Alliance of Sisters: The Complex Relationship of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell

Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell as children

Sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell collaborated artistically, influenced each other’s work, shared friends, and were central figures in the Bloomsbury Group. They were also at the heart of one another’s family stories.

Their relationship was a deep and unusual one: powerful, interdependent, with unsettling periods of jealousy and hostility, yet characterized by mutual support and devotion throughout their lives.  Virginia was one of the most influential English authors of the twentieth century; Vanessa was a noted painter.

The sisters lived close to one another until Virginia’s death in 1941. Infusing both her writing and her life, it was the relationship that influenced Virginia more than any other except that with her husband, Leonard Woolf.

Photo above right, Virginia and Vanessa Bell playing cricket in 1894 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

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Virginia Woolf as a baby with her mother

Virginia and her mother, Julia Stephen, 1884
(photo: Wikimedia Commons)
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Childhood in Hyde Park Gate

Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941), born Adeline Virginia Stephen, and her older sister Vanessa Bell (1879 – 1961), born Vanessa Stephen, grew up in Hyde Park Gate, Westminster, London.

Virginia, in later life, would often recall memory in “scenes,” though she couldn’t do so with Vanessa: “My relation with Vanessa,” she wrote, “has been too deep for “scenes.”

One exception, however, was her first memory of her older sister, in which she recalled meeting Vanessa under the nursery table in the family home. Vanessa asked her, “Have black cats got tails?” to which Virginia replied, “‘NO,’ and was proud because she had asked me a question. Then we roamed off again into that vast space.”

As small children, she and Vanessa slept and bathed together. Vanessa, already the “little mother” though she was only three years older than Virginia, rubbed her with scented creams and put her to bed.

The closeness of their childhood relationship was perhaps inevitable. Their father, Leslie Stephen, was an intellectual and a voracious reader and writer. He had little time for children, especially for Vanessa, who showed scant interest in literature. Their mother, Julia Stephen, was worn thin by the demands of both her family and philanthropic work; the young sisters very rarely had time alone with her.

Virginia and Vanessa had two brothers, two half-brothers, and a half-sister and sisters (it was a second marriage for both parents). A constant atmosphere of rivalry discouraged any real closeness. The exception was their brother Thoby, with whom both sisters shared an affectionate bond.

They also both adored St. Ives in Cornwall, where the family spent thirteen summers until Julia’s untimely death in 1895, and the memories of it would both enchant and haunt them for years afterward.

It was during these nursery years — or so both sisters later claimed — that they each decided what they were going to be: Virginia would be the writer, Vanessa the painter. Vanessa later wrote, “It was a lucky arrangement, for it meant we went our own ways and one source of jealousy at any rate was absent.”

Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t always true. There was often a slight sense of jealous longing between the sisters, particularly from Vanessa, who felt as if she came off unfavorably compared to her sister.

She wrote to Virginia in 1908 that she felt “painfully incompetent to write letters and becoming more & more so as I see the growing strength of the exquisite literary atmosphere distilled by you,” while Virginia acknowledged that “Nessa has all that I should like to have.”

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Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work

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“An alliance so knit together”

In the years following their mother’s death, both sisters were subject to sexual abuse by their half-brother George Duckworth. Virginia was relatively open about the damage it caused, both in her diary and in letters to friends, whereas Vanessa never spoke of it.

Later Virginia would blame her second and most serious breakdown (in 1904) on the family that was “tangled and matted with emotion” and maintained that her only savior was her sister: “Where should I have been if it hadn’t been for you, when Hyde Park Gate was at its worst?”

During “the worst,” Virginia and Vanessa “had an alliance that was so knit together that everything … was seen from the same angle; and took its shape from our own vantage point.”

Already preoccupied with art and literature, neither sister had much time for the social efforts that they had to make in the stifling upper-middle classes to which the Stephens belonged, and they resented the traditional expectations that were placed upon them.

They shared a firm belief that they could one day live in a different world, where they would be free to create a life of books and painting and friendship, without the constraints of the lingering Victorian-era expectations which were thrust upon them at Hyde Park Gate. 

