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Vanessa & Her SisterNearly 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.

Critical reaction

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 Other Shakespearethe 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.

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Here are some books to add to your list for either giving or receiving this holiday season:

  • Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar, Ballantine, 2015, $26. A novel Vanessa & Her Sisterfeaturing intimate glimpses into the lives of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, as well as other writers and artists in the Bloomsbury Group. Stay tuned for Blogging Woolf’s review.
  • The Other Shakespeare by Lea Rachel, Writer’s Design, 2015, $8.96. A novel that brings Judith, Woolf’s imagined sister of William Shakespeare, to life. Stay tuned for Blogging Woolf’s review.
  • 9780500517307_26521The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love and Art, by Jans Ondaatje Rolls, Thames & Hudson, 2014, $39.95. An extensive compilation of recipes and social history of the Bloomsbury Group that includes artwork, quotes, letters and personal reminiscences.
  • Mrs. Dalloway, edited by Anne Fernald, 2014, $150. Part of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Virginia Woolf. This labor of love provides aMrs. Dalloway Fernald substantial introduction, including the composition history of the novel, documenting how Woolf’s reading, writing, personal life and the world around her contributed to the book. Explanatory notes compile decades of scholarship while identifying numerous new allusions to Homer, Shakespeare, Tennyson and others.
  • Personal Effects: Essays on Memoir, Teaching, and Culture in the Work of Personal EffectsLouise DeSalvo, edited by Nancy Caronia and Edvige Giunta. Fordham University Press, 2014, $29.99. Examines Woolf scholar DeSalvo’s memoirs as works that push the boundaries of the most controversial genre of the past few decades.
  • Labors of Modernism: Domesticity, Servants, and Authorship in Modernist Fiction, by Mary Wilson. Ashgate, 2013, $104.95. Wilson analyzes the unrecognized role of domestic servants in the experimental forms and narratives of Modernist fiction by Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Nella Larsen, and Jean Rhys.
  • Approaches to Teaching Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, edited by Beth Rigel Daugherty and Mary Beth Pringle, MLA, 2001, $19.75. From the Approaches to Teaching World Literature series.
  • Approaches to Teaching Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, edited by Eileen Barrett and Ruth O. Saxton, MLA, 2009, $19.75. From the Approaches to Teaching World Literature series.
  • For a catalog of rare books related to Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, contact Jon S. Richardson Rare Books at yorkharborbooks@aol.com. Richardson founders Jon and Margaret Richardson have made hunting down the works of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group their mission since opening York Harbor Books more than 20 years ago. Among other interesting offerings, including Hogarth Press advertising flyers, the Holiday 2014 list includes:
    • A first American edition (1931) of Mrs. Dalloway with the Vanessa Bell dust jacket, $950.
    • A first edition of The Common Reader (1925), published by the Hogarth Press, $585
    • A 1910 edition of the Life & Letters of Leslie Stephen, which includes Woolf’s first appearance in print, $95.

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