What if Virginia Woolf’s sister had kept a diary? For fans of The Paris Wifeand 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.
Sarah Blake is the author of Grange House and The Postmistress (winner of South Africa’s Boeke Prize and a New York Times bestseller).
Sarah Blake: I first heard the famously dismissive (and apocryphal?) admonition from Virginia Woolf to her sister, Vanessa Bell—-You will have the babies, and I will write the books—-when I was in college and beginning to think of myself as a writer, and I’ll never forget the firestorm of debate and despair those words caused. Did a woman writer have to choose? And if we didn’t, did that make us less of a writer (or an artist)? Vanessa and Her Sister is a powerful answer to that question, but I’d love to know what drew you, as a writer and as a woman, to the two Stephen sisters and their story to begin with?
Priya Parmar: That remark might be apocryphal, but that specific, resentful sentiment pervaded Virginia Stephen’s correspondence in the months after Vanessa Bell gave birth to her first son, Julian. Virginia was desperately afraid of being left behind as Vanessa moved into her new life as wife and mother. Virginia’s letters are salted with spikey, barbed jabs aimed at her happily married sister.
Virginia Woolf was not an easy person—-gifted, charismatic, quixotic, charming, and brimming with creative genius—-but never easy. She believed in possession and in relentlessly coming first in the affections of those she loved. So what would it have felt like to be the person she loved best in the world?
That question kept surfacing as I tumbled deeper and deeper into the research. Vanessa Bell must have experienced a web of contradictory and shifting feelings. She must have felt trapped, exhilarated, exhausted, frustrated, proud, and protective when she dealt with her brilliant but selfish sister. And while Virginia adored Vanessa, she deliberately set out to destroy her sister’s marriage. As a novelist, I found this nexus of conflicting emotion irresistible. There is so much juicy humanity in the contradictions.
SB: And why did you choose to write the story from Vanessa’s point of view?
PP: Vanessa was the shadowy linchpin of the Bloomsbury Group. She was at the emotional, romantic, creative, social, and artistic center of the circle, and yet in many ways she left surprisingly light historical footprints. Many of her early paintings from this period were destroyed in the London Blitz, she did not keep a diary, and aside from a brilliant selection edited by Regina Marler, her letters are largely unpublished. So I began with the thought that this was a wonderful, underexplored vantage point for a novel. And then I spent some time with her.
I look for a historical figure with a magnetic core, someone who can draw the narrative to her and drive it forward with equal force. Vanessa astonished me with her humanity, her boldly lived life, and her canny self–deprecating voice. The story curved to fit her and then surged forward at her encouragement. Her archival letters are immediate and modern and Vanessa emerges as a woman who is flawed, magnificent, and relatable. As soon as I read them, I could not imagine telling the story from another point of view.
SB: One of the reasons I love writing historical fiction is the chance it gives me to take up the language of other times like a cloak I can wrap myself in and then walk around. There is the heady thrill of ventriloquism, and what you have achieved here is breathtaking. One can’t help but feel this must be just how Vanessa Bell thought and spoke and saw. When did you know you had Vanessa’s voice in your head? At what point did you start to become fluent in her? And how did that shape the course of the novel?
PP: I am so pleased you feel the voice rings true! “Fluent in her” is a lovely phrase. That is just how it felt. Vanessa’s voice did not creep up on me as Lytton’s and Virginia’s did. It arrived all at once and knocked on the door with a suitcase in hand. Choosing a historical figure is a dicey thing. The research is an invitation. I cook the dinner, set the table and light the candles in the hope that if I immerse myself fully into the historical documentation, her voice will arrive.
In 1905, Clive Bell proposed to Vanessa Stephen. She wrote a letter refusing him. But she did not write in the accepted, expected vocabulary of an Edwardian woman of her class. She told the truth. The whole truth. She liked him but not enough to marry him, but perhaps if he left the country for a bit she would like him more? She began the letter at home but finished it in pencil at the dentist’s office. With that letter, her voice galloped in. And the voice is everything. For me, the character flows from the voice and the narrative flows from the character. Once her voice moved in, the story began to crackle with life.
SB: What was your relationship to Virginia Woolf before beginning this book? Did you find that it changed over the course of writing it?
