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.

No doubt Barney herself did much to prompt the prevailing euphoria. She was a born self-publicist and mythomane: a seductress of astonishing (and candid) appetites, the self-appointed doyenne of ‘Greek’ loves, a blowsy, billowy, impossibly garrulous cheerleader for la vie sapphique. (‘I want to be the bow, the arrow and the target,’ she was wont to boast.) In matters erotic especially, her biographers have tended to accept the blather with no questions asked. In a privately printed 1928 tribute, the lascivious, galumphing (now unreadable) Ladies Almanack, the novelist Djuna Barnes, author of Nightwood and charter member of the Paris clique, celebrated Barney at length in the mock-heroic figure of ‘Dame Evangeline Musset’, a lesbian ‘Evangelist’ who ministers to a flock of girlfriends with the ‘Consolation every Woman has at her Finger Tips, or at the very Hang of her Tongue’. The unctuous Evangeline is ultimately made ‘Saint Musset’ for her labours. Reading the breathlessly partisan Barney literature, or indeed the updated feminist hagiography at www.natalie-barney.com (where you can take a virtual tour of 20 rue Jacob, and get the recipe for her famous cucumber sandwiches), one sometimes feels that her chroniclers have taken the beatification business all too seriously.

Souhami will have none of it. Despite its frisky, Tipping-the-Velvet-style dustjacket picture – of a pair of rather large and grimy female hands undoing (?) a woman’s corset stays – Wild Girls is unquestionably the most dyspeptic version of the Barney saga to date. It is so in part because Souhami has a fairly acidulous view of Barney herself. (The old girl, it turns out, was rather a loon.) But Souhami’s underlying attitude towards female homosexuality itself is also far more melancholic than that of most Left Bank boosters. This disillusionment shows itself most startlingly – and oddly – in a series of dour autobiographical asides sprinkled throughout the book. (Most of them deal with disappointments and fiascos in – one presumes – Souhami’s own love life.) For the biographer the microworld of lesbians is a fallen world indeed. ‘Too few’ means never getting enough; the scarcity economy is real and psychically damaging. If Souhami’s Barney turns out to be a bit of a charlatan – and Souhami is a master at making sows’ ears out of silk purses – then the utopian ‘sapphic idyll’ that Barney sought to inaugurate, now almost a century ago, seems fairly bogus too. Despite a hundred years of wishful thinking – or so her biographer insinuates – the difficulties of living in the microcosm remain.

Which isn’t to say that Souhami doesn’t relish – with a wintry festivity – the outlandish details of the Barney story. How did la Natalie get to be so blithery, vain and self-serving? Fabulous wealth had a lot to do with it – with both the preening self-regard and the lifelong sense of entitlement. Her father, Albert Barney, was a millionaire in the railroad business from Dayton, Ohio; her mother, the flamboyant socialite Alice Pike Barney, a dilettante painter who studied with Whistler and not so secretly despised her philistine husband. The mother seems to have endowed Natalie with her own artiness, narcissism and ostentatiously signalled femininity. (Though Barney’s later sexual career was Don Juanish in the extreme she never adopted the mannish sartorial look of many of her lovers and contemporaries: ‘Why try to resemble our enemies?’ was her line. Even in the Eton-cropped 1920s, she kept her childhood nimbus of flowing, very feminine blonde hair.) Barney’s father died before Barney established herself as Public Lesbian No. 1; but her mother lived until 1931, pretending all the while not to understand her daughter’s unusual romantic tastes. Maternal diffidence seems only to have intensified Barney’s histrionic bent. Both Barney’s compulsive womanising and her gushing idealisation of the feminine suggest an unresolved craving for her mother’s attention. Take the name ‘Sappho’ out of her poems, stick ‘Alice Pike Barney’ in instead, and you start to get the picture.