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portrait of Vanessa Bell by George Beresford, 1902

Vanessa in 1902 (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
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“His life would have entirely ended mine”

Their father’s illness and death in February 1904 caused a divergence between them that Virginia felt especially strongly. She had always been closer to their father than Vanessa, enjoying a rapport with him that Vanessa never had. He appreciated her intellect and talents for reading and writing (despite his Victorian belief that women were meant only for the home), whereas he never understood Vanessa’s passion for painting and art. 

It was largely Vanessa who had taken on the burden of his emotional demands and of helping to run the household after their mother’s death. When he died, Vanessa felt an unequivocal relief that Virginia couldn’t share. While Vanessa made almost immediate plans to clear out the family home and move house, to travel and to paint, Virginia was much less able to simply walk away. 

It was the first time in her life that she felt she couldn’t confide in Vanessa. Instead, she confided some of her feelings to Violet Dickinson, with whom Virginia had what has been described as a romantic friendship: “You can’t think what a relief it is to have someone — that is you, because there isn’t anyone else to talk to.” 

Later, in her 1928 diary, Virginia revisited some of the turmoil she had felt and the tangled feelings that emerged from this time, acknowledging that, “His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books — inconceivable.”

She joined Vanessa in traveling — first to Italy, and then to Venice and France, returning home via Paris — but didn’t enjoy the experience. She found it noisy and irritating, and resented being unable to speak the language, feelings that were no doubt exacerbated by Vanessa’s exuberant joy at the art, sights, and newfound freedom. 

By May, when they returned to London, Virginia was experiencing one of the worst periods of mental breakdown she would ever suffer. Over the next three months, she became suicidal, violent, and stubborn beyond reason, and suffered from hallucinations. The bulk of her care, outside of the nurses that became necessary, fell to Vanessa.

At this time, Vanessa was also arranging a move from Hyde Park Gate to Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, and when Virginia was deemed well enough, she was relieved to join her sister — along with their brother Thoby and his friends from Cambridge — in this new life that seemed so far removed from the old. 

 

Early days of Bloomsbury; inevitability of marriage

In spring 1905 the sisters established regular “Thursday evenings,” on which Thoby’s friends from Cambridge were invited to drop in informally after dinner. This, Virginia believed, was the seed of the Bloomsbury group.

It made a refreshing change in that the intellectual conversation not only included both her and Vanessa, but placed them at the heart of it. The group included their younger brother Adrian, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf, Desmond and Molly MacCarthy, and Roger Fry.

In these early years of freedom, the two sisters presented such a unified front that when Leonard Woolf wrote in his autobiography of first meeting them together, he couldn’t help referring to the two of them as one entity:

“It was almost impossible for a man not to fall in love with them, and I think that I did at once.” Much later, in a 1930 letter to Ethel Smyth, Virginia would write, “He [Leonard] saw me it is true; and thought me an odd fish; and went off the next day to Ceylon, with a vague romance about us both.”

Indeed, it was Vanessa that Leonard first hoped to marry, but on hearing that Clive Bell had asked her and been accepted, Leonard switched his attention to Virginia instead. Similarly, Clive Bell had initially found himself drawn more to Virginia than to Vanessa.

With this new life, they had created a quasi-family. At the center of this group of engaging friends, Vanessa was like the doting mother and Virginia was the brilliant child. 

Virginia saw no need for marriage at all, and was upset when Vanessa talked of its inevitability: she could feel “a horrible necessity impending over us; a fate would descend and snatch us apart just as we had achieved freedom and happiness.” It was, however, Vanessa who she feared losing more than anything.

 

Vanessa’s marriage to Clive Bell

In the summer of 1905, Clive Bell proposed to Vanessa. She immediately declined, saying to Virginia that she was “conceited enough to believe that my family wants me,” and to Clive that his proposal had come as a surprise because she had “always taken it for granted that you thought me rather stupid and quite illiterate …”

Clive persisted through the following year, but it was only after the sudden and tragic death of their brother Thoby in November 1906 that Vanessa changed her mind and accepted. This double loss, as she felt it to be, struck Virginia hard. She couldn’t even admit to Thoby’s death to family friend Violet Dickinson and kept up a pretense of his recovery for two months. 

