Love-of-One’s-Life Department

Terry Castle

  • Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho and Art: The Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks by Diana Souhami
    Weidenfeld, 224 pp, £18.99, July 2004, ISBN 0 297 64386 X

The island of Lesbos: talk about a small world. Pick up any edition of Sappho’s fragments and the same old names keep coming up: Erinna, Gongyla, Attis, Kleis, Anactoria. You would think that after two thousand years these girls would be ready to quit the scene, but no, here they come again – a bit leathery from all the centuries of tennis and golf, but still the only game in town. When, you wonder, will someone new turn up? If it’s true – as a famous gay male writer has suggested – that there are really only 500 people in the world and after a while one has slept with most of them, then the sapphic dating pool has got to be even smaller: eight or ten perhaps, 12 or 15 at most. It’s pathetic, really. Trundle through the Gobi Desert, lift a random tent flap: the bearded Mongolian gal inside was once involved with your college girlfriend.

The upside in this scarcity economy is that one doesn’t have to go too far to start connecting with some fairly celebrated figures in the lesbian haut monde. A friend of mine once had dinner with Elizabeth Bishop and her lover. Another met Marguerite Yourcenar. At Yale in the 1980s one of Blakey’s best friends slept with – well, perhaps you can guess. (True – the closet case actress!) Someone else I know went to a party in a Chicago highrise and both Martina Navratilova and k.d. lang were there. Just hanging out! I myself once met Rita Mae Brown, author of those lesbian mystery novels featuring the talking kitty cat.

Stranger still: how quickly the links can go back to women born over a hundred years ago. A late (and much missed) Stanford colleague, Ian Watt, once told me that as an undergraduate at Cambridge he was put in charge of escorting Gertrude Stein when she came to give a lecture in the 1930s. He took her to a tea shop for a snack and Virginia Woolf was sitting at the next table. (Neither great lady deigned to acknowledge the other.) And not long ago I met an elderly female couple – two very elegant Syrian women – who had lived for many years in Paris on the rue Jacob, across from the house in which the flamboyant lesbian writer and expatriate Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972) held her renowned weekly salons for over half a century. They knew Barney’s former housekeeper, Berthe Cleyrergue, and had even toured the Temple à l’Amitié, the legendary garden folly around which Barney and her girlfriends used to perform moonlit eurythmic dances in the early years of the last century. If only I’d been in Paris in the 1970s, they exclaimed, they could have introduced me to la belle Natalie herself! Barney, after all, was still carrying on love affairs into her eighties and lived to the great old age of 96. Who knows what might have happened. If the pair from Damascus had any inkling that in 1971 I was a spotty adolescent in college – charmless, adipose and entirely hidden from the world in the dank rainforests of Tacoma, Washington – they were polite enough not to let on.

All this ‘degrees of separation’ maundering is inspired by Diana Souhami’s enjoyably jaded new book on Barney and her circle. Not least because I sort-of-but-not-quite know Souhami herself. No, we’ve never met, but Blakey once sat next to her one summer in the old British Library Reading Room. They began discreetly eyeballing each other’s book request slips and went on from there to Mytilenean chit-chat. B. and I weren’t yet together – wouldn’t be for five more years – but I was jealous nonetheless when she described the encounter in an email. Blast that Souhami! Not only was she the author of a series of stylish biographies of Rich and Famous Lesbians – Stein and Toklas, Violet Trefusis, Radclyffe Hall, the 1920s society painter Gluck – she seemed adept at sticking her oar in. Thank goodness the still-to-be-snagged B. finished whatever it was she was doing with Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and had to go back to the States not long after.

But Souhami’s book itself offers proof of the ‘small world’ phenomenon – and of the oddly claustrophobic aspect of lesbian life. The isle of Lesbos is indeed an uncanny place – barely the size of a closet, one sometimes feels, or a narrow little cell in some slightly depraved cloister. Everybody does know everybody else. In the mid-1960s Maureen Duffy wrote an experimental novel called The Microcosm about the habituées of an old-style lesbian bar. The bar was loosely based on the Gateways in Earl’s Court – London’s most famous women’s pub until it shut down for ever in the 1980s. ‘Microcosm’ says it all: once you squeezed down the grotty staircase you couldn’t move without bumping into last Tuesday – or even 1971.

To anyone acquainted with such places, the little demi-monde described by Souhami in Wild Girls – the incestuous coterie of wealthy expatriate lesbians who painted, wrote and bedhopped in Paris in the first decades of the 20th century – will no doubt be familiar. Sapphic Paris, after all, like Lesbos itself, has long been a cultic site in the lesbian imagination. Stein and Toklas, Barney, Romaine Brooks, Djuna Barnes, Sylvia Beach, Dolly Wilde, Janet Flanner, H.D. – we’ve been hearing about them for ages and the line-up never changes. If anything, thanks to influential (and romanticising) books like Shari Benstock’s Women of the Left Bank (1986) and Andrea Weiss’s Paris Was a Woman (1995), the faces, clothes and attitudes of the main players – like those dreary Art Deco canvases of Tamara de Lempicka now reproduced everywhere on postcards and Taschen calendars – have become all too familiar. Romaine Brooks’s hideous painting of Una Troubridge (with pet dachshunds) in male drag and monocle? Take it away, Madame, tout de suite! The droll photograph of Colette on the jungle gym with her girlfriend ‘Max’, the portly Marquise de Belboeuf? It no longer gives me a frisson. I’m even getting a little bored by Berenice Abbott’s brilliant 1928 photos of Flanner – the androgynous New Yorker writer – in suave top hat and striped men’s pantaloons. If you started sucking down Nightwood and The Well of Loneliness in kindergarten, as I did, the once fabled ‘Women of the Left Bank’ can now seem perilously de trop.

It is a relief, then, to find Souhami doing something grimly refreshing with them – and with Barney in particular. Much of one’s ennui, admittedly, arises from the sentimentality with which Natalie & Co have been treated over the past couple of decades: as sexual revolutionaries, protofeminists and Daring Shapers of the Modern Lesbian Identity. Rebellious gals move to Paris and start gettin’ it on! (Ah, ma chérie, let’s cut our hair and breed les petits bouledogues and worsheep zhee lovely Sappho!) The less attractive traits associated with members of the group – reactionary politics, anti-semitism, heedless promiscuity, drug addiction, alcoholism, assorted religious manias – have usually been glossed over.

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