PP: I went to Mount Holyoke College—-all women, Seven Sisters, very big on Virginia Woolf. And then I majored in English. So I was steeped in the brilliance of Woolf’s novels from a relatively young age. I had roving Woolf favorites. Sometimes To the Lighthouse, sometimes Orlando. Always Mrs. Dalloway.
I knew that Virginia was difficult but felt that her personality took a backseat to her overwhelming genius. My mother has copies of all of the letters and diaries and I had dipped in and out of them over the years but never read them straight through. Once I began to research in earnest, I read the diaries, novels, essays, and letters concurrently in chronological order and my perception shifted. I began to separate the Virginia Woolf who was able to write with such enormous self–awareness and perception from the Woolf who was able to callously belittle a beloved friend or enter into an emotional affair with her sister’s husband.
My Virginia Woolf is very much a fictional creation. Her roots grip the historical facts of this early part of her life but her character is imagined. As I was writing, I found myself furious with Virginia. Hopelessly partisan, I sympathized with Vanessa unreservedly. It was only after I finished the novel that the balance restored itself and the genius of Woolf as a writer stepped back to the foreground.
SB: The novel begins with a letter from Virginia Woolf hoping that someday Vanessa will forgive her, and ends with the letter that is Vanessa’s answer. In between lies the story of these sisters as it unfolds over seven years. Vanessa’s last letter expresses one sister’s triumph at having pulled herself clear of the other, and into her own life. I couldn’t help but recall the end of To the Lighthouse when Lily Briscoe, the painter—-who has survived Mrs. Ramsay and all the intervening years—-puts down her brush and thinks to herself, triumphantly—-There. I have had my vision. Can you talk a little about how your book is haunted by Virginia Woolf’s novels, and which ones in particular?
PP: It is interesting. Most of the references were unintentional. I did purposefully include a few elements from the novels such as opening with a party to call up Mrs. Dalloway (Clarissa Dalloway is a character thought to be based upon Vanessa Bell) and tailoring aspects of Thoby’s character to suggest Jacob Flanders from Jacob’s Room. But since my novel is set in the years before Virginia published her first book, I tried my best to limit the Woolf references.
But my efforts failed. Virginia drew heavily upon her childhood and family in her writing, and I was stitching my narrative to her same -family history. One by one, her novels came marching obliquely in and echoed through the hallways of this story, pulled along by their historical origins. Lily Briscoe, Rosamund Merridew, Katharine Hilbery, -Godrevy Lighthouse, Clarissa Dalloway. I love the organic, grassroots way they found their way here.
SB: Vanessa writes to Lytton Strachey at the height of the affair between Clive and Virginia, “I think in color, in paint and pen and ink and shape. It is safer, and there are fewer lies.” Did you find that your writing, or your thinking about your writing, shifted because you were thinking about your scenes as a painter would?
PP: I cannot paint. Not even a little bit. So it was difficult for me to think as a painter would. I had no contextual foothold and had to rely even more heavily on historical sources to understand Vanessa’s particular artistic experience of the world. Here, I was lucky. While Vanessa kept silent on many subjects, she wrote frequently and expansively about her painting, exchanging letters with Roger Fry, Margery Snowdon, Duncan Grant, and Clive Bell among others.
I also spoke to several artists and art historians to better understand the emotionally freighted journey a painting makes from inspiration to studio to gallery to new owner. Vanessa’s artistic voice began to ring true when I realized how profoundly isolated she was growing up. In a family of writers, her medium was visual. No one spoke her language and that told me so much.
SB: Over the course of reading Vanessa and Her Sister, I found myself falling deeper and deeper under the thrall of Vanessa’s diary, to the point at which you could easily have told me that this was a lost diary, something just discovered—-it rang so true. What made you want to write the novel as a diary interspersed by letters? What were the constraints and freedoms that choice gave you? Are there any other diaries that have particularly inspired you?
PP: I have always been fascinated by diaries. From Tsarina Alexandra’s poignant last days in 1918 to Samuel Pepys’s rowdy love affairs in 1660 to Cecil Beaton’s cutting comments about his friends in the mid–twentieth century, diaries have a “cannot look away even though you know you should” quality to them. There is a backstage thrill. We are reading something that was not meant for us. Something that the author did not edit and shape in the way a writer does when a work is destined for public consumption. Instead it is raw–edged, unfinished, and so very personal.
