The Reverse Garden Party

The Heart to Artemis: A Writer’s Memoir by Bryher Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 2006, 374 pp., $19.95, paperback
The Player’s Boy by Bryher Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 2006, 208 pp., $15.00 paperback
Women Together/Women Apart: Portraits of Lesbian Paris by Tirza True Latimer New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005, 211 pp., $24.95, paperback
Reviewed by Martha Vicinus

Not everyone loves Paris, even at its most glamorous.  In her 1962 memoir, Bryher, the well-known patron of Modernism and the lesbian partner of the poet H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), wrote a withering comment about the American writers she met there:

Suddenly I realised to my horror that it was a vicarage garden party in reverse.  These rebels were no more free from the conventions that they had fastened upon themselves than a group of old ladies gossiping over their knitting.  I had to get clear of it at once.” (Heart)

Bryher did not drink and loathed late nights; she found herself stigmatized as a “bore,” but a necessary bore, with her money and her common sense.  She never really got clear of these alcoholic, carousing writers, but she did carve out an independent life, lived mostly in Switzerland (to avoid taxes). 

Bryher, whose given name was Winifred Ellerman (1894-1983), was the only daughter of Britain’s richest ship magnate. She wanted to be a sailor or the manager of father’s business; instead she found herself managing geniuses who seemed unable to wash their clothes and renew their passports.  As she ruefully admitted, upon leaving school, she had

…prayed that my destiny might be service to artists and poets…Fate granted me my wish in part and turned me into a mixture of nurse and business adviser, without pay, official recognition or an afternoon off to myself…I have cursed it all, enjoyed it sometimes…but it has not been in the least like the fabulous state that I imagined, aged seventeen.” (Heart).  

Nevertheless, no other life could have given this rebel against Victorian convention so much satisfaction. 

            Bryher, a name she chose from the Scilly Isles, lived in the shadow of fame: she was small, prissy, and self-righteous, according to many contemporaries.  Yet she was an essential member of the Paris-London Modernist world.  She co-edited Close Up (1927-1934), the first serious film magazine, and Life and Letters Today (1940-1946); she underwent analysis with Hanns Sachs, Freud’s close ally; and she wrote some dozen novels.  She supported H. D. financially and psychologically for many years; in 1927 Bryher married Kenneth Macpherson in order to conceal the affair he was having with her lover.  The next decade proved to be remarkably fertile.  She fell in love with Berlin, the heart of avant-garde filmmaking and an outpost of psychoanalysis.   She served as an interpreter for Hollywood stars and directors visiting Berlin, translated articles for Close Up, and helped Macpherson direct experimental silent films.  Her Film Problems of Soviet Russia (1929) introduced Sergei Eisenstein to an English-reading audience.  She left a mountain of personal papers, but no one has ventured to write a biography.   In spite of her substantial financial assistance to so many causes, little reviews, and authors, is she simply too difficult to know?    

            Over half of The Heart of Artemis is devoted to Bryher’s wrenching break with her family and their Victorian mores.  Yet her restrained presentation leaves the reader with a contradictory and unresolved self-portrait.  Was it her father or Victorian respectability that left her on the sidelines of life until 1921, when she fled to Paris via a marriage of convenience?   She adored her father, and offers few examples of his patriarchal rule.  She mentions Hanns Sachs in adulatory terms, but tells us nothing about what she learned from him or her years of analysis.  In the 1930s her Swiss home became a way station for fleeing Germans and Austrians; she helped more than one hundred Jews and socialists to safe passage.  Is it false modesty that she says so little about these activities, or lingering anger that few of her peers joined her in the fight against injustice?  (In Women Together/Women Apart, Tirza True Latimer provides damning evidence of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks’ utter indifference to the fate of non-Aryans.) 

            Bryher never alludes to the possibility that her unconventional love interests might have caused some of her difficulties with her father. The word “lesbian” is never used in this 1962 memoir, but Bryher makes plain her sexual indifference to men and her love for H. D.  None of her fiction includes heterosexual romance.  Like Mary Renault, she was most comfortable placing her nontraditional heroes and plots in the distant past.   Most of her fiction is set in either Roman or Elizabethan Britain. For example, The Player’s Boy (1953), written, she claims, in “Elizabethan,” traces the life of a boy actor who loses first one and then a second master, and is left to fend for himself.  As much as I respect Paris Press for reprinting neglected writers, the novel lives on only as a period piece. 

