Priya Parmar’s second novel opens an intimate, witty and highly entertaining window into the early 20th-century circle of writers, philosophers and artists known as London’s Bloomsbury Group. They met several times a week at the homes of Vanessa and Clive Bell and Vanessa’s brother and sister, Adrian and Virginia Stephen (later Woolf). This erudite group also included the novelist E.M. Forster; biographer Lytton Strachey; artist Duncan Grant; art critic Roger Fry, curator of New York’s Metropolitan Museum; and economist John Maynard Keynes. The Stephen siblings—Vanessa, Virginia, Adrian and Thoby, the eldest brother— moved to the “bohemian hinterland” of Bloomsbury after their parents died, and Thoby’s Cambridge friends quickly adopted it as their favorite gathering place.
By means of Vanessa’s diary entries and letters, postcards and telegrams traveling back and forth among this large cast of characters, Parmar delves into not just their intellectual pursuits, but also their flirtations, affairs and sexual proclivities, which they reveal with little thought to discretion. But, as the title suggests, Parmar’s main focus is the Stephen sisters: Vanessa, the artist, and Virginia, the novelist, whose relationship was challenged by Vanessa’s 1907 marriage to Clive Bell.
Vanessa and Her Sister succeeds not only as a glimpse into this remarkable artistic family, but as an insightful portrayal of post-Victorian London as seen through the eyes of its increasingly uninhibited intellectual elite.
RELATED CONTENT: Read a behind-the-book essay by Priya Parmar.