As for the format of the novel, it did not feel as though I had a choice. The narrative arrived in this shape and refused to budge. Perhaps it was because I had spent years reading diaries and letters from the period, but when I tried the third person, it came across as forced and awkward and the characters packed up and went home. From the start, this format felt natural. The saddle fit the horse. I had been warned about the dangers and limitations of a first–person narrative, but because other voices were able to weave in and out with letters and postcards and telegrams, the form felt open and airy and never restrictive. Instead it felt endowed with huge built–in narrative tension. The author of a diary does not know what will happen next week or next month or how it will all end, but we do. So the format was rich with possibility.
SB: In her essay “Women and Fiction,” Woolf writes: Often nothing tangible remains of a woman’s day. The food that has been cooked is eaten; the children that have been nursed have gone out into the world. Where does the accent fall? What is the salient point for the novelist to seize upon? I thought of this as I read your book and wondered what were the moments while you were doing your research—-the salient points—-that you knew were pointing you in the direction of your novel? Where did you hear the accent fall?
PP: “Women and Fiction” is such a brilliant essay. It is interesting that Woolf writes these lines but she herself led a life where she pursued none of these activities. Her accents all fell in other places.
As I was carving the narrative from the research, there were several moments that stepped forward and declared themselves to be seminal and crucial. Surprisingly, they were not the moments anchoring the central betrayal of Vanessa’s life. Instead, they were the defining landmarks along her personal, emotional trajectory. A family’s understanding of who you are can be a binding, limiting thing. The moment when Vanessa peels away these long unquestioned beliefs, sheds that understanding of herself and leaps into the current of her own life, is for me the bone–deep engine of the narrative.
SB: This novel holds so many riches—-bringing to life Vanessa Bell, letting us eavesdrop on the Bloomsbury Group, a deeply satisfying portrait of an artist becoming herself—-but in some ways, the richest vein of all is the story, rarely told, of the relationship between artists who are sisters. Little has been written about the vital mix of competition and support (where, for instance, is the novel Anne and Her Sisters, depicting the Brontës?), and I wonder if you could talk a little about sisters and that bond and how it informed the writing of this novel?
PP: My own experience of having a sister has been unequivocally happy. But I know that I am lucky and that is not always the case. Affection, rivalry, competition, warmth, support, beauty, charisma, interest, similarity, and talent are all ingredients that mix together to form unique and sometimes difficult bonds, but the effect seems to always be one of particular intensity.
At the start of the research process, I began asking women a single question. I asked friends and strangers and women sitting next to me on planes and buses and women I met at dinner parties and in line at the DMV. “Do you have a sister?” If she answered yes, I would explain my novel, apologize in advance, and then ask that if her sister and her husband had an affair, which would be the greater betrayal? I asked this question again and again over the course of four years and the answer was always the same. The sister’s betrayal was greater. There is a magical alchemy in a sister relationship.
SB: What was the most surprising thing you learned about the members of the Bloomsbury Group over the course of writing this novel? What did you learn in researching, but then further, what did you learn in writing them, in inhabiting their voices?
PP: I was constantly surprised by how hard they worked to make their lives match their ideals. I had always had the impression that their bohemianism was clear and effortless, but I found that was not the case. It was an ongoing choice. A decision to follow an inner directive and live by their deepest convictions, and I do not think it was always easy. Conflicting, untidy, unruly emotions were tricky to navigate.
They all fervently believed in the importance of personal relationships and felt that friendship should be preserved at all cost, but sometimes the cost was immense. For a heartbroken Lytton Strachey to stay close to Duncan Grant and Maynard Keynes as they entered into a romantic affair was a bold and pricey decision. For Leonard Woolf to understand and accept that his dearest friend Lytton had accidentally proposed to Virginia, and she had accepted, must have been terrifically uncomfortable. For Vanessa Bell to create an affectionate and respectful lifelong co–parenting friendship with an unfaithful Clive Bell must not have been easy or straightforward. And it must have taken huge strength for Vanessa to shape a loving if not a trusting relationship with Virginia.
Each character and storyline held surprise as they slid out of their neat chronological confines. The fiction blurred the history as my novel and its characters became more and more real. These people lived courageously and they accepted the sometimes painful consequences of their choices with extraordinary humanity and grace.