Yet Barney seems to have harboured a special sense of her erotic destiny from the start. Her first ‘affairs’ were avid little diddle-thons with various female cousins and school companions. In 1882, at the tender age of six, she had a fateful meeting with Oscar Wilde, then on his American tour, in the lobby of a New York hotel. She had been weeping, she later wrote, because some heartless boys had pelted her with cherries. The kindly Wilde took her on his knee and told her the story of The Happy Prince. The prince became a sentimental alter ego: when the 12-year-old Natalie had her portrait painted in 1888, she insisted on representing him. Though Barney never saw Wilde again, the psychic link she felt with him was lifelong and profound. Her subsequent crusade on behalf of homosexual love was from one angle simply an attempt to assume the Wildean mantle and fulfil, like a female proxy, the emancipatory project so abruptly truncated with his disgrace in 1895. But one senses an odd libidinal component in the fixation as well: in the late 1920s one of Barney’s most fraught and difficult love affairs was with Wilde’s wayward niece Dolly, heroin addict, self-immolator and uncanny Oscar look-alike.

Souhami covers Barney’s early years in Paris – she moved there permanently in 1899 and bought the house on the rue Jacob in 1909 – with dry appreciation for her subject’s outsized personality. It’s hard, after all, not to enjoy Barney’s insatiable craving for love and attention. Thanks to beauty, connections and an inborn gift for hospitality she soon counted among her Paris friends and acquaintances a small horde of Belle Epoque celebrities – everybody from Pierre Louÿs, Mata Hari and Comte Robert de Montesquiou, to Gide, Colette, Rémy de Gourmont, Paul Valéry, Sacha Guitry, Salomon Reinach and the buxom brunette diva Emma Calvé. (It was de Gourmont who nicknamed Barney ‘L’Amazone’, the monicker under which she would publish three books of flowery autobiographical pensées.) She also bagged the first in a dazzling series of girlfriends, the witty grande horizontale Liane de Pougy. Like a pair of rebellious schoolgirls both publicised the liaison in print: de Pougy in a steamy soft-core romance, Idylle sapphique, and Barney in a volume of poetry, Quelques portraits – Sonnets de femmes (1900). Barney’s poems, sad to say, are embarrassingly bad – swoony Baudelairean knockoffs, full (in Souhami’s words) ‘of breasts like lotus flowers on a tranquil pond, of hearts moaning like the sea, the scent of her lover’s hair, her lovers’ cries of joy like those of a newborn child’. But nobody seems to have minded much. By dint of big bucks, social gamesmanship and sheer affability, she seemed from the start to get whatever she pleased.

Or almost did. Souhami’s tale darkens considerably when she begins to scrutinise Barney’s emotional life in greater detail. Like her poems, Barney’s erotic attachments almost inevitably had something problematic about them – some element, squalid or sad or fatuous, that ended up despoiling the romantic idylle sapphique. The splashy affair with de Pougy, for example, terminated in rejection: the cagey courtesan got married to a Romanian prince and became extravagantly pious. (She would later endow a convent.) In a lubricious passage in Mes cahiers bleus – the volume of journals she published in the 1940s – de Pougy described a post-marital visit from Barney in which the latter (hope springing eternal) began toying and twiddling for old times’ sake. The retired hetaera had to inform her forward ex, somewhat sternly, that while the charms above her waist were still fair game, everything below was now the exclusive property of her husband:

Rediscovered Natalie comes to coax and caress me, and murmur: ‘My first love, and my last.’ I see her bending over to enfold me, and it seems that I have never left her arms. Inconstant Natalie, so faithful, in spite of her infidelities. She celebrates my body down to the waist. That is all I allow myself to grant. The rest belongs to Georges and no one else in the world can touch it. The rest would make the sin too big; and anyway that rest is so accustomed to Georges that it throbs for no one but him.

