One thought comes to mind with Priya Parmar’s “Vanessa and Her Sister,” and that is Sir Walter Scott’s all too fitting quote “Oh, what a tangled web we weave.” Parmar’s novel is an unflinching look at sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, their involvement and entanglements within the Bloomsbury Group and the shattering consequences that ensued. For anyone interested in Woolf, or the group as a whole, Parmar’s is an absorbing read.

I became interested in the Bloomsbury Set due to my fixation with George Mallory, who danced around the edges of their lives while at Cambridge. But, the more I learned about the key members of the group, the more appealing they became in and of themselves.

They were a collection of young artists, writers and philosophers who met weekly beginning in 1906 to discuss modern ideas on politics, society, art and philosophy. The Stephen siblings (Thoby, Vanessa, Virginia and Adrian) were at the group’s core, and the Stephen home in Bloomsbury quickly became the group’s nucleus. Notable original members included E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant and John Maynard Keynes—Virginia and Vanessa held court as the only two women.

by Unknown photographer, vintage snapshot print, July 1915
Strachey, Grant and Bell

Parmar’s book follows the set mostly through Vanessa’s eyes. It is her journal and letters that chronicle the group’s entanglements as they unfold. “Entanglements,” here, being the operative word. The Bloomsbury Group makes Peyton Place look like child’s play. The only difference being there were no sordid secrets among the Bloomsbury members. The group valued pleasure from their personal relationships first and foremost, and they took a sophisticated view of monogamy. But they also held truthful self-exploration and honesty with one another as guiding principles.

Though Virginia Woolf once said that they had worked out a view of life that kept them grounded as friends, one has to think that some of the exit wounds didn’t fully heal. Parmar’s book examines the consequences of their spurred and spurned love affairs and the hard-hitting brutality of their honesty. The book also gives us a look into Virginia Woolf’s mental illness and its toll on those who loved and cared for her.

While Parmar’s book paints Woolf in a less than favorable light (she comes across as extremely self-centered and greedy), it remains a good read and a fascinating look into the inner workings of this infamous group. Defying convention, they became accomplished and influencial individuals in their own right, with the support of one another, and they did it on their own terms.