[I received a copy of Vanessa and Her Sister by its Canadian publisher Random House Canada. This does not affect my opinions on the book.]
If I’m being honest, I have to admit that I knew next to nothing about Vanessa Stephens (or, Virginia Woolf’s older sister) before reading Priya Parmar’s wonderful novel Vanessa and Her Sister. In fact, I hardly knew anything about Virginia Woolf (née Stephens) either, other than the fact that she is a well-regarded writer, famous for works such as Mrs. Dalloway and A Room of One’s Own. Because of this, I was extremely excited to pick up this book and learn more in a fun, non-academic way.
Vanessa and Her Sister covers the life of the Bloomsbury Group — an intellectual group that came together in the Stephens’ house in Bloomsbury — from 1905 to 1912. As the book’s title suggests, the story is mostly focused on Vanessa’s point of view, though it does do a great job of narrating the other group members’ stories as well in the form of letters and Vanessa’s second-hand accounts via her diary. These letters and diaries are tied together by a third-person narration, which gives Parmar space to check in with certain characters while keeping Vanessa at the forefront.
When the novel begins, the Stephens family has just moved into their new house in Bloomsbury. The Bloomsbury group has just been formed, and the Stephens sisters are still unmarried. A portion of the novel focuses on various courtships, where other parts explore the relationship between the members of the Stephens family and their friends.
As someone who doesn’t know a lot about this particular set of people, (I read Mrs. Dalloway in university but that’s about it), it was interesting to find out that I recognized some of the names that made up the Bloomsbury group, like John Maynard Keynes and E. Morgan Forster. It was also eye-opening for me to see Virginia Woolf cast in a sort of temperamental, showy light, as I had never imagined her to be that way. Even more intriguing was the relationship between Vanessa and Virginia; it was riddled with intense love, but also jealousy and competition. I really admire Parmar’s understanding of each character; she must have done a lot of research as everyone seemed completely believable to me. Soon after I began the book, I could picture Vanessa Stephens clearly in my head and anticipate her reactions to certain events. I also grew attached to the characters extremely quickly, and admired their quirks and personalities as they were presented to me.
That being said, I was reminded by a friend that this is, ultimately, a fictionalized story that is rooted in truths. So, while I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I still have to remind myself that parts may not be one hundred percent true (though, this is obviously expected in a work of fiction). For me, my need to remind myself to take everything in the book with a grain of salt was less of a detractor from the book than it is a nod to its ability to make me believe in the writing. Vanessa and Her Sister was an extremely fun read, and it has definitely pushed me to want to learn more about these famous intellectuals.
Verdict: A fabulous introduction to the Bloomsbury group, and of Vanessa Stephens and Virginia Woolf in particular. You don’t need to have previous knowledge of the characters to be able to enjoy the book – the drama and plot really pushes the book forward – but having an interest in the group doesn’t hurt. The book is well-paced and captivating, and I was sad it had to come to an end. Bonus: It made me want to learn more about the Stephens sisters, which speaks to its effectiveness in drawing me in and painting a realistic picture that was both intriguing and gratifying.
Read if: You are in any way interested in Vanessa Stephens, Virginia Woolf, or the Bloomsbury group; simply want to read about two sisters and their group of intellectual friends; want a touch of romance and family matters mixed into your reading.