What if Virginia Woolf’s sister had kept a diary? For fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank comes a spellbinding new story of the inseparable bond between Virginia and her sister, the gifted painter Vanessa Bell, and the real-life betrayal that threatened to destroy their family. Hailed by The New York Times Book Review as “an uncanny success” and based on meticulous research, this stunning novel illuminates a little-known episode in the celebrated sisters’ glittering bohemian youth among the legendary Bloomsbury Group.
1. When the novel opens, the Stephen siblings’ father has died and they have moved from their childhood home in Kensington to bohemian Bloomsbury. Why do you think Vanessa chose to uproot her siblings and move to such a radically different part of town? What sort of change was she trying to bring about for her family?
2. Vanessa tells us that her family values words and books over painting and visual arts. How do you think growing up in such a family affected Vanessa’s view of herself as an artist? Would you rather be a writer or a painter?
3. Vanessa always protected and supported Virginia, and excused much of her difficult and unsocial behavior. Do you think Vanessa’s tolerance gave Virginia permission to behave in the way that she did?
4. What is your opinion of Virginia and Vanessa’s relationship? Before Vanessa’s betrayal, did you find them to be legitimate friends, or do you feel something was missing between them even before Vanessa married Clive? How did Vanessa’s view of her sister change after she married?
5. Vanessa turned down several proposals from Clive, but decided to accept him after Thoby died. Do you feel that if Thoby had lived, Vanessa might have chosen a different path? Or that Virginia might not have behaved as she did? Do you think Vanessa and Clive were well suited to each other?
6. Virginia felt contempt for Clive and thought him an unsuitable husband for her sister. Why did she seek to “find a place” in Vanessa’s marriage? What do you think Virginia hoped to achieve?
7. We often think of the early twentieth century as being a time of almost Edwardian restraint, yet the Bloomsbury Group was open about both homosexual and heterosexual love. Do you think they were utterly unique? Do you believe such openness was actually more common at the time than we traditionally believe?
8. Members of the Bloomsbury Group not only challenged the norms of the time but also challenged one another during their numerous discussions about art, writing, philosophy, economics, and even love. Vanessa at times felt she was out of her depth, and marveled at Virginia’s brilliance. Do you agree with her assessment of herself? How difficult do you feel it would have been to be a part of such a talented and intelligent circle?
9. At one point Vanessa reflects, “If Virginia were not my sister, we would be a pedestrian cliché. Instead, we are a bohemian nightmare.” How do you feel the ideals of the Bloomsbury Group influenced Vanessa’s reaction to not only Clive’s affair with Virginia but also his choice to resume physical relations with Mrs. Raven Hill? If you had been in her shoes, do you believe you would have responded differently?
10. The story opens with a letter from Virginia to Vanessa stating, “What happened cannot break us. It is impossible. Someday you will love me and forgive me. Someday we will begin again.” How did this letter color your reading of the rest of the novel? Did you expect Vanessa to forgive Virginia at any point? Do you think it is fair to say that Vanessa still loved her sister, despite the fact that she ultimately decided she could not forgive her? Do you agree with Vanessa’s decision?
11. Vanessa and Her Sister is told largely through excerpts from Vanessa’s diary and her letters, with snippets of correspondence between her family and friends. What did you think of this narrative style? Was there any one person whose perspective you wished to see more often? How objective did you feel Vanessa’s portrayal of the story was?
12. Of the two sisters, Virginia is undoubtedly the more famous. Were you surprised by anything you learned about her in this novel? Did it challenge any previous ideas you had about her?
13. At the end of the novel, the author gives a brief description of what became of each member of the Bloomsbury Group. Was there anything in there you found unexpected? Disappointing? Particularly satisfying?