Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

For fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank comes a captivating novel that offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of Vanessa Bell, her sister Virginia Woolf, and the controversial and popular circle of intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group.
London, 1905: The city is alight with change, and the Stephen siblings are at the forefront. Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby, and Adrian are leaving behind their childhood home and taking a house in the leafy heart of avant-garde Bloomsbury. There they bring together a glittering circle of bright, outrageous artistic friends who will grow into legend and come to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. And at the center of this charmed circle are the devoted, gifted sisters: Vanessa, the painter, and Virginia, the writer. ⇒ More …

(Synopsis and image via Goodreads)


It’s 1905, and the Stephens sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, along with their brothers, Thoby and Adrian although adults find themselves on their own following their father’s death. London is changing, people are changing. Why not make change?

The siblings decide to leave their childhood home and move into an area filled with glittering lights and personalities. They find themselves living in Bloomsbury, home to the legendary Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers.

Vanessa and Virginia are, in my mind, close because of Virginia’s immense need for affection and attention. Vanessa enables her with minute and trivial comments, brings Virginia out of her oft-occasioned downward spirals, and dotes on her as one would a child.

Having read the genius of Virginia Woolf on the pages of several books, it is heartbreaking to “see” inside her fraught and disturbed world. Intellectually and as a wordsmith, Virginia is a genius.

“Writing is Virginia’s engine. She thrums with purpose when she writes. Her scattershot joy and frantic distraction refocus, and she funnels into her purest form. Her centre holds until the piece is over, and she comes apart again.”

Virginia is the dominant personality despite her mental crises, and Vanessa allows Virginia to condescend:

Last Thursday evening, I sat in the corner like a sprouted potato, but this Thursday, I will speak up. I will speak out. Long ago Virginia decreed, in the way that Virginia decrees, that I was the painter and she was the writer. “You do not like words, Nessa,” she said. “They are not your creative nest.” Or maybe it was orb? Or oeuf? My sister always describes me in rounded domestic hatching words. And invariably, I believe her. 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.”

There is a good deal more to Vanessa and Her Sister than the relationship between the two sisters. In actuality, it is like reading someone else’s journal from their own hand and through correspondence, a most important part of one’s etiquette in the early 20th century, shared between the siblings, their friends, and acquaintances.

Once I read the words, “[f]or fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank,” I knew I would enjoy reading Parmar’s work. She is an exquisite writer, poetically styling her prose such that it becomes lyrical and ethereal. Her characters play well against and with each other, creating the tensions that carry the plot and history forward. I want to go back now and read Parmar’s first novel, Exit the Actress.



Lover of historical novels? Interested in seeing Virginia Stephens Woolf from a different perspective? What about learning more about the Bloomsbury Group? Parmar has carefully and accurately researched and represented the time in London and the activities of the characters in her book. If you answered “yes” to any of my questions, pick up Vanessa and Her Sister.


Book Details:
Publisher: Ballantine Books

Genre: Fiction / Fiction – Literary / Fiction – Historical / Contemporary Women
Published: December 30, 2014
Format: Kindle edition, 368 pages
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Net Galley Member

Disclaimer: I received a copy of Vanessa and Her Sister from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions expressed are my own.

Priya ParmarA former dramaturg and freelance editor, Priya Parmar was educated at Mount Holyoke College, The University of Oxford and The University of Edinburgh.  She is the author of one previous novel, Exit the Actress.  

Priya and her husband and their French bulldog Herbert divide their time between Hawaii and London.

(Bio and image via Priya Parmar)

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