Of Vanessa’s engagement, she wrote, “I shall want all my sweetness to gild Nessa’s happiness. It does seem strange and intolerable sometimes …” A frank and fairly astonishing letter, written on the eve of Vanessa’s wedding, shows how possessive and jealous Virginia felt:

“We have been your humble Beasts since we first left our Isles, which is before we can remember, and during that time we have wooed you and sung many songs of winter and summer and autumn in the hope that thus enchanted you would condescend one day to marry us. But as we no longer expect this honour we entreat that you keep us still for your lovers, should you have need of such, and in that capacity we promise to abide well content always adoring you now as before.”

 

“A most amorous intercourse” — Clive, Vanessa, and Virginia

While the marriage had initially been a very happy one, the birth of their first son Julian, on February 4, 1908, marked the beginning of a detachment in Vanessa’s relationship with Clive. He struggled with fatherhood and couldn’t bear the noise, the disruption, and the deflection of attention from himself.

Virginia, too, felt displaced by and jealous of the new arrival, writing in 1908 to Violet Dickinson, “Nessa comes tomorrow — what one calls Nessa: but it means husband and baby, and of sister there is less than there used to be.”

Still, the letters that she wrote to Vanessa during this time are some of the most passionate and admiring that she ever wrote, fueled not only by jealousy but by Vanessa’s immediate blossoming into marriage and motherhood — a state that Virginia both longed for and dreaded for herself.

Vanessa wrote, “I read your letters over and decided with Clive that when they are published without their answers people will certainly think that we had a most amorous intercourse. They read more like love-letters than anything else…”

In the spring of 1908, against this heightened emotional backdrop and the preoccupation of Vanessa with the new baby, an affair of sorts began between Clive and Virginia — a sensual, intellectual flirtation that never became physical, but that still caused a great deal of pain to all involved.

While Clive was, and always had been, attracted to Virginia, Virginia herself was effectively attempting to seduce her sister through her husband, beseeching him in a letter, “Kiss her, most passionately, in all her private places … and tell her — what new thing is there to tell her? How fond I am of her husband?”

At the time Virginia was also working intensely on the novel that would become The Voyage Out, and Clive provided her with invaluable criticism, support, and encouragement. While vital for Virginia, this intellectual intimacy excluded Vanessa, who felt largely cut off from the worlds of art and literature by the demands of domesticity and motherhood.

Vanessa said nothing of how hurt and angry she felt but appeared to be accepting and understanding of the attraction Virginia held for Clive. Only much later did she come close to admitting her jealousy, while for Virginia, the affair would have lasting consequences: she wrote to her friend Gwen Reverat that “my affair with Clive and Nessa … turned more of a knife in me that anything else has ever done.”

The affair continued intermittently until Vanessa fell in love with art critic and painter Roger Fry in 1911, and Virginia married Leonard Woolf the year after.

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leonard and virginia woolf - 1912
Leonard and Virginia, 1912
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Marriage to Leonard and the question of family

When Virginia became engaged to Leonard Woolf, Vanessa experienced some of what Virginia had gone through when she became engaged to Clive. She wrote to Virginia that “although it was somehow so bewildering and upsetting when I did actually see you & Leonard together, I do now feel quite happy for you.”

It was Vanessa to whom both Leonard and Virginia turned when the subject of children was raised (despite the sexual side of the marriage not being what either had hoped for). Leonard maintained that it was a bad idea, given what he saw as Virginia’s inclination towards mental instability, while she was hopeful; Vanessa could see no reason why not.

Leonard prevailed, and twenty years later Virginia would write to a friend, “I’m always angry at myself for not having forced Leonard to take the risk in spite of doctors.”

That Vanessa had three children and a bustling family life at Charleston in Sussex would later be a source of both envy and contentment for Virginia.

In her 1928 diary, while sitting in the garden at Rodmell (her and Leonard’s house close to Charleston), she wrote, “Children playing: yes, & interrupting me; yes, & I have no children of my own; & Nessa has & yet I don’t want them any more, since my ideas so possess me & I detest more & more interruption …”

Virginia grew fond of Vanessa’s children, particularly Angelica who was born in 1918. She later admitted to Vanessa that “Angelica has become essential to me. An awful kind of spurious maternal feeling has taken possession of me.”

