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23926130I was very pleased to be able to attend this event at Bloomsbury Publishing earlier this week where the biographer Frances Spalding carried out a joint interview with Priya Parmar, author of Vanessa and Her Sister (which I reviewed here) and Amanda Coe, writer of Life in Squares, the upcoming BBC series about the Bloomsbury Group.

It was a really pleasant evening, and I found out some interesting stuff:

  • Priya took 7 years to research and write the novel, immersing herself in the mountain of correspondence
  • she didn’t originally intend the novel to be in the form of a diary
  • her view was is that it definitely can’t have been easy to be Virginia Woolf’s sister (knowing laughter from the audience)
  • Amanda’s TV series will also have Vanessa Bell as the central character
  • it will cover the period 1905 to 1948, compared to Priya’s novel which covers 1905 to 1912
  • why Vanessa Bell – the most visual and last verbal of the group, but very much the “silent lynchpin”, and there is a lot in the literature about her, but very little by her apart from her letters, which are silent on some of the really important things such as The Great Betrayal

There was also a very interesting discussion about views of the Bloomsbury Set, seen as a cliquey group with many having the impression that there is a lot of material about them which may be true of the written word but there is in fact very little in drama. Both had been warned about potential backlash from people who loathe Bloomsbury and all that it appears to stand for but also the very knowledgeable “fans” who will have their own view of how it should all be done. But both Amanda and Priya agreed that they were just fascinating people who knew that they were interesting which made it all worthwhile.

I was able to have a quick chat with Priya and got my book signed which was great.

23926130What’s it all about?

To quote the book jacket:

London 1905. The city is alight with change and the Stephen siblings are at the forefront. Vanessa, Virginia, Toby and Adrian are leaving behind their childhood home and taking a house in the leafy heart of avant-garde Bloomsbury.

So yes, as you might have guessed, Vanessa And Her Sister is all about the early years of what became the culturally influential Bloomsbury Group, with the focus very much on the two sisters. It covers the years from 1905 until 1912, and through Vanessa’s diaries charts the almost constantly changing relationships between this group of friends, ending shortly after Virginia’s marriage to Leonard Woolf.

Why did I want to read it?

I became a Bloomsbury obsessive in my early twenties having fallen in love with Virginia firstly through Mrs Dalloway which I studied when I took English Lit in my first year at University and then through her magnificent diaries which I have read at least twice. But in truth I find them all totally fascinating and although the heat of my interest may have died down now I still collect books about them, and this was a must read given the reviews.

What did I think of it?

I thought this was just wonderful. Vanessa is brought to life by Priya Parmar in an almost physical way through these fictionalised diaries (unlike her sister Vanessa never kept a diary (as far as we know) in real life); by that I mean that she is a tangible presence in the book, you feel that you are reading the genuine thoughts of a real person. And I really liked her.

One of the strengths of the novel is that it shows the emotional toll that the apparently consensual free and easy relationships had on individuals, the pain and the sorrow and the long-term damage. But the key relationship is between Vanessa and Virginia and we see the way that Vanessa’s marriage comes between them and how Virginia’s brilliance as a writer, which has not yet come to fruition, is underpinned by a brittle fragility and a desperation to be loved that drives her to do things that cause irreparable damage to the people she cares about. As the novel progresses this becomes more and more clear but we also see how Vanessa copes with it all and how she begins to achieve the happiness we know she finds in real life.

This feels like you are reading the diaries of the real Vanessa, and that is a huge achievement.

BTW I have said here before that I am a huge fan of the author’s note and there is a fascinating one at the end of this book which talks a little about  how you write a novel about a group of people who are so well-known. And I am lucky enough to be attending a Bloomsbury Institute event with Priya Parmar later where I hope to hear much more about the writing of this superb book.

I always find it difficult to review a biography; I think if you are really going to do it justice you must have some understanding of the subject at hand, and by that I mean the substance of the person’s life. In this case we are talking about Duncan Grant, Bloomsbury figure and a major artist of the 20th century. And this is where I have to declare that although I know quite a lot about Bloomsbury (a mild obsession since picking up my first Virginia Woolf novel when I was a student) but not very much at all about the art world, which is what made this such a fascinating read.

So because of the reading I had done before I knew roughly where Grant fitted in terms of time and style, and his life does cover a period of significant change n the art world – as it says in the blurb, we are talking about a life that spanned Alma-Tadema to Gilbert & George. What I don’t know anything about are the technical aspects of painting, and although I’m sure I missed a great deal of the significance of the technical discussions I certainly didn’t feel horribly left behind, or indeed talked-down to.

Of course when it comes to a member of Bloomsbury then the private life is bound to be absolutely fascinating and that is very much the case here as you would expect. Again I knew a lot about Grant up to the point of Vanessa Bell’s death but afterwards was a bit murky, and the biography was very revealing about his family life and wider circle, his passions and friendships.

So, all in all a very worthwhile and absorbing read, with a great deal of information being passed on but never feeling that the reader is being talked at.

This was my first read for the Art History Reading Challenge.

bookshopYesterday, in honour of the Bank Holiday, I went on the first book spending spree that I’ve had in a long time. I haven’t been writing much about new books simply because I haven’t really been buying any; the Book God’s largesse at Christmas and my birthday at the end of January satisfied my cravings, and I was determined to make inroads into the tbr pile which now resembles nothing so much as the Great Pyramid.

But yesterday was a public holiday close to payday, and I found myself in a book shop and just had to succumb.

The spoils were:

  • The Bone Garden by Tess Gerritsen – following on from my recent post I just had to get the next one in the series, possibly to hold for August Crime Month
  • Henry by David Starkey – my love for the sixteenth century is well-known and I’ve been watching Starkey’s series on TV so this was a bit of a no-brainer
  • Bloomsbury Ballerina by Judith Mackrell – this has been on my wishlist for ages, snaffled now that it’s out in paperback; and
  • A Literature of Their Own by Elaine Showalter – British women writers from Charlotte Bronte to Doris Lessing – ’nuff said.

Not a bad haul for someone who really wasn’t intending to get anything at all – well, maybe Henry was always in the cards, the others were a bonus!

Bride of the Book God

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Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

I also blog at Bride of the Screen God (all about movies and TV) and The Dowager Bride, if you are interested in ramblings about stuff of little consequence

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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February 2023