A Very Close Conspiracy

In this crisply written, beautifully illustrated volume, Jane Dunn follows the intersecting lives of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, making a strong case for their great reciprocal influence. Two strands run through the sisters’ relationship, rivalry and support.

As the youngest of the Stephen daughters, Virginia made a place for herself by becoming the intellectual, taking her father as her model, perhaps in reaction to Vanessa’s identification with their mother. Dunn discounts natural inclination and may insist too much that the roles these women assumed in adulthood were determined by their family situation in childhood, but the differences are evident, and each clung to her adopted image. As the person with talent Virginia resented her sister’s public recognition after the first London Artists’ Association exhibition; Vanessa, ever maternal, told Leonard Woolf that Virginia was frigid. Virginia’s desire to remain close to her sister may explain Virginia’s affair with Vanessa’s husband and also her lifelong sapphism.

While flirting with Clive Bell, though, Virginia wrote passionate letters to Vanessa. Much as Virginia resented Julian Bell for coming between the sisters, after Julian’s death in 1937 Virginia was Vanessa’s greatest comfort. The biography of Roger Fry was a gift to Vanessa, returning to her one of her lovers; Vanessa’s letter of March 13, 1940, indicates that the book was understood in that way. THE WAVES resulted from an account by Vanessa; on May 8, 1927, Virginia wrote her sister, “Perhaps you stimulate the literary sense in me as you say I do your painting sense.” Ultimately, the relationship was more symbiotic than destructive.

Because Dunn organizes her account thematically rather than chronologically, a certain amount of repetition occurs. Dunn also seems more interested in Virginia: the book ends in 1941 with Virginia’s death, and Vanessa’s influence on Virginia emerges more clearly than Virginia’s effect on her sister. Still, this book is an enlightening and fascinating addition to the literature of Bloomsbury.