From one point of view, droll enough. But from the sapphist point of view a scene, no doubt, to induce quiet sobs. De Pougy acts the part here of the archetypal straight woman: yes, I’m yours, but no, not really. What unlucky tribade has not had to endure a version of this classic tease? Of the same tediously chromosomal rejection? (You’re a nice XX, but I need an XY!) Souhami treats de Pougy’s transformation into the Princess Ghika with the campy reverence it deserves, but at the same time it bites. It’s tough being reminded that, endocrinally speaking, you’re a weirdo. How must the poor Amazone have felt?

But it got much worse. Admittedly Barney never lacked for below-the-waist action. Souhami runs through the awe-inspiring list of youthful loves: Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, poet and novelist and the wife of the French translator of the Arabian Nights; Colette (briefly); the actress Henriette Roggers; Elizabeth Eyre de Lanux, the American fresco painter and interior designer; Elisabeth (‘Lily’) de Gramont, Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre and friend of Proust and Maeterlinck; Olive Custance, known as ‘Opale’, who subsequently married Lord Alfred Douglas (the Wilde thing again). Yet however paradoxically, Barney’s major attachments – the two or three that really mattered to her – seemed simply to underscore again the grisly old law of lesbian thermodynamics: there aren’t enough of us to go around. You may be the most accomplished seductress on the planet – a glad hand indeed – but the pickings are so slim (and often dim) you’re bound to end up with Ms Wrong.

Witness Barney’s second big fling – with the self-destructive poetess Renée Vivien. If de Pougy was the Irritating Straight Woman, Vivien was another familiar stereotype in the pageant of lesbian life, the Zonked-Out Substance Abuser. Waif-like, febrile, alcoholic and anorexic, she died at the age of 31 in 1909. (Colette, who knew her as well as anyone, offers a terrifying portrait of her in decline in The Pure and the Impure.) Even so, the Vivien affair has been regularly romanticised – one lady acolyte has written a whole tome about it – presumably because Barney and Vivien once posed for some fluffy tableau vivant photographs together. (In one of them Natalie appears in queenly robes and headdress and Renée, her skeletal page boy, in medieval drag and tights.) In 1904 the two of them made an elaborate pilgrimage to Lesbos in pursuit of their utopian ‘sapphic dream of love’.

As Souhami reveals, however, just about everything in the relationship was dys-functional. The Lesbos trip was a bust: the island – not yet discovered by the operators of women-only package tours – was full of donkeys, garbage and louche peasants. Vivien sulked and boozed most of the time. (The rigours of the trip may have contributed to her later largely self-willed death by inanition.) Barney was more resilient; though put off by ‘rough-looking fishermen and shepherds’, Souhami writes, she ‘viewed the island as an Aegean bed, in the sun, on great banks of seaweed’. Then Souhami drops a quiet bombshell: it was only on Lesbos – and only once or twice at that – that Barney was ever able to bring the druggy Vivien to orgasm. (Hmm. Hardly the poetical boink-fest one had imagined.) ‘I tried in vain to save her,’ Barney wrote afterwards; ‘Her life was a long suicide. Everything turned to dust and ashes in her hands.’

Yet someone even more crazy-making was to come along in 1915: Barney’s great love – and 50-year tormentor – the wealthy American painter Romaine Brooks. (‘Your life is at present infested by rats,’ Brooks once cheerily informed Barney, ‘& one of these rats is gnawing at the very foundation of our friendship.’) Though Souhami gives Brooks top billing next to Natalie – indeed structures Wild Girls as a sort of Parallel Lives-style double portrait – she is too honest a writer not to see that Brooks was the ultimate Girlfriend from Hell: dreary, mannish, perverse – Her Dark Satanic Majesty of the Paris muff-diving set. Unlike Barney, Brooks was both reclusive and morbid: her idea of fun was travelling around Europe with only a lifesize artist’s lay figure in a custom-built coffin for companionship. Nonetheless, for over half a century, until the late 1960s, Barney remained transfixed by her, even as Brooks spread her Pluto-like gloom from Capri to Saint-Sulpice.

