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Who were the lesbians who made modernism?

Diana Souhami’s new book No Modernism Without Lesbians shows how a group of extraordinary women fostered the birth of the modernist movement

Inter-war Paris was the setting for an unprecedented artistic explosion. The various movements that found their form in the city’s cafes and bars are well-documented – Dada, the avant-garde, modernism – but what these accounts often fail to mention is the community of lesbian and bisexual women who created this era alongside their male contemporaries.

Once rather objectionably termed the “daisy-chain of butch-babes” by novelist Truman Capote, these communities have sparked recent fascination. Gradually the lives and artistic achievements of these women have been dusted off and examined in a new light. But too often this light is shaded in comparison to the male authors and artists whose work is still better known today.

Writer Diana Souhami’s new biography No Modernism Without Lesbians (the latest and last in a string of biographies of women whom she has cheerfully christened “Di’s dykes”) does nothing of the sort. Instead, she places Sylvia Beach (a groundbreaking publisher and bookseller), Natalie Barney (a society hostess), Bryher (a patron of the arts), and Gertrude Stein (a trailblazing author) firmly in their own spotlight. In fact, Souhami argues that not only are they deserving of recognition on their own merits, but modernism simply wouldn’t have emerged without them. There literally would have been “no modernism without lesbians.”

Admittedly, the title No Modernism Without Lesbians is a little blunt – it feels like a redacted version of Souhami’s arguments that’s intended to hook the reader (and it certainly does the job). Despite this, it instantly poses some interesting questions. Why these four women in particular? Did it really matter that they were lesbians, or would their contribution have likely been the same if they were not?

”Souhami argues that not only are they deserving of recognition on their own merits, but modernism simply wouldn’t have emerged without them.”

Souhami certainly makes a passionate and convincing case that these four women were pivotal in shaping the modernist movement. The prose sparkles, her wit shines, as does the humour of the women she writes about, and there’s no denying that these women led fascinating lives. Of course there are more comprehensive biographies; Souhami herself has written two of them (Wild Girls, on Natalie Barney and her partner Romaine Brooks, and Gertrude and Alice, on Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice Toklas). Not many biographies, however, have woven together lives, loves, and accomplishments with such a light touch and consummate skill as No Modernism.

Draw a map of the modernist landscape, and most of the lines would lead back to Sylvia Beach, Natalie Barney, Bryher, and Gertrude Stein. Between them they knew, championed, promoted and collaborated with anyone who was anyone who was in the modernist scene. Within the four walls of her famous English-language bookshop Shakespeare & Co, Beach not only managed to publish the modernist masterpiece that no one else would touch (James Joyce’s Ulysses), but played librarian, bookseller, mother hen, friend, postmistress, and counsellor to many authors – established and struggling and wannabes alike. Not a writer herself (she once declared that “about my education, the less said the better: I ain’t had none”) Beach was nevertheless a talented bookseller: one who loved books and unfailingly supported the people who wrote them. Literary modernism might well have been a very different movement without Shakespeare & Co in the background.

A similar argument could apply to Natalie Barney’s “Fridays”; a famous weekly salon (or gathering) in which her house on the rue Jacob became the meeting place for literary modernists and traditionalists. With Barney as the impeccable hostess, they mingled, talked, argued, and exchanged ideas, often in a variety of languages. Regular attendees included Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, Ford Madox Ford, William Carlos Williams, and T.S.Eliot. People also flocked to Gertrude Stein’s “Saturdays”, a weekly gathering similar to Barney’s, to talk to the legend herself and admire the huge collection of modern art that adorned the salon walls – without Stein’s early support in purchasing their work, Picasso and Matisse might well have remained struggling unknowns.

Connections were vital, not only for inspiration and encouragement, but to secure financial support. The other woman in Souhami’s book, Bryher, financed not only her lover, the modernist poet H.D., but also experimental films, magazines, and Robert McAlmon’s small press Contact Editions, which went on to publish a roll-call of modernist literature. Without this woman-led network of money and connections, our bookshelves and art galleries might look very different today.

”Without this woman-led network of money and connections, our bookshelves and art galleries might look very different today.”

In addition, Barney, Bryher and Stein were also writers themselves. It is hard to imagine modernist studies without a detailed examination of Stein’s own peculiar style, although at the time her writing confused more people than it enlightened and left publishers in particular scratching their heads (one scathing and satirical rejection letter read, “Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one.”). However, Stein ignored these critics and considered her writing to be the only true marker of the new modernist style.

On the other hand, Barney and Bryher are less well-known as authors – perhaps in Natalie’s case because she wrote mostly short poems and pensées (literally “scatterings”, or thoughts) in old-fashioned, belle-époque style French. While her style may have been more traditional, her subject matter certainly wasn’t. Her Quelques portraits-sonnets de femmes, a book of love poems to women published in 1900, angered her father so much that he stormed into the publisher’s offices to buy and then destroy all remaining copies and printing plates. She went on to write several more books, including one novel in English, while Bryher was the author of more than 20 books including 15 novels and several collections of criticism.

There is no doubt that these women were influential. Could this book, then, have been called No Modernism Without Women? Souhami argues not. These women did not only promote and support the modernist movement, but lived it. Their lesbianism – more open in some cases than others – was perhaps the most modernist element of all. Without exception, they rejected the traditions of the patriarchy and all of them grew up with first-hand knowledge, from their parents, of how stifling and unfulfilling a traditional marriage could be.

As a visible rejection of the patriarchal system which had let them down, both Sylvia Beach and Bryher also chose their own names – Bryher having been born as Annie Winifred Glover and Sylvia as Nancy Beach. Throughout their lives with varying degrees of visibility, all four women would reject ‘conventional’ sexuality as well.

“...the book also serves as an inspiration for today – for women, for artists who are breaking the rules, and for those who support them.“

Natalie Barney, in particular, was open about her sexuality, publicly stating that she considered herself a lesbian. However, Souhami does point out in the introduction of No Modernism Without Lesbians that the blanket term of “lesbian” is perhaps limited, since in today’s understanding and terminology, it’s possible that Bryher, Beach or Stein may have chosen to label themselves differently (if, indeed, they chose to lable themselves at all).

Although Souhami’s book’s scope is limited and the title No Modernism Without LGBTQIA+ might not be as catchy, the point remains that Natalie, Sylvia, Gertrude, and Bryher all rejected patriarchal standards imposed on women at the time that paved the way for their enthusiastic acceptance of modernism.

There were others, too, who supported modernism in ways too numerous to count – not only financially but in offering inspiration and encouragement to those writers and artists who wanted to break the rules. Souhami makes no mention of them but, as we have already established, the book’s scope is slightly limited. No Modernism Without Lesbians didn’t quite convince me that modernism would not have existed without these women, but it certainly did persuade me that the modernist landscape would have looked very different. What these women achieved over their lifetimes is incredible, and should be celebrated. In this way the book also serves as an inspiration for today – for women, for artists who are breaking the rules, and for those who support them.

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