The Hogarth Press

When Virginia and Leonard first established The Hogarth Press in 1917, Vanessa was interested in the possibilities for artists from her  sister’s new venture. She suggested that they should publish a book of woodcuts by herself, Roger Fry, and Duncan Grant. She clashed with Leonard, however, over the extent of artistic control, and the book never came to be.

Two years later, there was also friction over the printing of Vanessa’s woodcuts that were used as a frontispiece and endpaper for Virginia’s story, Kew Gardens. Vanessa felt that the printing was badly executed and didn’t hesitate to say so.

With her dependence on Vanessa’s good opinion, this threw Virginia into a state of nervous depression that took some weeks to lift. Despite this rocky beginning, Vanessa went on to design every dust jacket for Virginia’s books.

 

Mutual respect and inspiration

Throughout their lives, and despite intermittent jealousies and petty squabbles, the sisters were steadfast in their support for and admiration of each other’s work. They both took their art seriously, and each was a constant source of inspiration to the other.

Virginia created version after version of her sister in letters and diaries and as characters in her fiction: Helen Ambrose in The Voyage Out, Katharine Hilbery in Night and Day, Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, Susan in The Waves, and Maggie Pargiter in The Years.

It was always Vanessa whose approval mattered most to Virginia, and after the publication of The Waves, she wrote, “Nobody except Leonard matters to me as you matter, and nothing would ever make up for it if you didn’t like what I did … I always feel I’m writing more for you than for anybody.”

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Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West’s
Love Affair & Friendship

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Vita Sackville-West

Leonard was a stable force in Virginia’s life; a source of solid love and affection and of much of the maternal care that she had always sought from Vanessa. Romantic passion, however, was reserved for her relationships with women.

She never excluded her sister explicitly from this. When they were both nearly, fifty she wrote to Vanessa, “With you I am deeply passionately unrequitedly in love, and thank goodness your beauty is ruined, for my incestuous feeling may then be cooled — yet it has survived half a century of indifference..” 

Virginia also admitted that her attraction to Vita Sackville-West, which flared into a brief affair in 1925, then cooled into a lasting friendship, was partly because Vita reminded her in some ways of Vanessa.

Vanessa once more became jealous and felt left out: she wrote to Virginia in 1926, “Give my humble respects to Vita, who treats me as an Arab Steed looking from the corner of its eye on some long-eared mule — but then you do your best to stir up jealousy between us, so what can one expect?”

She was also jealous of the inspiration Vita seemed to give Virginia in her writing. Having been the central inspiration for characters in The Voyage Out, Night and Day, and To the Lighthouse, she now had to contend with the figure behind Orlando. “Don’t expend all your energies in letter-writing on her,” she wrote pettily to Virginia, “I consider I have first claim.”

Even Vita, however, could not be a real challenge for Vanessa’s preeminence in Virginia’s life. When Vita was abroad for four months, Virginia admitted that “I miss her, I suppose, not very intimately.” When Vanessa returned home from the South of France, however, Virginia wrote, “Mercifully, Nessa is back. My earth is watered again.”

 

“Madness is terrific”: the boundaries of emotion

While the sisters divided roles for themselves in life and in art, so they did in the realm of sanity. Virginia was cast as the unstable sister, a stereotype that has formed a great deal of her posthumous legacy and which she played up to during her lifetime.

In 1930, she wrote to Ethel Smyth, “Madness is terrific I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about.”

This left Vanessa, who was naturally disinclined to emotional displays, to be cast as the sane and stable one. It was not an entirely truthful separation, in that Vanessa did indeed experience strong emotion but was adept at concealing it. Even Leonard, in the early days of his courtship of Virginia, recognized that “the tranquility was to some extent superficial …”

The only time Vanessa fully allowed the mask to slip was at the death of her son Julian in the Spanish Civil War. Then, the sisters experienced a role reversal of the most extreme sort, with Vanessa incapacitated for several weeks, and Virginia caring for her nearly around the clock.