Now I confess to being a Romaine-a-phobe of long standing. I can’t stomach the paintings – all those ghoulish grisaille portraits of Barney, Cocteau, Gluck, Ida Rubinstein and other bohemian Paris luminaries. (Feminist art historians predictably go bananas over them, but they are really quite staggeringly repellent. For sheer necrophile kitsch, Brooks out-Böcklins Böcklin, out-Redons Redon.) Souhami is more sympathetic, limning with some compassion the various trials and traumas – lonely childhood, sottish father, sadistic mother, psychotic brother, abortions, suicide attempts, disastrous marriage to conniving homosexual Englishman – that turned Brooks into the evil creep she was. (When Brooks wrote an autobiography in her sixties she entitled it, apparently without irony, No Pleasant Memories.) Souhami even seems to like some of the paintings – or at least doesn’t get nausea just looking at them.

But Souhami holds no illusions either about the deep emotional pall Brooks cast over the second half of Barney’s long life. (Barney and Brooks met when Barney was 39 and Brooks 41.) Though various ‘small world’ connections linked them – both had been involved with Renée Vivien and Winnaretta Singer, the Singer sewing-machine heiress – theirs was obviously a colossal mismatch. Brooks detested Barney’s salon life, preferring to seclude herself on Capri, where she spent months alone, stewing in bile, in a dilapidated villa. She complained ferociously about Barney’s other girlfriends but when pushed, refused real intimacy with Barney herself. Whenever the other woman stayed with her, Souhami writes, Brooks ‘felt invaded if Natalie was in the next room’. In turn, Barney was obsessed with Brooks’s psychic pain and yearned, somewhat messianically, to assuage it. While not perhaps a case of full-blown folie à deux, the relationship was definitely on the way to sicko – full of mind games and bitchiness on Brooks’s part and masochistic slavishness on Barney’s. More than anything Brooks seems to have hated Barney’s loving nature itself – the ‘relentless quality’, she complained, that made Natalie behave towards her like some ‘dumb, devoted, pitiable animal’.

They muddled through the 1920s and 1930s and (quick yawn) the whole ‘Women of the Left Bank’ scene. (Brooks appears in Ladies Almanack as ‘Cynic Sal who wore a top hat, cracked a sharp whip, and "never once descended the Driver’s seat to put her Head within"’.) Barney went on philandering; Brooks complaining – usually about the ‘tribe of second-rate young women’ with whom Barney surrounded herself. The Second World War found them stranded together in the hills above Florence – for the duration – in Brooks’s new home, the Villa Sant’Agnese. It was a disastrous experiment in cohabitation. Both by now were in their sixties. Barney was heartsick over the war and Brooks ‘hypochondriacal, paranoid and disdainful’. Worried that she was going blind, Brooks had ceased to paint. She became an ardent supporter of Mussolini and over the course of the war her political views (and associated megalomania) became ever more distasteful:

Florence was full of German soldiers. Romaine called them blond warriors keeping the Red Russians at bay. Hitler, she thought, was a scapegoat to conceal the Bolshevik plan of a world revolution that would destroy the old class structures and consign to oblivion the works of Shakespeare, Dante, Petrarch, Galileo, Michelangelo and herself.

Now Barney had Fascist leanings too – most of the Left Bank women did – but, no doubt thanks to superior social skills, also knew what a right-wing rich lady needed to do when the going got tough. As soon as the Allies began shelling Florence and the Germans left in a hurry, she patched together an American flag from a sheet, a red dressing-gown and blue pyjamas and hung it gaily in the window.

