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‘No Modernism Without Lesbians’

Philosopher and historian Diana Souhami's No Modernism Without Lesbians is a work of impeccable scholarship and a vibrant narrative about the essential and lasting philanthropy and patronage of the Arts by four remarkable lesbians.

No Modernism Without Lesbians
Diana Souhami
Head of Zeus
April 2020

It’s tempting to imagine a modernist deck of playing cards, with each of the four women covered in Diana Souhami‘s latest book heading up one of the suits.

Diamonds would be represented by Bryher (pen name of Annie Winifred Ellerman) – the gender non-conforming writer and film producer who was also a multimillionaire heiress. An artist in her own right, she financially supported hordes of other young and struggling artists, and bankrolled countless artistic projects, from films to books to magazines. She produced a lovely series of historical novels and personal memoirs and was a key player in the early avant-garde cinema scene. She started and edited the first international magazine devoted to cinema and film art.

Hearts, of course, would be Natalie Barney. Also a multimillionaire who funded countless artists and projects, her greatest artistic project was her own life and the complicated relationships of which it was comprised. “Living is the first of all the arts,” she wrote. “Love has always been the main business of my life.”

Another time she commented, more pithily: “My only books, Were women’s looks.” Her extravagant relationships, with rich duchesses and poor poets alike, were too numerous to count. She wrote as well, and her salons were famous throughout France and beyond. She founded an Academie des Femmes as a riposte to the French Academy’s refusal to admit women. She held elaborate and theatrical women-only rituals in her expansive, park-like garden, modelled on Sapphic Greece.


Android Face by bluebudgie (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

In contrast to dour writers like Margueritte Radclyffe Hall, who penned tragic lesbian romances like The Well of Loneliness, “Natalie championed the way for lesbians who wanted more fun than down the gloomy Well,” writes Souhami. At the age of 80, she met a married woman more than two decades her junior on a park bench and seduced her to run off with her.

Clubs, the symbol of youth, growth and education, would be Sylvia Beach. Her contribution was the iconic bookstore Shakespeare and Company, and all the literary connections and inspirations which were catalyzed by that eminent institution.

And spades – earthy symbol of wisdom – would be Gertrude Stein. She and Beach were complementary mother figures to the modernist movement. Stein: comfortably ensconced at home in her salon, walls bedecked with avant-garde art, playing court to the younger artists and writers while producing her own complex word portraits and labyrinthine literary experiments. Beach: full of energy, welcoming guests to her shop, organizing readings, and public events.

Indeed, both Beach and Stein were integral to the complex social and literary networking that helped modernism to flourish as it did. And they each did it in their own way: Beach with the nervous energy of an over-eager American ex-pat; Stein with the serene calm of a bookish Buddha.

Souhami has covered lesbian lives before, and with prodigious energy. Her biographies of artistic and literary lesbians comprise a magnificent, important archive of queer history: the painter Gluck; Edith Cavell; Violet Trefusis; Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; Greta Garbo; Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, and more.

With No Modernism Without Lesbians she stops dancing around the point – the point being the importance of lesbian creative contributions to modern culture – and goes straight for the jugular. Forget Hemingway, Joyce, Pound, and all those other misogynistic male egos. Without lesbians, there would be no modernism. The women featured here were not the only ones responsible for supporting and facilitating the modernist movement, but they each played a hugely integral role.

Bryher came with her money – and so much money (her father was the richest Englishman in history when he died) – that she generously bestowed much of it on her fellow writers, artists, photographers, and other creators. Without her patronage, countless artists would have been unable to either produce work or share it with the world; many would probably have died of hunger, poor health or drugs (or at least, sooner than they did). Many would have had to seek other work in other fields. Whole exhibitions, entire journals – each of which catalyzed countless more young creators – wouldn’t have happened without her support.

She was also a tremendously creative force in her own right, and it’s shortsighted and unfair when histories of the period write her off as simply a financier. Souhami deserves credit for finally giving Bryher some of the attention she deserves. Bryher’s historical novels are still a delight to read, and her memoirs (especially the wonderful The Heart to Artemis) even more so. Souhami explores how Bryher’s own gender non-conformity found expression in her novels, which often centred a similar young male character as the protagonist.

Barney also brought immense stores of personal wealth to the movement, but her primary contribution was in the life she lived, which directly touched the lives of countless other women (and men) who moved in her circle. Souhami takes the reader on a fun and eye-popping journey through some of the more influential affairs and relationships she had. Barney’s longest and most profound relationship was with the painter Romaine Brooks, and Souhami dwells on Brooks’ life to an appreciative degree as well.


Natalie Clifford Barney, painted in 1896 by her mother Alice Pike Barney *Public Domain / Wikipedia)

Beach’s contribution was both specific and broad. Specifically, she brought James Joyce’s Ulysses to the world. Previous efforts to publish it, in both the US and UK, had all come to naught at the hands of those countries’ assiduous censorship bodies. France was the more permissive jurisdiction of the three, but how would an ex-pat Anglo-Irish writer manage to prosper in France? Beach, who was genuinely taken with Joyce and became fast friends, not only looked after his well-being but single-handedly expanded her bookshop’s operations to encompass publishing his work as well.

Publishing Ulysses was an ordeal. There was the logistics of finding printers and binders willing to print the content (considered highly raunchy to the point of taboo for the period; it was also often incomprehensible). Then, there was the risky work of orchestrating its sale and smuggling into Anglophone countries where it was banned. One of her agents made dozens of trips by ferry-boat between the censorious US and the more permissive Canada, with copies of the book stuffed into his pants on each trip.

