Ann-Marie Priest reviews 'Vanessa and Her Sister' by Priya Parmar and 'Adeline' by Norah Vincent

Ann-Marie Priest reviews 'Vanessa and Her Sister' by Priya Parmar and 'Adeline' by Norah Vincent

Vanessa and her sister

by Priya Parmar

Bloomsbury, $29.99 pb, 352 pp, 9781408850213

Adeline: A novel of Virginia Woolf

by Norah Vincent

Hachette Australia, $29.99 pb, 261 pp, 9780349005652

Ann-Marie Priest

Ann-Marie Priest

Ann-Marie Priest is a literary scholar and the author of Great Writers, Great Loves: The Reinvention of Love in the Twentieth Century...

Given the plethora of non-fiction books about Virginia Woolf and her circle, ranging from biographies to memoirs to coffee-table offerings of all kinds, it is tempting to wonder why we need novels as well. For intimacy and immediacy we have the Bloomsberries’ own accounts of themselves in the many voluminous editions of their letters and diaries, not to mention portraits, photographs, and autobiographical works. But somehow it is not enough. We want not just to learn about their lives but to participate in them, and for this, it seems, we must turn to fiction.

Two new novels about Woolf promise much in this regard. Priya Parmar’s book, like Susan Sellers’s 2008 novel Vanessa and Virginia, focuses on Woolf’s older sister, the painter Vanessa Bell. It begins in 1905, when Virginia was twenty-three and Vanessa twenty-six and they were still the unknown Stephen sisters. Following the death of their father, Leslie Stephen, they and their brothers, Thoby and Adrian, have moved from their stultifying home in Kensington to the slightly disreputable, inner-London locale of Bloomsbury, where they seek to throw off convention and live to please themselves. It is an inherently dramatic situation – the very birthplace of the Bloomsbury legend – but instead of creating scenes that will transport us there, Parmar presents a series of entries purporting to be from Vanessa’s diaries, supplemented by occasional letters from her friends.

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Published in May 2015, no. 371

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