Vanessa and Her Sister

9780804176378_p0_v3_s260x420-1If you ever wondered just how miserable Virginia Woolf had to be to drown herself in  the River Ouse by walking into the water after filling her overcoat pockets with stones, Priya Parmar reveals the quirky personality behind the disturbed genius as she examines the lives of sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell in Vanessa and Her Sister The timeline covers their young adult lives at Bloomsbury – before either had achieved fame through literature or art, and ends as Virginia Stephen marries Leonard Woolf.

NPR neatly summarizes the book:

“In the winter of 1905, in the London neighborhood of Bloomsbury, a group of friends began meeting for drinks and conversation that lasted late into the night. The friends – writers like Lytton Strachey, artists like Roger Fry and thinkers like economist John Maynard Keynes — continued to meet almost weekly for many years. Eventually, they came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group.

In the beginning, their clubhouse was the home of the Stephen siblings — two brothers and two sisters. Today, the women are better remembered than their brothers: They were the painter Vanessa Bell and the writer Virginia Woolf.

Priya Parmar has written a novel about the group, and especially about the Stephen women. It’s called Vanessa and Her Sister and it’s written in the form of Bell’s journal. Parmar tells NPR’s Linda Wertheimer that she chose to put Bell at the center of her novel because, compared to her sister, her voice has been largely unheard.”

 

The sisters live with their brothers after the death of their parents, and through the weekly salon, the reader meets their friends, future husbands and a circle of recognizable literary luminaries – E.M. Forster, Rupert Brooke, Walter Lamb, and others.  Famous artists – Monet, Manet, Picasso, and others float through the periphery of the story, as Vanessa Stephen, an artist in her own right, marries Clive Bell, the art critic and author, who organized the landmark second Post-Impressionist exhibition that was held in London in 1912. Through a series of letters, and diary notes, Parma weaves a tale of sisterly love and sibling rivalry, telling the background story of the famous sisters and creating a fictional conversation based on historical fact.

If you are a fan of embellished historical fiction in the tone of “The Girl with a Pearl Earring,” you might enjoy the book, but beware – Parmar’s unique writing style might be a distraction.  Not quite an epistolary, the story uses Vanessa’s diary posts (Vanessa never actually kept a diary), letters between the authors and friends, as well as letters between Vanessa and her sister Virginia.  At times, the jumps from intimate thoughts from the journal to letters from assorted characters can be disarming.  You will need to concentrate on who is talking.

Although I have read Woolf’s writing and knew of her background, Parmar’s creation through the eyes of Woolf’s sister was enlightening.  Despite Virginia’s overbearing proclamations of the value of writing over art, Vanessa rallied on with her painting and eventually became renowned in the art world.  Although some of her paintings were destroyed in a fire, many remain on display.  Her son, Julian Bell, has carried on the tradition of writing and painting.  Parmar touches on the birth of Julian and the sham of Vanessa’s marriage, but her affair with Roger Fry and his influence on her work will have to wait for another novel.

Leonard Woolf appears as Virginia’s suitor through letters to a mutual acquaintance, Lytton Strachey. Their married life together, his subsequent influence and care of her delicate nature, as well as their founding of the Hogarth Press – which published most of Virginia’s novels – is well documented in Victoria Glendenning’s 2006 biography – Leonard Woolf – a book I now have on my list to read.  Parmar only briefly mentions Leonard, and left me wanting more.  As Virginia’s erratic behavior leads to her brief institutionalization, I wondered how he could continue to pursue her…but there is more to that story.

The sibling rivalry and forbearance of Vanessa toward her talented sister form the crux of this novel, and Parmar does highlight the “unheard” sister by speaking through the voice of Vanessa Stephen Bell.  By using primary sources and then fictionalizing Vanessa’s life, Parmar may have filled the gap for more information with a psuedo biography on the Vanessa with the famous sister.

 

 

 

 

 

Imagined London by Anna Quindlen

9780792265610Anna Quindlen’s Imagined London – “A Tour of the World’s Greatest Fictional City –  will vicariously lead you through familiar landmarks, and maybe introduce you to a few new sites from the pages of well-known authors.  Waiting patiently for Quindlen’s latest book from my library wait list (Still Life with Bread Crumbs), I found this nonfiction guide to London – actually Quindlen’s long essay on her own introduction to the city.

Of course, Quindlen dedicates a chapter to the narrow alleys of Dickens’ novels, as well as the author’s house; John Galsworthy also merits a chapter – motivating me to find The Forsythe Saga. Other famous authors appear – Agatha Christie, Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, mystery writer Martha Grimes.  Quindlen has repetitive references to some of her favorite books:  Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister as well as Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love (another book I plan to find).