Joyce was an unforgiving client, demanding constant changes (roughly a third of the book was added at the proofing stage). Worst of all, even though the all-consuming effort of printing Ulysses caused Beach to lose friendships and nearly lose her shop to bankruptcy, Joyce didn’t hesitate to betray her trust when the opportunity arose.

Thanks to Beach’s efforts to get the book to critics and readers, and the literary accolades it garnered even in countries where it was banned, the legal case was eventually won for its permission to enter the UK and US. As soon as it looked set to be legal, Joyce was offered a lucrative contract for the book from a big publisher. He signed, violating his relationship (more one of trust than a legally binding contract) with Beach and without compensating her a penny for her sacrifices. He waltzed off to fame and fortune with barely a thank you to the woman who had made it all possible, leaving her own life and work teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

It’s a sorry tale, but one worth sharing with anyone who still thinks highly of Joyce. Souhami explores the two modernists’ relationship and the book’s publication in absorbing detail. The key point here is that while Joyce might have written the book – considered a vital breakthrough in modern literature – it would never have seen the light of day without Beach’s hard work. Nor would it have helped to push back the veil of censorship which still smothered so much important creative work in the US and UK.


Gertrude Stein sitting on a sofa in her Paris studio, with a portrait of her by Pablo Picasso, and other modern art paintings hanging on the wall (before 1910) (Public Domain /Wikipedia)

Beach’s contribution was also broad, though. She was considered somewhat of a cultural ambassador between France and the Anglophone literary world. She and her lover Adrienne Monnier operated bookshops across the street from each other, Monnier catering to a predominantly French clientele and artistic community and Beach attracting the Anglophones. Readings and simple encounters inside the two bookshops sparked countless literary friendships and inspired intense artistic and creative collaboration across all mediums. If modernism had a birthplace, it was there on the Rue de l’Odeon.

Stein’s most important role also lay in the networks and relationships she fostered. She played a special role in supporting modern art; purchasing works from then-unknowns like Picasso, who could barely afford to eat. Her famous weekly salon got its start because so many people kept asking to peruse her art (she repeatedly ran out of wall space, and without even framing most of the works she bought). The salons quickly became much more than just art shows, and Stein became a sought after literary icon and supporter of other aspiring modernists.

Stein also engaged with the musical world, collaborating with musicians to produce operas and musical presentations of her work. She was like a nexus of modernism, through whom all the artistic disciplines engaged and interacted.

Class and Culture

Reading Souhami’s delightful and absorbing study, one can’t help but realize that there’s something to be said about the class breakdown of lesbian modernism. While many of these women are well known to us, there’s a clear distinction between the wealthy ones – people like Barney and Bryher, among others – and those who never enjoyed comparable financial status. This is evident even in the matter of who’s been studied by biographers, and who has not.

It’s invariably the rich women who have been the subjects of multiple biographies. This is due to a variety of factors, and not always artistic talent. The rich women had more time on their hands, both to produce documents for posterity (correspondence, published vanity works) as well as to live boldly and audaciously, less encumbered by the fear of consequence from violating public taboos. All this has rendered them attractive subjects for contemporary historians.

But it’s unfortunate that so many historians gravitate toward them at the expense of those women whose lives aligned more with the lower or middle class: women like Margaret Anderson, Jane Heap, Solita Solano, and so many others. There is material to be found on these women, but barely a fraction compared to that which has been produced on the likes of Barney and her class. One struggles to find even a biography in print for many of them. Yet even the fabulously wealthy yet little-known dancer and classicist Eva Palmer-Sikelianos has been the subject of a hefty biography by Artemis Leontis, just last year. One hopes that more attention will eventually be paid to the equally fascinating, yet not nearly as wealthy, lesbian modernists.

Natalie Barney was fully cognizant that the idleness which came from extreme wealth played an essential part in placing them at the cutting edge of culture. “I think one must be idle in order to become oneself,” she wrote. “If you have a profession you become part of that profession. With work you become a function. With idleness you become who you are.”

Of course, it would be too simplistic to criticize these women for dwelling in a bubble of privilege. Their contribution to modernist culture revealed an active effort on their part to pierce that bubble and use their wealth for good. They poured generous amounts of money into supporting other lesbian artists and writers – even former lovers they had tumultuous breaks with, or ones who spurned their advances from the get-go. They went about funding culture and the arts like it was a vital, life-or-death struggle (which, for many, it was). Such dedicated solidarity between the rich lesbians and the poorer ones is an important part of what catalyzed the movement and allowed it to produce such rich and vibrant work.

In fact, since most of those women inherited their wealth from rich fathers, their patronage of the arts might be viewed as an elaborate redistribution of capital, both from men to women as well as from industry to the arts. Not the best or most direct route, perhaps, but at least it happened.

Today’s obscene levels of income inequality are scandalous and abhorrent on their own, but it’s also a shame that one sees so little no-strings-attached patronage of artists and writers of the sort which characterized the modernist era. This results not only in a literal poverty for those struggling in the arts, but a broader cultural poverty which impoverishes our entire society, especially when one contrasts it with periods such as the one studied here.

Souhami’s No Modernism Without Lesbians, with its accessible, sprightly and engaging prose, is a delight and a must-read. With impeccable scholarship and a vibrant narrative, she explores the lives not just of these four women but of the dozens of other lesbians whose stories are part of their stories. Souhami writes with love for her subjects, which is contagious and brings them vibrantly to life, and makes the book an important and inspiring contribution to modernist and lesbian culture in its own right.