia, who had bipolar disorder. Their intellectual brothers Adrian and Thoby knew many artists, critics, and Cambridge intellectuals, among them E. M. Forster, Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, and Duncan Grant. They held Thursday evenings for the group at their house in Bloomsbury.
We learn Virginia has told Vanessa, ““You do not like words, Nessa….They are not your creative nest.” But words are very much her nest, and Vanessa, the only artist in the family, is both practical and precise: her descriptions are very painterly. Here is a stunning excerpt from an entry about their friend Lytton Strachey, the famous biographer.
Lytton. So finely sketched in groups, he can crumple and blur in singular company. I think I prefer the more fractured, muddled Lytton to the clear, quick, brilliant Lytton.
This is also a physically beautiful book. There are replicas of lovely postcards (fictional, of course) from Virginia to her older friend Violet Dickinson, and from Lytton to Leonard Woolf in Ceylon. There are also letters from Leonard to Lytton. There is even a receipt for art supplies delivered to Vanessa.
This novel is as gracefully written as it is captivating.
Virginia Woolf has been in the news in the TLS. This month is the 100th anniversary of Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out. At the TLS blog, Thea Lenarduzzi wrote about Woolf’s career as a reviewer at the TLS and how “her responses to the material she was reviewing tell us something, perhaps, about where she was up to” while writing her first novel. You can also listen to Lenarduzzi’s podcast interview with Woolf’s biographer Hermione Lee about The Voyage Out.