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on 18 January 2016
Well researched
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on 2 November 2011
I've read little about the relationships within the Stephens family. Virginia and Vanessa had difficult and often sad lives and their many losses through the death of family members brought them closer together as sisters. They supported each other through thick and thin and you cannot understand either of them without knowing something about the other. Vanessa bore more of the burden of family responsibility especially when it came to running the household and pandering to the demands of their self centred father. One always thinks of Virginia as the sensitive vulnerable one but Vanessa was strong because she had to be and just as fragile as her sister. I will read Virginia Woolf's novels with a different insight after reading this book.
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on 10 June 2010
Jane Dunn - biographer of Mary Shelley, Antonia White, and more recently Elizabeth I & Mary Queen of Scots - has written an exceptionally absorbing account of the sibling relationship between the author Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and the painter Vanessa Bell (1879-1961).

I found it fascinating to learn more about their mother Julia Stephen who tends to be something of a cipher in books related to Woolf and Bell, partly because her death in 1895 meant that she left their lives early. The tragedy of her death - when Virginia was 13 and Vanessa just short of 16 - provoked different reactions in the sisters: Vanessa, who identified more strongly with her mother and was already known for her practicality and good sense, "became increasingly sensible and self-contained" (36). Virginia, who experienced more ambivalent feelings towards her mother, felt painfully defenceless in the aftermath - "Her death was the greatest disaster that could happen", she wrote - and looked even more strongly to her elder sister to provide emotional stability and direction.

In contrast to the quiet intimacy of the sisters, the anguish of their father Leslie Stephen, for whom not only some members of his family but also Jane Dunn seems to have little patience, was "self-centred, self-pitying and noisy" (35). In a damning summary, Dunn zooms in on the crux of his difficult character - his "greed for female sympathy and blindness to his own tyranny" (43).

Against the background of the death of their half-sister Stella (which precipitated mental breakdown in Virginia), their father, and - suddenly and terribly, amidst misdiagnosis and confusion - their brother Thoby, the personalities of the sisters developed clearer contours and the symbiosis of their relationship deepened: "While Virginia was leaving the ground, Vanessa had to root herself even more firmly to earth" (46).

The opposition between and fusion of their characters, which forms the backbone of Dunn's book, is perhaps overemphasised and simplified. Dunn could be accused of having let herself be too influenced by Virginia Woolf's powerful romanticisation of her beloved sister as an almost mystically fecund, sexual and maternal being, a true goddess of nature. Yet it could be argued that this is an inherent problem when approaching Vanessa - she is such an enigmatic and emotionally reticent figure that you look to others to add detail and colour to what may at times seem like something of a blank canvas.

Dunn is exceptionally sensitive to the subtle hostilities, competitivism, and tensions between the two - that "passive ferocity" (74) which Woolf describes so vividly in her diary. Virginia's prolonged flirtation with Clive Bell, her elder sister's husband, left a long-standing and unspoken wound, while Vanessa's uncritical adoration of her children, for example, was a source of passionate irritation for her younger (and childless) sister. Vanessa often felt uneasy about her own ability as an artist and guilty about her interrupted dedication to painting in comparison to Virginia's extraordinary industry and experimentalism in the field of writing.

Dunn provides a brilliant summary of how both sisters settled in their 30s for ultimately sexless unions with the men they loved. And the final chapters of her book are intensely moving as Virginia fears the return of psychosis and drowns herself aged 59 in the River Ouse while Vanessa, still living over the hill at Charleston and even deeper in her chrysalis having suffered the death of her beloved son Julian in the Spanish Civil War, her former lover Roger Fry, and finally also that of her sister, succumbs to breast cancer almost exactly twenty years later.

