5th October 2023
Diana Souhami talked to Gill Lowe about her book No Modernism Without Lesbians, giving us a fascinating glimpse into the past lives of some extraordinary women. She told us that her publishers had wanted the word ‘lesbians’ in the title, which she said was both bold and gratifying ‘after so long’. In this book, she celebrates four women who ‘broke the rules’ and were part of a much larger group who flocked to Paris between the First and Second World Wars where they felt free to express themselves and escape the patriarchy – to ‘throw over their men’ to paraphrase Virginia Woolf.
The first, Sylvia Beach, had three loves: her lover and fellow bookseller, Adrienne Monnier, with whom she had a lifelong relationship; the bookshop Beach founded, Shakespeare and Co, which became a lending library, book club, bank and place to meet and have tea; and James Joyce whom she published in 1922. No other publisher would touch Ulysses, branding it obscene, but Sylvia spent time with Joyce, as he ‘haunted her shop, altered everything and would never declare anything finished … no man would have given Joyce a comparable publishing service’. Sylvia sadly didn’t reap her reward, as bootleggers came in and undercut her, and Joyce went to mainstream publishers, dropping her.
It was Bryher who rescued Sylvia Beach financially. She was an heiress who’d always felt like a boy trapped in a girl’s body. She escaped with books, especially adventure stories and poetry. She named herself after one of the Scilly Isles and, according to Diana, became ‘a one woman arts council’. Bryher chose to marry a gay man which allowed her to get her inheritance. However, her real love was H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) who ‘became her life’. Bryher ‘rescued’ H. D. who was prone to intense psychotic breakdowns. She divorced her first husband, Robert McAlmon, and married Kenneth Macpherson, a bisexual man, also H. D’s lover. Together, they adopted Bryher’s child, Perdita, and also made avant garde films, founding a magazine about the cinema – Close Up . Bryher later financed the escape of Freud and others from Nazi Germany.
Natalie Barney, who believed that ‘living is the first of all the arts’ believed that living meant lots of lovers. She lived perhaps the most flamboyant life of all ‘Di’s dykes’ as Diana likes to call them. Neighbours complained about Sapphic dancers in Natalie’s garden. Courtesans were frequent visitors. ‘Paris,’ says Souhami, ‘allowed such freedom’ but she also says that Natalie, who lived for the moment with ‘multiple and overlapping involvements … hurt many vulnerable women (p. 217).
The fourth woman is Gertrude Stein who, with her long relationship with Alice B. Toklas, was ‘at the centre of the cultural heart of Paris for four decades’ (p. 295), and who said, ‘[i]t takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing…’. Diana showed us Picasso’s masked portrait of her which Stein called ‘the best ever’. She amused us with accounts of Stein’s idiosyncratic writing style but celebrated her influence in the modernist movement. Stein told F. Scott Fitzgerald he could write an even better novel than Gatsby and he came back with Tender is the Night.
Gill asked about her favourite of the four. Diana chose Sylvia Beach, because ‘she had no money’ and it was ‘such a thing to do to start that bookshop, which is still going. She did it for love and for what she believed’. The sales of Diana Souhami’s book at the end of the evening showed that many of us wanted to further explore the stories of these four groundbreaking women . Meanwhile, Diana Souhami is now writing something different – her own autobiography. We look forward to that.