I wish I had realized that Parmar’s novel was written in diary/epistolary form, as I probably would have passed on it. I liked the novel, and there is a great deal to learn about one of the greatest literary stars in England in the first half of the 20th century and her group of talented, well-educated and often brilliant people who helped shape thought between the wars and beyond.
Yet reading it soon became an exercise in tenacity, much like the tumultuous life of Parmar’s first-person narrator: Virginia’s artist sister, Vanessa.
As the newly installed harsh, unreliable electric lights shine brightly in 45 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, so does Vanessa Stephen’s aura, even as her well-educated, erudite sister attempts to overtake her at every turn. Each intricate moment is exposed in the daily life of Virginia, Vanessa, their brothers Thoby and Adrian, and their “bohemian hinterland” of artist and literary friends. Products of the Victorian era and of a selfish, domineering father, the siblings are forced to strike out on their own and follow their instincts rather than
the smothering rules by which they'd been raised.
Although Parmar tells us that Vanessa never kept a diary, it's hard to believe that we are not actually reading something written by
her. Weaving the threads of Vanessa‘s life through her voice, Parmar explores the often fraught relationship
between the sisters, both the attachment and the rivalry that complicated every interaction. We see Vanessa's interior life, reinforcing the strength of the bonds of this competitive sisterhood. There is no one else in Vanessa's life, not even painter Duncan Grant or her art critic husband, Clive Bell, who has such a grip on her as Virginia.
While Virginia thinks Clive is uncultured and blunt, Vanessa marries him anyway, leading to a wrenching sea change and a
fiery new alchemy in her life. But Vanessa is totally unprepared for Clive’s desire for an “open marriage.” While he feasts on a variety of exotic lovers, an initially hesitant Vanessa eventually has affairs with art critic Roger Fry and Duncan Grant. No longer able to dissuade Vanessa from Clive, Virginia seeks to integrate herself into their marriage by trying to charm Clive into relinquishing her sister.
Distracted Clive predictably falls in love with captivating, exhausting Virginia, even though their affair is purely plutonic. Poor Vanessa is left the victim, watching her manipulative, brilliant sister try to win a place in her marriage “when there is no place to be had.” Vanessa finds herself caught between two worlds, watching helplessly as Virginia tries frantically to refocus,
to settle the voices inside her head and the words that rush and tumble “like unskilled acrobats.“ We, too, see an image of Virginia up in her attic room speaking in low, frantic tones that sometimes rise to shake the tall house.
The novel is a must read for fans of Virginia Woolf, although Michael Cunningham’s
The Hours and the accompanying movie did a much better job of exposing the core of Virginia’s crippling depression and self-absorption. Like an artist’s palette, the book is strafed with shape, color and light, a fractured and messy journey--a symbol of Vanessa’s interior struggles. In Cornwall, she feels wrapped in a sense of what is possible, far from the “vapid veneer of untruth” and well-mannered social deceit that smothers the drawing rooms of London. Here Vanessa is constantly upstaged by Virginia, “her tempo scattered and quick and always wanting more: more affection, more attention, more contact, more safety and secrets: she has a halo of genius while I feel so horribly earthbound.”
In an Edwardian world where marriage is binding and love is fragile and unanchored, Vanessa and her sister seek to shed the conventions of their class in an environment where spinsterhood hugs like a “clingy grey
specter.” Parmar’s writing is always lyrical even when the unconnected diary/letter entries become a bit tedious, a reflection of Virginia’s own cluttered psyche.