A century after the Bloomsbury group’s heyday, the wildly talented group of artists, authors and critics is often best remembered as the social circle of the brilliant modernist writer Virginia Woolf. Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s sister, often recedes to the background in these depictions, but the acclaimed artist was far from a mere supporting player in Woolf’s life.
In Priya Parmar’s new novel, Vanessa and Her Sister (Ballantine, Dec. 30), Bell finally gets a starring role. Told in richly imagined diary entries from Bell’s perspective, as well as invented letters and telegrams between Bell, Woolf and other members of the Bloomsbury group, Vanessa and Her Sister portrays a time of upheaval in the lives of the famous sisters. When Vanessa married Clive Bell, another member of the Bloomsbury group, Virginia was threatened by the perceived loss of her beloved sister, and struck up a long flirtation with Clive in apparent hopes of getting Vanessa's attention. Parmar’s extensive research into the Bloomsbury group’s correspondence and diaries lends a realistic gloss to her fictionalized account of Bell’s turbulent life during these years.
This isn’t Parmar’s first foray into biographical fiction; she’s the author of Exit the Actress, a novel about Nell Gwyn, the real-life actress and mistress of Charles II. HuffPost Books spoke to Parmar about the Bloomsbury group, writing biographical fiction, and why she’s fascinated by gaps in our historical knowledge.
What inspired you to write about Vanessa Bell and her inner life?
I read a letter of hers that she wrote when Clive Bell was proposing, and she was saying no. I think it was actually the first proposal. And it was just so modern; she basically told him, “I’m so sorry, I really like you a lot, but I can’t marry you. You’re too available, could you just go away and be a little less available, maybe travel out of the country for a year, don’t talk to me, maybe I’ll like you a little better and we’ll see where we are.” It was like a letter that one of your girlfriends would have written and you would have all talked about. It just didn’t seem like it was written in 1905. She really just leapt off the page as a character for me at that point, and I really wanted to read about her. So I started on the research, and the more I read about her the more I just fell in love with her.
Virginia Woolf wasn’t the way in for me, it was Vanessa Bell, and then Virginia was waiting for me when I got there.
Obviously Virginia was very fond of Vanessa, but most people know more about Virginia than Vanessa. Were you a fan of Virginia Woolf or Vanessa Bell before you started looking into this project?
I was. I always loved Virginia’s novels -- I have my favorites of her work -- and I had always liked Vanessa Bell’s paintings. And I knew about the Bloomsbury group, but I hadn’t read about them exhaustively the way that I have now. I had taken a class in college that looked at the Bloomsbury Group, so I liked them all, but I didn’t spend that much time with them before I started doing this.
Were you nervous when you started writing such an unsympathetic portrayal of Virginia, since she’s so beloved today?
Absolutely terrified. Oh my God, I just dread to think of what my English professors are going to think. I was terrified when I realized -- and I actually realized it pretty late -- but when I realized I had signed up to write in the voice of Virginia Woolf in the first person, it was completely daunting. But then you sort of get over that, because I’m writing in the voice of my Virginia Woolf, which is the character that’s jumped up out of all the research that I’ve done. It’s fiction, it’s very much fiction, but it’s completely informed by the thousands and thousands of letters that I’ve read.
But it’s really frightening for me when someone tells me that they love Virginia Woolf and then that they are going to read this book. I’m really thrilled and pleased and terrified, and also just, like “Oh God, it may not be the Virginia Woolf that you have in your head.” It’s pretty terrifying.
It's really interesting because this whole episode has sort of fallen away from her accepted mythology. It’s not really in people’s lexicon of Virginia. It didn’t make it into her official history.
When I heard about the affair, it was very much swept into the category of “Oh, they all have such modern marriages,” but obviously that’s a very simplistic way of looking at it. It also all took place earlier in their lives, before Woolf became a published author. Did you decide to focus on the period when this big change in their lives happened, when Vanessa got married and the affair ensued?
I was really drawn by this period, because it’s a largely unexplored period. They hadn’t done the things that they would go on to be really well known for. I didn’t set out to specifically look at the affair, and I didn’t realize that that was going to be the focus until I was actually writing the novel.
I knew it was going to be about the sisters. I knew it was going to be about the difficulty of, what was it like to be Virginia’s favorite person on earth? It really just turned out to be about the period of time where this huge betrayal happens. Then their life enters a different chapter once Virginia becomes published and once you get into WWI, and once they become a famous literary circle. Then it’s very different. They’re not flying under the radar anymore, and they all know they’re going to become famous. They’re just different people. I was really interested in this period of time before all of that happened, when they weren’t cemented as public figures. And [Virginia’s] suicide is so examined, I really wanted to look at her when she was young.
It was massively daunting.
It seems like they were all very prolific letter writers.
Vanessa Bell -- she writes beautifully, she writes beautiful, beautiful letters. She has 3,000 unpublished letters.
Since we see so much through Vanessa’s eyes in the novel, obviously she comes off really well. But in the letters that we see from other members of the Bloomsbury circle, she also comes off as this radiant figure. Is this something that you found in your research, and were you concerned about seeming almost hagiographic toward Vanessa?
They adored her. I mean, they absolutely adored her. She was the center of the group in so many ways, and I don’t think she knew it, which made her very endearing. She’s sort of this shadowy center, because she didn’t leave a diary, and she didn’t put herself into the spotlight. I had to figure out a lot of different aspects of her character from what other people were saying because she was often very self-deprecating in her letters. She never mentioned the affair.
She just seems to have been this really, really remarkable person, and people were just mad about her. And Virginia was, you know, completely crazy about her.
In the book, Vanessa seems cool and judgmental toward Virginia even before the flirtation with Clive begins. Is that something that arose from what you imagined would be her reaction to dealing with someone as difficult as Virginia, or was it based on accounts that people gave at the time?
It’s a mixture of both. I’m really interested in the conflicting accounts of the same event. I find you learn so much in that nexus of what different people say. Everyone has their own lens.
For Vanessa’s character ... if you read that many letters by somebody you get to know their tone. This is my fictional Vanessa, but it was also all informed by, you know, if Virginia did something particularly difficult, how Vanessa’s tone in her letters would be, how it would fluctuate and how it would change.
Nonfiction, for me, is the gathering of the facts, and the fiction is the guess, it’s the hat tossed into the ring, the working-out of what might have been the emotional landscape of these people.
This is actually the second novel you’ve written that is historical fiction about a prominent figure. Why do you feel drawn to this sort of fiction?
It’s what I like to read. I love history, and I love in particular the pockets of negative space in history, where we’ll know a lot about Virginia Woolf, and we have her diaries and everything else, but there’s this other person in the shadows who gives a completely different angle. I love taking that and looking at that other, unexamined bit of history.
I love doing it with primary documents because my background is in academics, so I’ve spent a lot of time with primary documents. That might be my comfort zone. You get a Ph.D., and you end up with a lot of primary documents! I love that place where history meets fiction, and it’s been a lot of fun for me to write. I chose Vanessa just because she was the character I wanted to spend time with; she was the character who stepped off the page fully formed. She’s a wonderful writer. Her letters are just as good as Virginia Woolf’s, they’re just held in different basements all over the world and they’re not published.
Do you have a person in mind for your next book?
I’m sort of circling a few people. I haven’t quite managed to walk away from the Bloomsbury group yet, but I’m looking at a few people. I just finished editing the U.K. edition of this book, so I haven’t landed on anybody yet. It’s such a great period, and such a fun group of people. It’s difficult to walk away from them.