Although she never mentioned books from two of my favorite authors – Jane Gardam and Fay Weldon – she did reference one I had not thought about in a long time – Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber.  Like Quindlen, I remember reading this banned book under a brown cover (we both went to Catholic school) that probably would not be as shocking today as it was then.  I will have to find an old copy to reread and decide.

With references to British history – kings, great fire, wars – and a chapter on the inconsistency of language and idiosyncratic phrasing, Quindlen’s book has her easy conversational style, and is an enjoyable foray into travel writing.  If you are a writer or a lover of British authors, as I am, you may find a special affinity in its pages.  I plan to reread it before I visit London again.

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Mrs. Dalloway

9780156628709_p0_v3_s260x420When I read in USA Weekend that community college English 101 students had tattooed “Fear no more” on their bodies as a reminder of Virginia Woolf’s Shakespearean quote in Mrs. Dalloway, I decided it was time to reread that classic. Novelist Maureen Howard cites the quote “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline as a symbol of endurance in her foreword of Woolf’s novel; English Professor Katherine Boultry notes her students’ interpretation of the line as encouragement, as they face an unknown future.

Through one day with Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf reveals a lifetime that has a different connection for each reader.  Set in London after World War I, the story famously follows one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares to give a party.  The cast of supporting characters include her distant but loving husband, Richard; her daughter, Elizabeth; her old beau, Peter Walsh; Septimus, a suicidal soldier returned from the war; Miss Kilman, her daughter’s irritating teacher.

Mrs. Dalloway must be read slowly to catch the familiar notes as Clarissa goes through her day; the simplest distractions – that calm feeling of repetitive motion that comes with sewing – leads to a sharp note commenting on her life:

“…the green dress…someone had trod on the skirt…she would mend it…she would take her silks, her scissors, her – what was it? – her thimble, of course, down into the drawing room, for she must also write, and see that things generally were more or less in order…Quiet descended on her, calm, content, as her needle drawing the silk smoothly to its gentle pause…and the whole world seemed to be saying ‘that is all’…

Virginia Woolf can be heavy reading, with jolts of realism and introspection, and as I slowly meander through Mrs. Dalloway’s life once again, Woolf’s clear observations of the turmoil that hides under our public faces resonates with me and I understand Maureen Howard’s citation of Samuel Beckett’s line from Happy Days:

“That’s what I find so wonderful, a part remains, of one’s classics, to help one through the day.”

If you are looking for a break from the bestsellers, try a classic – but forego the tattoo.

Pilgrimage – Annie Leibovitz

The first time I saw an exhibit of Annie Leibovitz’s photography in Washington, D.C., I felt I knew her subjects intimately.  Leibovitz’s art captures her famous targets as posed but vulnerable.  When I found her book with Susan Sontag – Women – the images amazed me for their familiarity and honesty.

Her new book – Pilgrimage – reviewed by Dominique Browning for the New York Times in her article A Pilgrim’s Progress, comes out today – with no people in it.   The book opens with shots of Emily Dickinson’s house “that Ms. Leibovitz took, casually…on a family visit.”  Even on her off days, Leibovitz takes amazing pictures.

“She took her camera to Virginia Woolf’s house, photographing the surface of her writing table, and into the garden, capturing the wide, rolling water of the River Ouse, in which Woolf drowned herself.  She photographed Dr. Freud’s sumptuously carpeted patient’s couch in London, and Darwin’s odd specimen collection.  Eleanor Roosevelt’s bedroom with its simple white coverlets, in her cozy cottage, Val-Kill, stands in contrast to a silver serving dish, its rich patina rippling with light.  Abraham Lincoln’s elegant top hat and white kid gloves…Louisa May Alcott’s house…the view from Emerson’s bedroom window…”

More than another coffee table book, Leibovitz offers…”something about integrity, staying true to a vision…”

Her ad for Sears with the Kardashian sisters – not so much…but photographers have to pay their bills too.

J.D. Salinger Slept Here

Curtis Hall, Ursinus College, 3rd floor

I have a cousin who went to Ursinus College, and stayed longer than Salinger. Her major was the MRS, which she successfully completed before her senior year.  No room is dedicated to her research.

In Michael Winerap’s New York Times article, J.D. Salinger Slept Here (Just Don’t Tell Anyone), Ursinus College has finally succeeded in putting Salinger’s old room to good use.

Salinger left Ursinus after one very productive semester, writing for the school newspaper, and spent the rest of his life avoiding academics. If anything, he proved that great writers cannot be taught (maybe with the exception of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop). Waiting until after his death, so he wouldn’t sue, Ursinus College has finally established the non Salinger scholarship for prospective writers.

When Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own maybe she was laying the foundation for free room and board, but then,  she never went to college.

Related Article: J.D. Salinger