Nearly everyone has reviewed Priya Parmar’s novel, Vanessa and Her Sister. But I haven’t read much about Lea Rachel’s The Other Shakespeare.
Together, they make up a tale of two sisters–Virginia Woolf’s and William Shakespeare’s.
Parmar’s novel drops us down into the middle of the Bloomsbury Group, as seen by Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell. Rachel’s fictional work creates a life for Judith Shakespeare, the character Woolf imagined for us in A Room of One’s Own (1929).
I read both novels recently. And while I would not want to miss Parmar’s, I enjoyed Rachel’s more. The reason? It was easier for me to suspend my disbelief about the life of a young woman in the sixteenth century who is Shakespeare’s sister than it was for me to do the same for Woolf, Vanessa and their friends.
Vanessa and Her Sister
Because I know a bit more about the Bloomsberries than I do about Shakespeare and his family, I felt uncomfortable while I read Vanessa and Her Sister. At first, I read with a hyper-critical eye, trying to separate truth from fiction, on the alert for any misstep, any word or phrase, action or tone that didn’t ring true. I wondered whether the telegrams and letters Parmar includes in the novel were copies of actual documents. Then, when I did some online research, I wondered why they weren’t.
By the middle of the novel, I relaxed a bit, enjoying the story Parmar spins so expertly — and happy to feel as though I was privy to the inner workings of this famous group of friends, thanks to Parmar’s thorough research. The diary entries from Vanessa and the letters and telegrams from other Bloomsbury Group members — all created by Parmar — made Vanessa’s perspective on this group of friends within which she played a central role seem mostly believable to me.
But my anxiety returned when the author covers the twisted relationship between Virginia and Vanessa’s husband Clive Bell and delves into Vanessa’s tortured reaction to it. It was just too difficult for me to focus that much of my attention on such a one-sided view of Virginia’s very bad behavior as she woos Clive’s affection and attention away from Vanessa, who has so recently given birth to the couple’s first child, Julian. After that, I couldn’t wait for the book to end.
Lesley McDowell, the author of The Independent’s review of Vanessa and Her Sister, had the opposite reaction. She wished the book “would never end” and praised its delicious gossip, beautiful writing and the near-perfect portrayal of the sibling rivalry between sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.
Other reviews of the book and interviews with the author include an NPR interview, reviews in the New York Times and Wilton Bulletin, and mentions in USA Today, the New York Daily News, The Missoulian, and on the Glamour blog
The Other Shakespeare
The Other Shakespeare, which I read next, is much lighter fare, despite its tragic ending. Rachel’s tale of Judith, the imagined elder sister of William Shakespeare who creates little dramas and organizes her siblings to stage them in the woods near their family home, was entertaining.
Rachel’s novel kept my interest and attention as it follows Judith from her small village to London, exploring her life as well as the gender politics that her role as daughter, sister, servant, lover and writer entail. The author does a nice job of detailing the ways Judith is denied opportunity and fulfillment simply because she is female. She works them into the story quite neatly, thus developing Woolf’s original premise about Judith in A Room of One’s Own.
And the novel includes references to Woolf and her writing, the identification of which entitle the reader to enter a contest for an Amazon.com gift card giveaway. You can even try out the first chapter of the novel for free by downloading the first chapter as a PDF.
Both books are worth a read. Read Vanessa and Her Sister if you are a true Woolf devotee and don’t want to be left out of the discussion about the novel. And read The Other Shakespeare for fun as well as insights into a woman’s life in 16th-century England.
Then stay tuned for Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Norah Vincent.