This is fascinating, enriching reading. (5 stars)

Also recommended>
1. The Bloomsbury Group (Spoken Word CD)
2. Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee
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As the title implies, this is not so much a biography, as a book looking at the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. The author examines the girls childhood, where they were given a rudimentary education and were expected to become practised in the "feminine accomplishments of music, dancing and presiding over the tea table." In fact, all that was necessary for the "great adventure of marriage and motherhood". Their mother certainly idolised her sons and saw men as more important, to be deferred to and valued above women. She also had a caustic and difficult side, which both girls seem to have overlooked in their desperation for her attention and Virginia was shocked in later years when a friend criticised a photograph of her mother. On the death of their mother and their half sister Stella, Vanessa was the eldest female in the family and responsible for the household, a role she seems to have clung to, however unwillingly, throughout her life.

Perhaps the role as mother figure helped Vanessa in a household which disregarded her interest and talent in art. Both Virginia and Vanessa resented their lack of education, but Virginia's early interest in writing was more acceptable in a family of writers, whereas art was less valued. Vanessa found herself compared unfavourably to Virginia, while her art was neither cherished or valued, but seen as a feminine 'hobby'. However, it was Virginia who wrote to her sister, "I can never believe that you approve of me in any way, strange as it may seem" and Virginia who craved her sisters love and approval throughout her life.

On the death of their father, the girls set up home elsewhere, with their brothers Thoby and Adrian. Vanessa was certainly in her element here - discarding Victorian drabness and clutter for the light, airy rooms she craved. Throughout her life, she would be known for creating beautiful homes. When Thoby died, and Vanessa married quickly afterwards, Virginia was left feeling bereft and motherhood seemed to take Vanessa even further away from her.

The book does examine the relationship between the women and their husbands and between Vanessa and Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, also with her children; but mostly the central relationship remains between Virginia and Vanessa. They seem to have had a warm, close, loving relationship, but always with a hint of envy and competition. Virginia, like the rest of her family, was slighting of Vanessa's art over literature; "Mrs Bell says nothing. Mrs Bell is silent as the grave. Her pictures do not betray her." Yet, also writing in response to Vanessa's work, "Thank God, I say, that she doesn't write." She wanted her sister to be successful, just not as successful as her. Especially as Vanessa became a mother and supported Leonard and the doctors in their disapproval of Virginia having children, a decision she regretted. Vanessa, like her mother, valued men more and was suspicious of any women attempting to join the Bloomsbury set she presided over, while Virginia delighted in women's company as much as men and was involved in feminism; although she preferred her writing to speak for her, rather than being an activist.

Despite their natural competitive nature, both women were always supportive of the other. Vanessa bolstered Virginia's confidence, nursed her when she was suffering her depressions and every Virginia Woolf book was published "encased in the distinctive signature of a Vanessa Bell dust jacket". Throughout their lives, Virginia accused Vanessa of always giving and being unable to take, but when the desperation of her love for Duncan Grant became too much, Virginia did witness her distress. She supported Vanessa's unconventional lifestyle to relatives and she was there when Vanessa's eldest son, Julian, was killed in the Spanish Civil War. Whenever disaster struck, they each knew they could rely completely on the other. This is a very moving book, well written and highly recommended.
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on 28 June 2014
The profound emotional bond that links the two sisters is told in a masterly fashion. The book is Informative, insightful and richly rewarding.
I finished the book marvelling at the skill in which the author had managed to recreate the personalities of the two sisters and their love for each other. A truly outstanding biography of two great creative artists and their circle.
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on 15 January 2014
If you are a Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury fan, this book will delight you. Well written and insightful. The pictures are excellent. I highly recommend this book.
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on 26 February 2015
This book took a long time to read, as I had to absorb all the details and information but it was an excellent read, especially as it gave me a new view of Virginia - she was a lot feistier than what I have previously given her credit for.
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on 19 July 2016
I enjoyed this book very much and found the analysis fascinating in parts. I already knew quite a lot about the sisters, especially Virginia, but this provided new insights. However, the book would have benefited from some good editorial work. I found some of the repetition irritating, and I think the structure could have been improved too. A bit of tightening would have improved this significantly.
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on 1 October 2014
Very well researched with just the right level of details and essential reading for anyone interested in Bloomsbury. Highly recommended.
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on 29 September 2013
This book is a very thorough analysis of the relationship between these two sisters but is written in an accessible way. It sheds light on the psychology of both and I will read Virginia Woolf's novels again in a new light.
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