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No Modernism without Lesbians

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A black and white photograph depicting two women, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, sleeping. Taken in the nineteen-thirties by the photographer Man Ray.

Figure 1. Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap Dosing, c. 1930-39 by Man Ray.

I recently finished reading No Modernism Without Lesbians (NMWL) Diana Souhami's effervescent, gossipy group portrait of women who loved women in Paris in the first decades of the 20th century.

Though ostensibly focussed on Sylvia Beach (publisher-bookseller), Bryher, Natalie Barney and Gertrude Stein (the latter three are best known as patron-writers)* these protagonists are often upstaged by their more lascivious, radical, memorable and often insufferable lovers, partners and friends, in particular poet H.D. (vis-à-vis Bryher), patron Winnaretta Singer (vis-à-vis Barney) and common law wife Alice B. Toklas (vis-à-vis Stein).

(*It's hard to represent in hyphenated labels the complete activities or roles of these women, but these are the roles they are best remembered for).

A biography can be inconsequential to history but history is not inconsequential to a biography and though NMWL uses romantic relationships as a narrative frame, all the characters are—despite their charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent—pawns in the tumultuous game of the early 20th century, family dynamics, and creative communities.

The title of the book is a gauntlet thrown down at the feet of popular culture and academia. When people think of modernism they think of Picasso, Henry Ford, Joyce, Marconi, not Sylvia Beach. And so, NMWL cocks a snook at the reality of conservatism in present-day 21st century (as well the myth of conservatism (maybe even the myth of patriarchy) in the 20th). Additionally, the exploits of the women herein makes the problem pages of Britain's The Sun read like the problem pages of The Guardian. These women are not for the faint hearted. Don’t, however, expect an in-depth defence of the titular thesis. The book does not set out to defend its title through intensive argument, but through the quantity of examples and quality of writing and observation; implying that ultimately it is self-evident that there was no modernism without lesbians.

A black-and-white photograph of the publisher and bookseller, Sylvia Beach with the Irish author, James Joyce in Paris.

Figure 2. Sylvia Beach and James Joyce in Paris. Source: The Internet.

Lesbians, we can broadly agree, are women who have relationships with women (sexual, asexual, romantic, requited, unrequited etc.) and modernism is understood here primarily in its cultural and socio-sexual forms, including live performance, literature, visual and moving-image art, architecture and the lifestyles of its practitioners. The style of patronage described throughout (funding creative projects, providing living allowances etc.) isn't necessarily modern, deriving instead from Renaissance and monarchical schema. However, these forms of patronage were complicated, flavoured and modernised because they were often indivisible from the romantic and sexual entanglements between the patron and patronised. (This does bring up a question, not addressed in the book, about power, wealth and exploitation between classes).

Sylvia Beach is the clear exception here. Beach’s patronage of James Joyce was non-sexual (which isn’t to say non-romantic) and not primarily financial. Beach did finance Joyce but often by soliciting finances from those with more disposable income. Instead she functioned like a literary agent, secretary and manager. Her support of Joyce bordered on the maternal; 'The patience she gave to him was female' Janet Flanner, one of our central lesbians, wrote (70).

I have written that the book uses romantic relationships as a narrative frame, and this is true, though it does also explore artistic collaborations in some detail, in particular Virgil Thompson and Gertrude Stein’s 1928 opera Four Saints in Three Acts. For the most part, the lives of these women, and their professional contributions can be further explored in range of extant in-depth books and archives (referenced in the back of NMWL): the majority of the women discussed here wrote their own memoirs, autobiographies, biographical portraits, and autobiographical novels, which explored same-sex love. So, if the strength of NMWL isn’t its completeness or its theoretical defence, then what is it? For me, it comes down to the range and arrangement, as well as the tone of the text which, while fond of the characters, always keeps our modernists at a distance.

To provide an example of this I have selected three segments from the chapter on writer and heiress Natalie Barney, which capture (in my view) Souhami's style which has made the book, in-part, so successful (it won the 2021 Polari Book Prize).

Barney formed significant and numerous romantic and sexual relationships with women which makes present-day homo- and hetero-sexuals (as depicted in popular culture) look like schoolmarms and choristers. The roster of notches in her bedposts includes Eva Palmer-Sikelianos, Renée Vivien, Colette, Eyre de Lanux, Olive Custance, Élisabeth [Lily] de Gramont, Liane de Pougy, Romaine Brooks, and Dolly Wilde. In the first segment produced here, the Cassatt mentioned is Robert (Kelso) Cassatt, brother of Impressionist Mary Cassatt. In this episode Cassatt and Barney had been negotiating the possible terms of a marriage, with Cassatt in full knowledge of Barney’s preference for women (which matched his own).

