'V's of sisterhood

 Vanessa And Her Sister
Priya Parmar
Bloomsbury
2015, pp 352
390

 

The initial lifting of our brow has already been stopped by Vanessa Bell’s granddaughter Virginia, who has referred to this fictional account of the Bloomsbury painter’s early days to have been “told with faith, elegance and an almost uncanny insight into the subject.”

The uneasy relationship between Vanessa and Virginia was obviously familiar to friends and relations even during their lifetime. Already Susan Sellers had chosen this fiction-worthy subject for her Vanessa and Virginia (2008) that studied the kind of terrifying mix in the atmosphere of their natal household. Their father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was an agnostic who did not believe in the doctrine of Original Sin.

Ah, morality was only a social construct devised by man for survival. There were other problems of everyday living, but all this was topped by the genius of Vanessa and Virginia, the former as a painter, and the latter as a writer. The two ladies passed away long ago: Vanessa in 1961, Virginia 20 years earlier. But, even today, their lives together and apart evoke interest, for we are in the post-Deconstruction Age, aren’t we? So, Priya Parmar has also gone to the same subject to weave her tale.

Reading the novel gives one an uncanny feeling of breaking a password and going through a sheaf of emails, one dovetailed to the next. Letters, diary jottings, notes. And a very uncertain set of images in the telling as backdrop for it all, from Vanessa: “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 soon we get engaged with a domestic thriller. It is exactly one year since their father has died, and the brothers and sisters have moved into their new house. As the eldest, it is Vanessa who is in charge of domesticare. Fifty years ago, Vanessa was only a name in the biographical note. It was Virginia’s novels structured as a flowing stream of consciousness that captivated the readers by their novelty and sheer English style.

Today, both the sisters vie for our attention as unparalleled achievers. It was not easy for them. They received their education at home. However, there never was ennui in this household. Talented persons went in and out and domestic conversation could be educative, as if one were residing in a university.

Early on we get to know of the swirling emotions, love, frustration, self-pity, jealousy and the like that kept these Bloomsburians in thrall. Vanessa, for instance: “Letters are public and mine naturally get compared to Virginia’s. My appalling spelling, my clunky phrasing, my mismatched metaphors rolling around like loose boulders, my handwriting that slopes uphill no matter how squarely I face the page — invariably, they do not equal Virginia’s hammered prose.”

Perfect critical (and self-critical) note! So we roll on through the twin lives, our path strewn with some very famous names: among them, Lytton and James Strachey, Clive Bell, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry. The novel is actually populated with males and none of them is the legendary Rama. Homosexuality is an accepted way of life too. Priya has resisted the temptation to make it garish with dragging descriptions. As it stands, the novel becomes a good read though the common reader may have to go to Wikipedia several times to connect who is who.

The novel ends seven years later when Vanessa is a mother and has already turned away from her husband to have an affair with Roger. Virginia is jealous. If we feel bleak by all this, Virginia’s bouts of depression only make it gloomier. And the saddest pages come with an elder sister’s mourning the death of her younger brother, the youthful Thoby, so full of life, energy and affection. The anchor is the diary that is capable of addressing a dead brother: “I need to go and tell you that you died today. To talk over the flowers and the cemetery and the verse and the drops of water on your chest. You are the only one I want to talk about it. It is an impossible circle with no door.”

Within two days, Vanessa decides to marry Clive Bell who proposes to her. But the expected calm is nowhere in the horizon. Five years later, we hear her snap at Virginia for having destroyed her marriage with Clive: “You cannot help yourself. You do not want something of your own. You want what is mine.”

Vanessa and Her Sister shows the Bloomsbury group as all intellectualism and sensual abandonment. Was it a cursed brilliance? It is perhaps not the whole truth, but what is truth anyway? A voluptuous regret, no more.

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