Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 4, 2015

What I’m Reading: Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar

With two creative sisters in a family, it’s likely one will be eclipsed at least in history, though Vanessa Bell’s art graced walls and furniture in not only her home but that of Virginia Woolf. Vanessa’s art was also used on the original covers of novels that her sister self-published, with the aid of her husband, Leonard Woolf. Priya Parmar’s novel puts Vanessa at the center of the action, showing her growth as a painter as well as the difficulties and joys of being a sister, wife, and mother.

Virginia is never far in this work constructed from invented diary entries and letters from the point of view not only of Vanessa or Virginia, but other writers and artists including Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, and Roger Fry, all of whom were intent on breaking old rules and creating new forms. VANESSA AND HER SISTER opens with party preparations that took me back a bit to my long ago reading of Virginia Woolf’s MRS. DALLOWAY. Later, I felt the seeing of shapes and colors as if through the eyes of Lily in TO THE LIGHTHOUSE.


The sisters’ words and the silences between them create a sense of intimacy and sometimes escalating jealousy. Virginia wrote protesting women’s creativity-restricting role as “the angel in the house” in A ROOM OF HER OWN and elsewhere. She strived to live simply, and married a good man who looked after her in important ways, and they didn’t have children. But in this novel as well as biographies, it seems Virginia saw her sister if not as a caretaking angel, as a sort of Madonna. Virginia depended on her sister for practical things and please-be-there-if-I-need-you support. In the famous Bloomsbury gatherings, the novel shows Vanessa tending to the details of food, drink, and manners. She loves grace and vivid color, sometimes wishing she had more creative space.

Just about now advanced review copies of LITTLE WOMEN IN BLUE are heading to reviewers, so I’m letting go of my grip on two sisters – the writer Louisa and the artist May, who died about thirty years before many of these events. Virginia Woolf wrote, “On or about December 1910 human character changed.” Maybe. But love and rivalry between sisters seems timeless.



  1. This sounds like an interesting read! I know so little of Vanessa and it’s good to see her taking center stage.

    • Yes, it was interesting. Sometimes it was sad, as you do see Vanessa getting elbowed into the shadows. I love the color and freedom of her paintings, and the book jackets are elegant. Next trip to England, we need to go to Vanessa’s house at Charleston: I’ve only seen the pictures, but wonderful color over every available space.

      In other news of good word/picture blending, I’m just starting to enjoy my copy of Enormous Smallness. Thank you for the perfect recommendation!

      • I don’t think I’ve seen any of Vanessa’s paintings. I recall seeing the exterior of her Charleston house — I think Amanda White at one time had done a collage/print/card design of it and it looked charming. Glad you’re enjoying Enormous Smallness! I’m about halfway through Susan Cheever’s biography (thanks to your mention of it). 🙂

  2. So good to hear of this book in the light of Little Women in Blue. It might be nice for book groups to read both.

    • Wouldn’t that be nice? I’m compiling lists of books about sisters, and novels with art references. Thanks, Sarah!

  3. Ah, Bloomsbury! Virginia will always have a special place in my heart, To The Lighthouse and The Waves unlocked my writing and my thinking about writing in indelible ways. But, Virginia is a handful – there was something so myopically self centered about her, especially vis a vis Vanessa ( and Leonard). I saw this on book stands when I was in London, and reached for it…and then decided to stick with my own Virginia/Vanessa construct. But, I am tempted!

    • That’s so wonderful that those wild novels opened up your writing. But of course there is a difference between the writing and the writer. The model of Virginia was more appealing when I was younger, though — she is just astonishing in so many ways. But hard to have an astonishing sister, and Vanessa’s art so wonderful, and the very different way she found balance. I do like to imagine you in London reaching for this novel — books find their own times for us.

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