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Ah, Paris!

Monday, December 21, 2020 - 21:00

When browsing through the history of women who love women, there are certain confluences of time, place, and people that cry out to be mined for their fictional potential. Get enough women of the right sort together in the same place, and you have a great setting for your own invented characters, who can borrow bits and pieces of real lives and inherit their historicity. The Paris of Natalie Clifford Barney, Renée Vivien, Colette, Vita Sackville-West, Radclyffe Hall, Liane de Pougy, and all the rest is just such a place and time. Invent yourself a devil-may-care heiress. Have her fall in love with a decadent aristocrat. Plunge them into the world of Parisian theater, salons, and cafes filled with outrageous women. Have them come out of the lost generation to find themselves again.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3

Publication summary: 

A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.

Chapter 7: “Familiar Misquotation” – Sapphic Cross-dressing

Part IV – Modernist Refashionings

In this part we see the emergence of a “modern lesbian” identity, as illustrated by four biographies. [Note: I find it curious that Vicinus refers to them as “case studies” rather than biographies, but perhaps because she bases the discussion more on themes in their work than their lives?] Chapter 7 focuses on the Anglo-American expatriate community in early 20th century Paris, who created an alternate parallel society of women who loved women. Chapter 8 focuses on women who accepted, to some degree, the psychological models of ‘inversion” but argued – not always coherently – for their acceptance and inclusion in society.

Chapter 7: “Familiar Misquotation” – Sapphic Cross-dressing

Themes in this chapter include the deliberate use of cross-dressing and performance to establish and signal identity within the Parisian community centered around Natalie Clifford Barney. Also featured are two of Barney’s lovers, Renée Vivien and Romaine Brooks. For these women, cross-dressing was a claiming of gender instability, a “misquotation” of gender for artiastic effect.

In contrast to the “mannish” stylings of an earlier generation that had plausible deniability with respect to sexuality, the Paris set used fashion to establish a variety of transgressive identities: the androgynous gamine, the rake, the aristocratic dandy. All represented the ability of self-definition and a performative display rather than a reflection of the self.

Natalie Barney had the advantages of being a railroad heiress and having a flamboyant mother who disregarded convention. She was aware of her preference for women from an early age. She rejected the sexologists’ theories of the lesbian as “abnormal” and “masculine”. Though the delighted in theatrical presentation, she embraced a feminine style. Her circle engaged with the “decadent” French literature of the later 19th century, featuring lesbians and enjoying a revival of Sappho as a lesbian icon.

While existing in parallel with women who were marginalized for their sexuality, the Paris circle simply disdained to care what others thought. It helped that many of them were wealthy and were not dependent on social approval, but there was also something of a critical mass effect sufficient to shrug off the opinions of others.

The loved theatricals and in turn were treated as a spectacle by the French press. This chapter is rife with references to the many artists, writers, and celebrities that made up Barney’s community, held together by ties of ties of love and friendship. (Barney was notorious for keeping her ex-lovers as friends, which was a good thing since she went through so many of them.) Together they created a new and positive lesbian mythology to counter the growing medicalization of sexuality.

Barney’s salon became the center of a vibrant ongoing community that continued in some form from 1909 to 1968(!) interrupted only by an exile during WWII. Through it, she supported an entire generation of intellectuals, outliving her transgressive beginnings to become an establishment.

One of Barney’s more famous lovers, Renée Vivien, takes up most of the rest of the chapter. Like Barney, she inherited wealth, kicked free of family ties, and settled in Paris. In personal style, she took the androgynous path and adopted the stylings of the decadent poets for her métier. She lived and loved very intensely, full of extremes. She saw lesbianism as the most natural state for women and expressed this position in her art. Having rejected bourgeois conventions and the ideals of family, it’s little surprise that neither she nor Barney established long-lasting partnerships. The discussion delves into some of the prominent themes in her writing.

The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of another of Barney’s lovers, the artist Romaine Brookes, who came into the Paris circle when both of them were in middle age. The themes of her work and personal style feature isolation and suffering, perhaps reflecting her childhood experiences, though like the others she emerged into adulthood with money and free of family attachments, despite a brief marriage.

This chapter spends a lot of time analyzing the themes in the three women’s artistic and literary output, as well as cataloging many of the personal connections that formed within their social circle.

 

Time period: 
historical