Vanessa & Her Sister renders in fiction the relationship between Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, daughters of Sir Leslie Stephen and the central women of Bloomsbury, that Bohemian enclave of London in the 20’s and beyond of which so much has been made.

I had such a strong sense of deja vu after finishing Vanessa & Her Sister. I was reminded  forcefully of how I felt after reading Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife( in fact the publicity blurb for Vanessa & Her Sister invites us to compare them) and the longer I mused on it, the more I decided I wanted to write about these books, to work out how I felt about them and the effect they had on me.  The Paris Wife tells the story of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first, older wife, and the end of whose marriage to Hemingway is so beautifully recorded in his A Moveable Feast. The Paris Wife also is well written, perfectly adequate. But here’s the thing. It drove me straight back into Hemingway’s arms and turning the pages of A Moveable Feast.

And it, the source, was just so superb, and not at all the apologia for a husband’s betrayal which I had expected. No, it was a love letter -to feelings that had changed, had dimmed, but not been totally extinguished. And so I found myself re reading some Hemingway and just adoring it in a way that I hadn’t before.

Vanessa & Her Sister is slightly more problematic. The Bloomsbury set are famed for how much they wrote- about themselves and about each other, about everything really. The wealth of primary sources is almost embarrassing.  What made me want to write about this book, explore how I felt about it, is hidden in Parmar’s The Authors Note…

I took one important detour from recorded history with the argument between Vanessa and Virginia over the affair with Clive. We do not know whether it was ever mentioned between them, and Vanessa does not refer to the liason in HER( my emphasis) letters. In 1925 Virginia Woolf wrote, ” My affair with Clive and Nessa turned more of a knife in me than anything else has ever done.”

This state of affairs, this uncharacteristic silence, has been complicated by the fact that Virginia’s husband, Leonard Woolf and  Vanessa’s children for many years ‘controlled’ our view of Vanessa and Virginia( Quentin Bell was Virginia’s primary biographer, and his wife Anne Bell edited her diaries). Still nothing exists of what Vanessa thought about the affair- a woman who when it came to it did not alert her own daughter, Angelica (Vanessa’s daughter with Duncan Grant), to the fact that by marrying Bunny Garnett she was marrying her father’s former lover. The Bohemians reveled  in tearing down Victorian social mores, but some of Society’s dictates are there as much for our protection as to preserve the status quo. Did Vanessa’s thoughts on Virginia’s betrayal ever exist? Virginia seems to have eventually realised( see above…’more of a knife in me’) that  by conducting an emotional affair with her sister’s husband she achieved the opposite of what she intended. Instead of demonstrating to Vanessa how unworthy Clive was, Virginia simply made Vanessa only too aware of how selfish and controlling and monstrous Virginia herself was.

A man I loved once wrote, ” it is all too easy to intellectualise emotions but to do so brings no comfort and certainly contains no truth”…..pompous ass. His words have stayed with me though- I quote them from memory- and they have often come back to me when I have tried to understand all the pain he caused, intentionally or not, both to myself and others dearer to him.  Some betrayals, some emotions go beyond words. It is Vanessa’s silence on this aspect of her life that I find so compelling, so true, and in the end so devastating. And I am not sure that I am ready, willing or even  able to thank Ms Parmar for ending it.


Thea Brooke


*James Salter writing to Robert Phelps of Isak Dinesen, Denys Finch Hatton and Out of Africa spoke of  ‘the courage she had in what she omitted.’


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