"Natalie pursued Liane [de Pougy] out of desire, but also declared a half-hearted feminist intention to save her from prostitution. She suggested to Cassatt that, when they married, they adopt Liane to provide income for her too, so she could retire as a sex worker. Cassatt was not keen. Marrying for money and agreeing not to have sex with his wife was one thing. His wife having sex with his daughter who was seven years older than he was and a famous courtesan was a stretch too far" (226).

A black-and-white photograph of a woman, lying naked in a forest landscape. The model is Natalie Barney in Maine in the summer of 1900 and the photo is probably by her friend Eva Palmer. From Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Figure 3. Natalie Barney in Maine in the summer of 1900, probably photographed by her friend Eva Palmer. © Yale University/Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Elsewhere in the chapter on Barney, Souhami writes about an episode where Barney begins to court Romaine Brooks, while Barney's other partner, Lily de Gramont, grows uneasy. After eighteen months watching Brooks and Barney together, Gramont writes to Barney asking for clarification on their relationship. To persuade Gramont that Barney's affair with Brooks would never upstage theirs, she assuaged Gramont with a contract (similar to her negotiations with Cassatt: Barney seems fond of non-legally-binding documents), where she writes:

"No other union will be as strong as this union, or as tender, or as lasting..." (258)

However, Souhami isn't having it:

It sounded less specious in French. It seemed like a cover for all real and hypothetical events. I am true to you. I told you I could never be true (258).

As a whole, Souhami's book is not introspective, interrogative or interruptive, and the author allows these women to speak for themselves. Rarely does Souhami intervene to deduce at length on this or that, instead allowing her "take" to manifest in wry asides (such as above) or cheeky and sharp juxtapositions, such as these two from the chapter on Gertrude Stein. Note: Donald Evans was the publisher of Stein's Tender Buttons.

"Tender Buttons did not sell well, Claire Marie Press folded and Donald Evans killed himself. But the literary world, even while it mocked Gertrude Stein, reckoned with her and the questions she asked about life and art" (351).


"The Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, but that was the Balkans and distant from lesbians in Paris experimenting with the English language" (351-2).

In terms of what I consider (welcome) detours of analysis, there are few, but they do crop up. Back to Natalie Barney, here is Souhami writing about Barney's "contract" with Lily de Gramont:

"Was this a blueprint for lesbian marriage? It was not for the faint-hearted. Was it modernist? It did not fit the Judaeo-Christian orthodoxy. It was not what fathers prescribed for their daughters. It questioned the old order, required a thick skin, a good deal of spare time and an unusual capacity for adventure. As a lifestyle, it provoked anxiety, jealousy, insecurity and doubts about self-worth. But it surely allayed or avoided, at least for a while, feelings of boredom, entrapment or any sense of ‘ending up’" (259).

Souhami isn't in the business of critiquing whether or not these women are good models for subsequent generations of women, nor whether or not they furthered causes such as equality, feminism or suffrage. And while NMWL isn't an encomium, I wonder if the author could have taken a stricter tone with a number of the women, who come across as vain, small-minded and decadent [as do the men, of course.]

Gertrude Stein sitting at her desk and Alice B. Toklas, standing in the doorway, in their rue de Fleurus Drawing Room in 1922. A black-and-white photograph by Man Ray.

Figure 4. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in their rue de Fleurus Drawing Room, 1922 by Man Ray.

I think there are arguments for and against including more authorial voice and analysis in group biographies such as this. One argument against is: if the book and stories of these characters are written in an analytical mode, they may just serve contemporary concerns or fashions and thereby erase other (equally important) strands of their stories.

Biographers often reveal more of their zeitgeist than their subject's, and one of the strengths of NMWL, as already alluded to, is that it allows the women to speak for themselves; though the ultimate author here (or editor, if you like) is Souhami.

This is one of the tricks of the biography form, one of the sleights of hand that all biographers must perform, to be invisible and present, the instrument and the musician.

"If the communication is perfect, the words have life, and that is all there is to good writing, putting down on the paper words which dance and weep and make love and fight and kiss and perform miracles" (358).

Here, in Confessions of Another Young Man (1936), Bravig Imbs paraphrases Gertrude Stein's advice on writing.

It is a good and clear manifesto, suggesting something of the life of words; that descriptions take on their own lives, independent to the lives they exist to describe. It is a good metaphor for the biography form itself, which may or may not "perform miracles" but can, when it captures imaginations and receives support, come to play a part in re-writing history.

But the question remains...

What is perfect communication?


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