Journalism

Romaine Brookes and Natalie Barney

September 1st, 2004

In 1921, a Tory MP proposed the clause ‘Acts of Gross Indecency by Females’, to be added to the criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which proscribed male homosexuality. In the House of Commons he pronounced that lesbianism threatened the birth rate, debauched young girls and induced neurasthenia and insanity. Everyone agreed, and the clause was taken to the House of Lords to be ratified.

It failed. Their lordships decreed that silence was better than information. The Lord Chancellor asserted that of every thousand women, 999 ‘have never heard a whisper of these practices’. What he called ‘this noxious and horrible suspicion’ must not be imparted.

Seven years later, in1928, Radclyffe Hall published The Well of Loneliness, to be told by the Director of Public Prosecutions, ‘I would give a healthy boy or a healthy girl, a phial of prussic acid, than this book.’ London was not the best place for lesbians. The ones who lived there either married and kept themselves respectable while pursuing women privately, as did Vita Sackville West, or they defiantly lived out their difference and became notorious, like Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge.

The story in Paris was very different.

Paris from the 1920’s until the Second World War is well documented as a haven for artists and freethinkers. Picasso preferred Paris to Spain, James Joyce preferred it to Ireland. American Sylvia Beach ran her famous bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, and all the great literary names of Modernism – Eliot, Pound, Hemmingway, could be found from time to time visiting the salons and cafes.

Less well known is the fact that Paris of this period provided a safe haven for women who wanted to live and love differently. Neither before nor since has there been such a coincidence of time and place and desire – and money. Every rich lesbian in the world seems to have been here -Eva Palmer, heiress to the biscuit fortune. ‘Jo’ Carstairs, who dressed like a French sailor, including tattoos, and who inherited millions from Standard Oil. Wineretta Singer, daughter of the sewing machines, Gertrude Stein and her lover Alice B Toklas, the painter Romaine Brooks, Bryher, whose father was the richest man in Britain, and of course Natalie Barney, who became the centre of gay Paris, with her Friday salons at her 20 rue Jacob.

Alongside the very rich, were those independent women who also found a life here – Djuna Barnes, author of Nightwood, extravagantly praised by TS Eliot. Janet Flanner, the New Yorker correspondent set up home in Paris with her lover. Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s niece fuelled her short life of gin and cocaine in Natalie’s bed. The poet Renee Vivian and French icon and writer Colette, were regulars at the salons. Colette wrote to Natalie ‘My door and my arms are always open to you.’

Diana Souhami tells the story of those years with her usual wit and detail. She centres the drama around Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, who met in Paris in 1915, when they were both in their forties, and whose unconventional relationship lasted for more than fifty years. Natalie’s joie de vivre, and Romaine’s gothic gloom are the north and south poles of this fascinating world of difference. What Souhami makes clear is that we are not only talking about sexual difference, but about a completely different way of living. The misconception of gayness as a same-gender copy of heterosexuality is far from the truth. For Natalie Barney and most of those around her, loving women was about re-imagining life. Nothing was going to be the same as in the ‘homelands’ of marriage.

Natalie believed that men made laws for their own benefit. Without guilt or doubt she resolved to revise these laws, especially the notion of female fidelity. She loved Romaine for fifty years but she was never faithful in bed. Looking lovely was important too – not to please men, but to delight other women. ‘Why resemble our enemies?’ she said of the stereotype lesbian of cropped hair and riding breeches.

She was ahead of her time in every way, and Souhami is right to emphasise what an achievement that was, and how difficult it was, even with a vast fortune at her disposal. She was an early model for alternative living, helping other women financially, and refusing to spend too much on possessions. Her neighbours were not always as accommodating of her endless stream of women as she was, especially when they dressed as wood nymphs or danced naked in her garden. Her response? ‘What do I care if they vilify me or judge me according to their prejudices.’ This is a strong statement when the overriding view of lesbianism was either criminal perversity, or the sexual psycopathy of Havelock Ellis’s famous ‘invert’ definition. While Radclyffe Hall was begging for the right to her existence, Natalie was throwing parties until dawn. That her ‘problem’ might really be nothing more than another’s ‘prejudice’ is a very modern view indeed.

Romaine Brooks was as tortured as Natalie was tolerant. Natalie let in all life, Romaine did her best to shut it out, confusing the solitary temperament necessary to the artist, with a frightened misanthropy. Romaine was battle-scarred by her family and never recovered. She said, ‘My mother stands between me and life.’

Romaine is probably the most talented of all the women of that period, alongside Colette and Gertrude Stein. She had a strong signature style, and her portraits of women are neither pretty nor provocative. The sombre greys and browns she favoured give a seriousness to her subjects often denied to women whether as society portraits, nudes, or paid sitters for the male gaze.

Her women look out with questions in their eyes – they are our interrogators as much as we are theirs.

Romaine could never settle anywhere for long. As soon as she had made a studio perfect, she would leave it behind. Natalie longed for them to live together, Romaine always refused – except for the six years of the war, when Natalie had to leave Paris, and lived with Romaine on her farm outside Florence.

The war destroyed life in Paris for Natalie and her friends. The golden years were done, and the post-war austerity and poverty that opened the modern era, were not accepting of bold experiments in living. It was hard enough to get by at all. When Natalie died in 1972, a new wave of feminism was just beginning, but it is unlikely that Natalie would have recognised it as the way forward – she never wanted a share of the male world, she wanted to change it completely. I have a novel written by Natalie Barney – The One Who is Legion, and inscribed in her hand, July 1936, ‘To my angel Romaine, illustrated by the two pictures of hers, which more clearly than my words, define this (and our) double-being!

Diane Souhami has traced these lives of ‘double-being’, and given us a double biography – the two lives of her subjects, and the two worlds living side by side in Paris, the one so well-known, and the other a tantalising possibility of difference, a virtual world, made real for a time, and disappearing like so much else, under the brutality of war.