Tuesday, December 30, 2014


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We all seem to be fascinated with the Bloomsbury Group, Virginia, Vanessa, Thoby, and Adrian Stephen and an assortment of Thoby's friends from Cambridge.  Their story is told here by Priya Parmar in a series of vignettes, a bit like diary entries, from Vanessa's point of view.

Thus we see Virginia Woolf always in sympathy but frequently in exasperation by her sister "Nessa" who loved her dearly but always had to keep in mind the state of Virginia's mental health.  Virginia was unstable all her life and her siblings grew all too familiar with the signs that a mad spell was about to come upon her.  

Virginia not only loved Nessa but was almost totally dependent on her.  Jealousy reared its ugly head whenever Vanessa was the object of someone's else attention or admiration, particularly when Clive Bell began to court her.  After Vanessa married him, Virginia seduced him into a platonic relationship simply because she couldn't stand his being in love with Vanessa.  She most likely would have made it a physical relationship as well except that she had no interest whatsoever in sex.

Vanessa was an artist and yet in the Bloomsbury crowd her artistic achievements and talent were pretty much overlooked because she didn't demand attention like Virginia did.  Bell was a rare exception, realizing that she had a real gift.  

Thoby died young of typhoid fever and since he had been the leader of the group and much of what they did together, they were all devastated.  The house where the siblings lived together for so long became a place for them all to mourn together.  Their butler, Sloper, didn't approve of their life because the young women would gather in the evenings with the men without a chaperone.  Their half brother, George Duckworth, handled their money and highly disapproved of their bohemian lifestyle.  He was particularly upset that the girls weren't looking for husbands.

The discussions in that house must have been wonderful.  Parmar writes in a style I would imagine is how they spoke, i.e. Parmar writes of words sprinting through the room.  She also shows a ferry ticket showing arrival in England from France rather than just writing that Vanessa had come home.  

I came to have great admiration for Vanessa Bell.  She was the soul of patience with Virginia, tried her best to control her sister's most destructive mad spells and to see that she ate.  After her son Julian (Thoby's first name) was born, Clive was unfaithful and made no real effort to hide it.  Vanessa in our time would probably have divorced him but in that age she remained faithful to him for many years, trying only subtly to stop his affairs.  Her art was her life's consolation.

This is an easy reading, delightful book that gave me a better understanding of the Stephen siblings than an earlier biography of Virginia did. 

Source:  Ballantine/Random House via Netgalley

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