Vanessa Bell

The Sunday Salon: Time Travel

I read a lot of historical fiction, and the best of it transports me to another place and acquaints me with people whose ideas and experiences and lifestyles are very different from mine.

This week’s reading is doing all of that.

I started the week with Sarah Waters new novel of psychological suspense, The Paying Guests. Set in post WWI London, this hefty tome starts out slowly but builds to a fever pitch of understated tension that doesn’t lift until the very last pages. Waters does a masterful job of creating atmosphere - the dark grittiness of London streets amidst the roiling undercurrent of dissolving class levels perfectly sets the scene for this novel built around crimes of passion. sometimes found it uncomfortable reading, but I was compelled by it all the same... which is the mark of  a good writer, isn’t it?

After finishing it, I headed straight to the library to look out more of Waters books. I brought home The Night Watch, but was equally thrilled to find a copy of Vanessa and Her Sister, a novel by Priya Parmar about Vanessa Stephen Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf. I thought this would make a good diversion from more of Waters’ brand of suspense, and eagerly dove in.

What a delight this is proving to be! Parmar chose to write in Vanessa's voice in the form of diary entries, interspersed with letters and postcards back and forth between all the members of the Bloomsbury group. Having read all of Virginia’s diaries, as well as most of her collected letters, I love voice Parmar has created for Vanessa - warm, loving, but clever and honest. Vanessa is the de facto mother figure for her two brothers and her sister, and Virginia’s episodes of crippling mental illness are always on her mind.  “It hangs over my head like Damocles’ sword,” writes Vanessa on the eve of her wedding to Clive Bell, "that Virginia will go mad.”

Because I’ve found Parmar’s novel so infectious, I’ve was drawn to my own bookshelves and to my old copy of Virginia Woolf, A Biography, published by her nephew Quentin Bell in 1972. Because this book is divided into years, it’s easy to follow along with the biography during the years of the novel. So I get the “authorized” version along with the novelized version.

True literary geek fun, I guess. But on a dark, damp Sunday morning in February, with a fire glowing, coffee brewing, and two snoring dogs at my feet, there’s probably nothing I’d enjoy much more.