After the war ended Barney and Brooks never lived together again. Brooks disappeared further into her misanthropic shell – a victim of constipation, artistic sterility and general peevishness. She continued to live in Italy, with the rare visit to Barney in Paris, while Barney, at the age of 80, consoled herself with a final valedictory love affair – with the well-padded ‘Madame Lahovary’, whom she discovered in Nice sitting on a park bench. Both Barney and Brooks were bewildered by postwar cultural changes. (It is strange to think of Natalie sending Brooks a copy of Lolita – she did – or listening to the Rolling Stones.) They were throwbacks, not only to the 1920s, but, even more fundamentally, to the ornate, Beardsleyish world of the 1890s. Both became walking anachronisms. Souhami’s picture of their last two decades is bleak. Though Barney continued to bombard her friend with letters and telegrams and anxious queries about her health, Brooks seldom answered them and eventually stopped reading them altogether. ‘Nat-Nat’s’ final kindly missive (‘My Angel is as ever first in thoughts and deepest in my heart’) was found, seemingly unread, after Brooks’s death in 1970, a cold ‘Miss Barney’ pencilled on the envelope.

It’s all amazingly depressing. This was the best that Natalie Barney – the Queen of the Amazons herself – could do in the Love-of-One’s-Life Department? If Barney had it all – money, flair, looks, famous friends – yet ended up limping along for decades with the malevolent Brooks, where, one wonders, does that leave the rest of us? What about those of us with buck teeth, big credit-card bills and the heartbreak of psoriasis? I make light of course and I suspect that Souhami (or her publisher) will say I’ve exaggerated the gloom. Yet one can’t help but sense something caustic and intransigent in the biographer’s approach: some resistance to sentiment, a subtly mutinous attitude towards her major players (Brooks especially) and a radical scepticism, ultimately, about the whole difficult business of lesbian love itself. The microcosm, she insinuates, wears even its strongest women down. (It’s not surprising that Souhami’s most recent book before Wild Girls was about Robinson Crusoe: she is fascinated by the struggle to survive in a ‘small world’ of scarce resources.) However privileged and outgoing, not even the great Natalie Barney could escape the microcosm’s downward pull – the dearth, default and sadness in sapphic life itself.

However idiosyncratically, the ruefulness is confirmed, finally, by Souhami’s autobiographical ‘discursions’ – brief personal vignettes set in italic at the start of each chapter of Wild Girls. Though at first a bit baffling – who is speaking here and why? – these odd little memoir fragments quickly reveal themselves as a mordant commentary on the Barney narrative. Though Souhami pretends not to know why she’s included them – she refers to them in her preface as disconcerting ‘pop-ups’, the ‘tangential asides that accompany a train of thought’ – the immediate purpose would seem to be to set up a sardonic contrast between the ooh-la-la milieu of Barney and friends and the unromantic realities of middle-class lesbian life in 21st-century London. Thus the ‘discursion’ that precedes the account of Barney’s 1899 meeting with Liane de Pougy:

At the Ace Bar, Christine Shaw asked me what my star sign was and would I like to dance. She supposed I was a Pisces like Elizabeth Taylor and that the number seven would bring me luck. She lacked Liane de Pougy’s strategic skills, financial acumen or shimmering self-importance. Christine was her given name, she was from Birmingham, not Rennes, her clothes were Carnaby Street, and she worked to pay the bills.

She treated me with sisterly protection and asked me what I was looking for. I went with her to Soho, waited in the shadows, and drank weak coffee from a polystyrene cup. Her routine was to strip until 1.30, then serve a few clients before going home to her daughter.

I watched her wriggle out of leopard-patterned viscose, observed her fake tan, her ridged Caesarean scar. I felt I had chanced on an aunt in an unlocked bathroom and in confusion must say ‘So sorry’ and hurry out. The street was bright with neon. I took the night bus home.

Here and elsewhere, the juxtaposition of past and present makes for a kind of burlesque ‘centenary’ reflection: even as Natalie gets it together with the sumptuous Liane, we find Souhami, almost exactly a hundred years later, chatting up – and being turned off by – a somewhat less desirable lady on the game.

