E M Forster, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, Clive Bell, and most importantly, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf… a bunch of undeniably privileged, smart social and cultural radicals who gathered over pastries and coffee most evenings in [what is now] Central London to discuss art, literature and life, and of course, to gossip. You are invited into that small circle, become privy to the conversations, the flirtations, the intellectual repartee and the creative energies that flow through those evenings. You get to feel the thrill, with these insiders, of reading through drafts of “Morgan’s new novel” even as you realise that it is Howards End that is being discussed. You feel the blustery winds and blue skies of the Cornish summer as you walk those paths with the Stephens women–Vanessa and Virginia–and can discern the origins of To the Lighthouse. 

Vanessa and her Sister is a fictionalised account of the early days of the Bloomsbury Group as told through in the voice of painter Vanessa Bell (nee Stephen), Virginia Woolf’s older sister. Her account reveals the tensions and the joys of the relationship between the sisters: Vanessa the sensible, grounded older sibling and the mercurial and brilliant Virginia, who veers dangerously and inescapably between sanity and madness. The intense equation between the two, marked by Vanessa’s protectiveness and Virginia’s possessiveness, is disrupted when Vanessa marries Clive Bell. Virginia, fiercely resentful of what she sees as her sister’s betrayal, begins to drive a wedge into the marriage by flirting and then successfully hijacking Clive’s affections.  Although the affair is never consummated and eventually peters out, it leads Vanessa to gradually become free not only of her marriage but also her sister’s demands. She recognizes that “Marriage is a binding, blending thing that runs on a low-burning fuel of habit and faith. Love, on the other hand, is unanchored and lissom in its fragility.” And unanchored from this marriage that has become nothing more than habit, Vanessa finds love in and with others, and of course, in her own art.

Vanessa and Virginia are no ordinary sisters; they are the heart and soul of this bright set, hosting evenings that attract some of the brightest minds of the time. Vanessa’s diary, therefore, not only takes us on a personal journey but one that gives us an intimate sense of an intellectual moment that produced some remarkable literature and art. Interspersed with Vanessa’s diary entries are letters (many from actual archives) and telegrams from members of the Group. From Lytton Strachey to Leonard Woolf (who eventually marries Virginia), from Virginia to her friend Victoria, and several intriguing notes from art critic Roger Fry to his mother. There are mentions of liaisons with Bertrand Russell and interactions with Gertrude Stein and J P Morgan, and the emergence of a post-impressionist artistic sensibility. And in the middle of all this, Vanessa makes her art and Virginia, her writing.

Priya Parmar’s book is a work of great affection and attention to detail. Walking the fine line between fact and imagination, she paints a picture that is vivid and thoughtful, in prose that speaks lightly yet with an artistry that makes you want to re-read sentences. She says, in her author’s note: “It is not easy to fictionalise the Bloomsbury Group, as their lives are so well documented. They were prolific correspondents and diarists, and there is a wealth of existing primary material. For me the difficulty came in finding enough room for invention in the negative spaces they left behind.”

She has found that room and has used it well.