Vanessa Bell is finally outshining her peers – almost a century after the Bloomsbury group became one of the most talked about collective of writers and artists in British history.
The coterie included the author Virginia Woolf, who was Bell’s younger sister, Woolf’s husband Leonard, artists Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, the economist John Maynard Keynes, and writers E M Forster and Lytton Strachey.
Bell, who died in 1961 at the age of 81, had been one of the least celebrated of the group, and it's this relatively blank canvas that recently has made her so interesting to biographers and screenwriters. She is the subject of Life in Squares, a new three-part BBC drama series written by Amanda Coe, which tells the story of Bell's relationships with her sister and Grant (with whom she has a daughter in 1918) – a reflection of the continued public fascination with the Bloomsbury set's complicated romantic lives, as well as their great professional achievements.
The artist is also the focus of a high-profile book about the Bloomsbury group that was published this year. Author Priya Parmar imagined a diary written by Bell in her exquisite, critically acclaimed book, Vanessa and Her Sister. It charts the artist's life from 1905, when she moved to Bloomsbury with her family, until 1912, when her marriage to the adulterous Clive Bell had thawed and she was about to have her own tryst with Fry.
In researching her novel, Parmar spent many hours reading all of the group’s correspondence, which is housed at the Tate museum, the Beth collection in New York and the University of Sussex. “She was this silent linchpin of the group,” says Parmar. “She was this wonderful space and that is really fun when you come to write a novel.”
Remarkably, Parmar and Coe did not know that the other was working on a project with Bell as the driving force until they had both finished their works. What is remarkable is how different each account is, further highlighting the interesting and varied life that Bell led.
For Parmar, what is most interesting is not the romantic shenanigans in themselves, but how they affected the relationship between the girls who grew up as the Stephen sisters in Hyde Park Gate, Kensington.
Her book details the effect that the death of their brother, Thoby, had on their relationship, especially when just two days later, Bell announced that she was going to marry Clive, which Virginia saw “as a double loss”. The relationship changed again when Bell suspected her sister of having an affair with her husband. Parmar says: “What was so important to Vanessa was family, and so what was so damaging was not her husband Clive’s behaviour, but the fact that it was her sister.”
Parmar turned to Bell’s letters for much-needed insight.
“Her letters are extraordinary,” she says. “Vanessa was so self- deprecating about her talent as a writer but her letters are absolutely fascinating, so expressive, and her voice is conversational and lucid.”
Parmar was struck by the fact that in none of the letters did Bell explicitly mention she suspected her sister of having the affair.
“It’s remarkable because this must have weighed on her the whole time,” says Parmar. “The silence was interesting to me. But it also highlights how this group saw the primacy of their friendship – no matter what occurred in their love lives, their friendship was paramount.”
“It was interesting to tell the story of the group with the central character being Vanessa Bell,” says Coe of her television series. “She was the focal point of the group while, interestingly, being the least verbal.”
The Bloomsbury group’s popularity continues to grow: in the past year, they have been the subject of a ballet at the Royal Opera House as well as an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.
"There are class implications," says Coe of the new interest. "We are living in a time when Etonians are running Britain, and also there is a post-Downton Abbey fascination with aristocracy."
• Priya Parmar will present a workshop on Mrs Dalloway at the Edinburgh Book Festival on August 27. The event is sold out, but returned tickets might be available closer to the event. Check www.edbookfest.co.uk. Life in Squares is currently airing on the BBC in the UK. No UAE air date is available