Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Portrayal of the Bloomsbury Group Focused on Vanessa Bell

The Stephen siblings, Thoby, Adrian, Vanessa and Virginia, later Virginia Woolf, live together in a rambling house in Bloomsbury. Their parents are dead and Vanessa and Thoby have taken on the role of quasi parents for the younger two. Virginia is very difficult suffering from the mental illness that eventually led to her suicide. Only Thoby can get her to eat. She constantly wants attention from Vanessa and doesn't want to share her with others. After Thoby's death, this becomes a serious problem when Vanessa weds Clive Bell.

The siblings social life centers on Thoby's Thursday at-homes. The group consists primarily of Thoby's Cambridge friends. However, Vanessa and Virginia are central characters: Vanessa for her charm and organizational ability; Virginia for her pungent comments that set a discussion on fire.

The story of the siblings is told primarily from Vanessa's point of view through journal entries, postcards and letters. I found much of it, particularly the journal entries, tedious. There is too much detail about the mundane aspects of everyday life to make the journals interesting. Although most of the entries are Vanessa's. There are a few letters for Lytton Strachey urging Leonard Woolf to marry Virginia. I found these interesting.

The book is crammed with characters, most of them famous. Sometimes it's hard to keep up with the names and relationship to the Stephen siblings. Luckily, the author included a list of characters at the beginning. Unfortunately, since most of the characters put in a limited appearance, it becomes a bit like name dropping.

The focus of the book is on the intertwined lives of the sisters, but from Vanessa's perspective. I didn't find her a particularly compelling character. Some of her journal entries have vivid phrases which seemed out of character. I associate vivid word pictures more with a writer like Virginia than a painter like Vanessa. The book portrays Virginia in a harsh light. Since she was suffering from what was probably a bipolar disorder, I'm sure she was difficult to live with. Their relationship was not helped by the underlying competition which seems to be an aspect of many sister relationships.

If you're fascinated by the Bloomsbury Group, you may enjoy this novel. It starts slowly and only comes to life near the end, so be prepared for a fairly boring several chapters.

I reviewed this book for Net Galley.