Diana Souhami: books about Paris and London lesbians in the early 20th century

Diana Souhami was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize for her biography of Radclyffe Hall, and won the 2001 Whitbread Biography Award for Selkirk’s Island, the story of Scotsman Alexander Selkirk, the ‘real-life Robinson Crusoe’. Her latest book, Wild Girls, out in paperback and published by Phoenix, is a dual-biography of the extraordinary lives of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, whose love for each other lasted for more than 50 years.

1. Ladies Almanack, by Djuna Barnes

A prescriptive spoof for those who wonder what lesbians do (they muff-dive, sit on each other’s faces and ruin each other’s lives). In Paris between the wars literary lesbians met for culture and the rest in Natalie Barney’s Temple of Friendship in her garden in Rue Jacob. Barnes portrays Natalie as a rapacious female pope.

2. The Pure and the Impure, by Colette

Colette went to Natalie’s salons. Her autobiographical dialectic explores the torments of perverse desire and the irrationality of love. She gives complex psychological insight into the self-destructive poet Renée Vivien, with whom Natalie had a long affair.

3. Shakespeare and Company, by Sylvia Beach

“At Miss Barney’s one met lesbians; ladies with high collars and monocles, though Miss Barney herself was so feminine.” The inspirational bookseller Sylvia Beach puts these gatherings into context in a memoir that celebrates innovative talent, modernism and diversity.

4. In Memory of Dorothy Ierne Wilde: Oscaria, edited by Natalie Barney

Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s niece, was another creative, vulnerable young woman drawn to Natalie’s daring, charisma and money. She aspired to write and live her life like a work of art, but drugs took her into personal chaos and early death. In 1951 Natalie published this anthology of tributes from friends. On the frontispiece was a photo of Dolly dressed as Oscar with slicked hair and a cravat. “Well, she certainly hadn’t a fair run for her money,” Gertrude Stein wrote in her tribute.

5. A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway

A classic memoir, intriguing and light, in which Hemingway gives a haunting anecdote about Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, who were intrinsic to Paris and modernism and supposedly the happiest of married couples. Hemingway writes of calling at their home in Rue de Fleurus and overhearing Alice speak to Gertrude as he’d never heard one person speak to another, “never anywhere, ever. Then Miss Stein’s voice came pleading and begging saying, ‘Don’t pussy. Don’t. Don’t, please don’t. I’ll do anything pussy but please don’t do it.'” We’ll never know what was going on.

6. The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall

Compared with Paris, the city of light, London between the wars was gloomy and repressive. This sad book should be read for the contempt it aroused in the British establishment in 1928. The sexiest line in it is “and that night they were not divided”. Because the undivided were two women, the book was publicly prosecuted, destroyed and banned as obscene. “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel,” wrote the editor of the Sunday Express at the time. “Poison kills the body but moral poison kills the soul.” Whacko.

7. Your John: The Love Letters of Radclyffe Hall, edited by Joanne Glasgow

Radclyffe Hall, or John as she called herself, confined her expressions of passionate love to letters to her Russian nurse, Evguenia Souline. They show the gulf that existed between private desire and permissible expression.

8. Violet to Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, edited by Mitchell A Leaska and John Phillips

Violet Trefusis was another casualty of London society’s repression and hypocrisy. Her mother, Mrs Keppel, mistress to Edward VII, was determined to dash the scandal of Violet’s love for Vita Sackville-West. She announced her engagement at a society ball and offered an income and the prospect of travel to Denys Trefusis who was shell shocked from the hell of the first world war. The mayhem and anguish of this marriage is preserved in these letters.

9. Gluck: Her Biography, by Diana Souhami

How’s that for chutzpah, I thought, when a decade ago Jeanette Winterson chose her own novel as Book of the Year. But if I don’t recommend this biography of the society painter Gluck, how else will you know that among those with whom she had flings in London in the early 1930s were Constance Spry, flower arranger to the Queen, and Annette Mills, creator of Muffin the Mule? Those of us sufficiently over the hill to remember Mills on Children’s Hour should revise our interpretation of the signature tune, ‘We Want Muffin!’

10. Paris Was Yesterday by Janet Flanner

The second world war ended a civilization: “With the material destruction collapsed invisible things that lived within it.” From 1925, writing as ‘Genet’, Janet Flanner wrote a Letter from Paris for The New Yorker. This collection of essays and vignettes was her valediction to the Paris she loved and to invisible things such as optimism, sexual daring and artistic innovation.


Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/aug/17/lesbians.paris.london