New Fiction Friday: Vanessa and Her Sister

9780804176392_p0_v3_s192x300Virginia Wolf is one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century. She was born into a family of writers and artists, and was closest to her sister Vanessa.  Vanessa and Her Sister is about these two siblings – who although troubled, were very close and continued to support each other’s work despite their differences.  Before picking up this book, I didn’t know much about her. I didn’t know much about her at all, actually, other than her name in the title of a play that became one of Elizabeth Taylor’s greatest movie roles.  She grew up in Middlesex, England, in the shadow of her sister, and two brothers who always seemed to be outshining her. Vanessa is Virginia’s lesser-known sister, and the main character of this fictionalized account of their lives.

Virginia was known as suffering from mental illness, and in the book has frequent breakdowns. Vanessa, a talented artist, was her caretaker. She was the only sibling who really understood the depth opf her problem, the root of her problem, and how best to care for her.  Their two brothers were not unsympathetic, they simply lacked the compassion that Vanessa seemed to have had an endless supply of.  And after the loss of their parents, Virginia’s care naturally fell to her older sister.

They were well known in their respective communities – art and writing, they both also contributed to a group known as the Bloomsbury Group. At the time, these were young people, who got together weekly to discuss art, politics, culture, and to gossip. One famous individual who was part of this group was John Maynard Keynes, the economist. Vanessa’s and Virginia’s father had been a proper English gentlemen, and his second wife had been their mother. They were raised in England’s privileged society, and when they passed the four siblings were well taken care of, and able to pursue their own interests.

Although Virginia was a talented writer, and throughout this book, which only chronicles her teenage years and into her 20s, she needed constant supervision, reassurance, and frequent confidence boosts. She’s a liability. She and Vanessa are the only two women who are really active in the Group, and they remain single while the rest of their peers, marry and settle down.  There are plenty of eligible bachelors, and they both receive a few proposals.  When Vanessa finally decides to marry, their relationship begins to change, and that’s where the real story begins.

I don’t have any sisters – but have always wanted one. Vanessa is a much better sister than I could ever hope to be. The things she does for her sister, and even her two brothers, are admirable. And throughout this story, the things that Virginia puts her through practically makes her eligible for sainthood. I love the story of this family, what they went through, their discussions on art, literature, and politics. I also love the transoformation of women’s roles that is portrayed in the book. These two were young women during the early part of the 20th century, and though they weren’t suffregettes, they were strong and independent women, and the work of other women like them, helped to advance the women’s movement.

Although this is only a fictionalized account of their lives and their family, I am so interested in reading some of Virginia’s books.  I just picked up The Waves from the library yesterday, and I’m so excited to read it!

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