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No Modernism Without Lesbians


Diana Souhami (Head of Zeus: 2020)

Diana Souhami previously published biographies of Radcliffe Hall, Gluck, Alice Keppell and about famous lesbian duos: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks. She calls these ‘Di’s Dykes’ and, in this book, returns to some of them. She devotes separate sections to Sylvia Beach, Bryher, Natalie Barney and Gertrude Stein but also makes intriguing connections to demonstrate their influence as writers, creators and supporters of art in all its forms. She makes a case for these astonishing women effectively shaping the growth of modernism.

The book is scholarly, with extensive notes demonstrating the considerable depth of her knowledge but Souhami’s style is elegant, witty and conversational. Photographs of various subjects are embedded at appropriate points; detailed credits given in the back matter. Although her research is scrupulous and dense, the tempo is swift. She uses short sections with sub-headings for different episodes and topics. Often she leads the reader off at a tangent with an enticing anecdote. It’s the kind of book to dip in and out of, although the narrative is so irresistible that it is difficult to stop reading.

This was a racy set and the fast-paced storytelling suits these women’s lives. Frequently the women are trying to break free from controlling fathers, brothers and husbands. Compromise was necessary in order for them to live as they wished. There are many scandalous love affairs detailed here but also chaste ‘lavender’ marriages, contracted to adhere to social convention and to secure financial stability. The power of money runs through the book; many of these women were fabulously wealthy. Economic privilege and generosity promoted innovative ways of seeing and, ironically, men were often the recipients of lesbian patronage. Joyce could not have published Ulysses without Sylvia Beach’s assistance, although, consequently, she put herself in debt. Arranging renowned literary salons, Bryher was a benefactor to many writers. It was said that Natalie Barney’s favourite book was her cheque book. Gertrude Stein collected Cubist and Fauvist works and furthered the careers of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Paul Bowles and Sherwood Anderson.

Truman Capote visiting Romaine Brooks’s Paris studio was ‘riveted’ (p. 274) by more than seventy large-scale portraits. He commented that the room was a shrine to ‘an international daisy-chain’; ‘an array of butch babes’ (p. 259-60). Souhami has seamlessly shown the complex liaisons between these women. She crafts a truly fascinating, often surprising, account of early twentieth century intercultural life and, especially, of the exceptional women who, collectively, facilitated the flowering of modernism.

Diana Souhami will be talking to Suffolk Book League at an event on Thursday 5th October 2023.


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