Yet over the course of the book the ‘discursions’ take on a peculiar and commanding life of their own. (After a while I found myself racing through all the ‘Miss Barney’ stuff just to get to the next Souhami snippet.) The tale they tell has to do with bungled attempts at connection, the paucity of one’s options, the painful psychic deficiencies homosexual women seem so often to expose in one another:

My blind date nicked the cash from my wallet – about eighty quid, the gold chain you gave me, and my pass for the underground. I was glad she wanted to see me again. She suggested supper at my flat. I told her to look around while I sorted things in the kitchen. I thought she would like to browse my bookshelves. We ate brie and olives, drank red wine. She said flattering things, then after kissing and more she was gone. She said she must get back to her daughter, but left me her phone number. Or so I thought.

In the morning I supposed I would find the chain in the bedclothes. Or perhaps it had come unclasped in the pool. When I went to collect my dry cleaning, I had no cash. When I dialled her number I got a haulage service. What next, I wonder. Free love can test your nerve.

Though tempered at times with black humour – a crazy ex-lover who starts stalking Souhami has ‘more front than Selfridges at Christmas-time’ – the undercutting is so effective (and indeed unnerving) that in the end it’s hard to think about any lesbian relationships – Barney’s, Souhami’s, one’s own – in an altogether sanguine light. Your lover of the past fifty years may look innocent, but you might want to check your wallet.

Since the late 1970s it’s been pretty much taboo for any right-thinking person to suggest that there might be something ‘wrong’ with homosexuality – that sexual unorthodoxy can sometimes deform the human personality; that lots of gay men and women live sad or alienated lives, that spirited resistance to the prevailing cultural dysphoria (such as Barney’s) requires an enormous expenditure of life force. (There’s something wrong with heterosexuality too, of course, but that’s a different story.) For lesbians part of the problem is simply demographic: the number of women in the US who describe themselves as primarily ‘lesbian’ in sexual orientation, for example, is estimated at 2-3 per cent. It’s like being condemned to a world in which you are only allowed to fall in love with people with double-jointed thumbs, or who drive 1982 Ford Escorts.

But the truth no doubt heals. Wild Girls is an eccentric book; I haven’t even mentioned the supremely oddball footnotes:

The writer André Rouveyre, a friend of de Gourmont, taught Natalie and the Baronne Ilse Deslandes to dance the tango.

General Sheridan said his black horse, Rienzi, ridden by him in the Civil War, was ‘an animal of great intelligence and immense strength and endurance’.

Luisa Casati (1881-1957), dubbed the patron saint of exhibitionists . . . She died in London and is buried with her stuffed Pekinese dog in Brompton Cemetery.

Une effeuilleuse is a striptease artist.

The quirky antiquarianism is entertaining – in the way that Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Burial is entertaining, or Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. One of Souhami’s final discursions (addressed to a lover?) is indeed a pocket-sized meditation on last things:

You show me snapshots of your distant past: aged three with ringlets, in school uniform with wires on your teeth, on skis in Alpine snow, confetti raining on both you and a man I have yet to meet. You show me photos of your daughter. I search her face for a likeness to yours.

Good evening, ladies, the waiters say. I observe us in a glass, take these captured moments, and try to appraise where we now are. Transience is ever with us. I do not find it hard to love your lined eyes. You seem to believe me when I tell you what I was once like. The past is at most only a book. We have no option but to discard it. One thing or another will divide us. Will take us into the dark.

It is precisely this kind of honesty – cool, unillusioned, yet also full of emotional subtlety – one yearns for in so much contemporary lesbian writing. The silly Natalie Barney, it turns out, is like a big pink dirigible floating over Lesbos’s tiny shores: in the end she just gets in the way. She’s the book to be discarded. If I ever do meet Souhami – for real, that is, in one of those shabby wine bars we both seem to haunt – I hope I am bold enough to say: Go on with this, mon vieux, with the book inside the book. It’s the bitter and beautiful truth.