When she was largely recovered, Vanessa was unable to tell Virginia just how vital her care had been. Instead, she turned to Vita to tell Virginia on her behalf: “I cannot ever say how Virginia has helped me. Perhaps some day, not now, you will be able to tell her it’s true.”

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Virginia woolf suicide note 1941

Virginia’s suicide letter to Leonard
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“You don’t know how much I depend on you”— final letters

In 1941, Virginia began to suffer from the kind of dark depression that she knew was associated with complete mental breakdown.

With the terrors of war never far away, her despair over being able to write, and being “buried” at the country house in Rodmell (and unable to get to London), her mind returned obsessively to the idea of family — to her parents, her dead brother Thoby, the children she never had, and her sister. Concerned, Vanessa wrote to her,

“You must not go and get ill just now. What shall we do when we’re invaded if you are a helpless invalid? … What should I have done all these last 3 years if you hadn’t been able to keep me alive and cheerful. You don’t know how much I depend on you.”

But even this plea from her beloved sister couldn’t prevent Virginia’s determination to avoid the plunge into madness that she so feared. The only way she could see to do that was to end her life.

She wrote two letters, one to Leonard and one to Vanessa. To Vanessa, she wrote, “If I could I would tell you what you and the children have meant to me. I think you know.” The letters were left together in the house on March 28, 1941, before Virginia walked the short distance to the River Ouse.

It was the Woolf’s gardener who telephoned Vanessa to tell her that Virginia was missing and feared drowned. She arrived at Rodmell to find Leonard “amazingly self-controlled and calm.” She, too, displayed her usual stoicism, saying that “Now we can only wait until the first horrors are over which somehow make it impossible to feel much.”

Vanessa didn’t attend Virginia’s cremation, which Leonard arranged and attended alone. He did, however, ask Vanessa’s advice about a memorial to Virginia:

“Leonard told me that there are two great elms at Rodmell which she always called Leonard and Virginia … He is going to bury her ashes under one and have a tablet on the tree with a quotation … He was afraid I’d think him sentimental but it seems so appropriate that I could only think it right.”

Vanessa continued to live at Charleston for the rest of her life, and also continued her working relationship with the Hogarth Press by designing the jackets for the books by Virginia that were published posthumously.

Vanessa Bell died at Charleston on April 7, 1961, nearly twenty years to the day since her sister walked into the River Ouse.

Further reading 

  • Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell: A Very Close Conspiracy by Jane Dunn (2000)
  • Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee (1997)
  • Virginia Woolf: Selected Diaries, edited by Anne Olivier Bell (2008)
  • Virginia Woolf: Selected Letters, edited by Joanne Trautmann Banks (2008)
  • Vanessa Bell: Portrait of the Bloomsbury Artist by Frances Spalding, Tauris Parke (2018)

Contributed by Elodie Barnes. Elodie is a writer and editor with a serious case of wanderlust. Her short fiction has been widely published online and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2022 Anthology published by Sonder Press. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, and when not writing can usually be found planning the next trip abroad, or daydreaming her way back to 1920s Paris. Find her online at  Elodie Rose Barnes

5 Responses to “Alliance of Sisters: The Complex Relationship of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell”

  1. Having come upon this article late, I just wished to mention Helen Humphrey’s novel THE LOST GARDEN in which the protagonist, a horticulturist working on a farm in Devon in 1941 lives out her devotion to Virginia Woolf in the shadow of Woolf’s disappearance and death.

  2. I will say that Violet Dickinson was more than just a “family friend.” She was Virginia’s lover for a few years!

    Other than that, the piece was very interesting.

    • Gabriella, you’re right; theirs has been described as a “romantic friendship.” And I will edit that. The nature of their physical intimacy is still being argued, unless you have something you can point me to?

  3. This is a wonderful, insightful piece, but for the glaring error; Virginia did not write to anyone in 1952. She died in 1941.
    I have just read a wonderful Australian novel called This Devastating Fever, a magic realist work which offers in part, Leonard’s point of view. This essay resonates beautifully with that novel.

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