Unlike Bryher, the interwar artists that Latimer discusses flaunted their lesbian lives.  Romaine Brooks, the partners Claude Cahun (Lucie Schwob) and Marcel Moore (Suzanne Malherbe), and Suzy Solidor represent three different aspects of interwar Parisian culture.   Latimer traces their public creation of visually radical, lesbian images during a period of enormous artistic vitality and experimentation; she focuses on self-portraits, arguing for their central importance in lesbian self-fashioning.  But some of her most interesting insights go beyond this rather narrow purview.  She has uncovered important links both among artists and with contemporary sexologists.  Claude Cahun translated Havelock Ellis’s pioneering study of homosexuality in 1929, and several members of Brooks’ circle corresponded with him about their sexual preferences.  Clearly this generation of avant-garde lesbians was fast educating itself about the new taxonomies of sexual behavior.  Many different psychological explanations vied for attention; why did psychoanalysis come to dominate Modernist art and literature?  I wish that Latimer, in her otherwise thorough and well-researched study, had explored these wider connections more fully.  

Latimer has an acute eye for the telling visual detail; her analysis of Romaine Brooks’ iconic 1923 self-portrait with top hat is as illuminating as any I have read.   Juxtaposed with several examples of contemporary portraits of women by more traditional male artists, Brooks’ originality can still startle the viewer.  As Latimer points out,

With this self-portrait, and with her fashion and aesthetic choices generally, Brooks not only envisioned a new kind of elite subject but also contributed to the resignification of a pastiche of visual cues that enabled upper-class lesbians to identify and to acknowledge one another.  In the same stroke, Brooks tailored the mantle of artistic genius to suit an entirely new profile: that of a woman.

Latimer notes that in spite of the symbolic importance of male-styled clothing in the 1920s, Brooks’ portraits of cross-dressed women did not excite negative commentary in the press.  While one critic noted that her models were “chosen from an elegant but terribly equivocal milieu,” he still praised her “refined spirit.”  Just as Bryher worked on behalf of H. D., Barney promoted her partner.  “Service to artists and poets” played a crucial role in disseminating such radically new art.  Barney made sure that all of Brooks’ paintings were carefully photographed and that her exhibition catalogues were distributed to powerful art critics and friends.  She worked for nearly forty years to convince a museum to accept Brooks’s papers and paintings, and in 1952 she published Romaine Brooks: Portraits, tableaux, dessins.  Without such sustained assistance, the now canonical portraits of Paris’s lesbian elite might well have been lost or destroyed. 

Latimer’s other two case studies also illustrate the importance of self-promotion.  Cahun and Moore arrived in Paris from Nantes determined to make their mark as Surrealist writers and photographers.  Cahun posed in hundreds of shots for Moore, most famously in front of a mirror, in what Latimer calls a restaging of Freud’s narcissistic scene.  Rather than looking at herself, she looks at the viewer, demanding acknowledgement of her sexually ambiguous appearance.  Cahun authored fashionable visionary tales, which were largely self-published in books, designed by Moore, that employed experimental typography and layout.  By the late 1930s Surrealism had broken into numerous political groups, and the two women had moved to the isle of Jersey.  As active members of the Resistance, they were imprisoned and much of their personal archive destroyed.  Latimer’s chapter is an important contribution to the ongoing rediscovery of the self-conscious art of this lesbian couple. 

Cahun and Moore’s high seriousness and economic cushion contrast sharply with the character and circumstances of the insouciant performer Suzy Solidor.  The illegitimate daughter of a servant, she commissioned over 250 portraits of herself for her club.  During her long career as a chanteuse and public figure, each new portrait briefly took center stage, serving as a new image for Solidor to imitate.  During the 1930s, in a series of calculated interviews, she parlayed her lesbianism (and occasional affairs with men) into a chic erotic product.  Women and men of all sexual preferences crammed into her club to watch her sing and to admire the portraits.  Solidor presented herself as the personification of “the free-spirited sailor whose heart refuses to be tethered.”  It’s too bad Bryher did not know this female sailor, who seems never to have lacked self-assurance. 

Latimer’s well-researched book is a treat for every reader interested in interwar Paris, then the cultural center of the Western world.  Her examination of this lively, contentious, and self-confident time, when women risked creating new images of female erotic desire, is an important milestone in current lesbian studies.  Her lucid analyses never reach for simple generalizations, but like the women themselves, she keeps all options in play.  This is a finely researched and beautifully written book.  Nevertheless, I found myself at times wishing that she had included a larger number of lesbian artists and more examples from her chosen selection.  The cover photo of Janet Flanner, by Berenice Abbott, teases the reader into expecting some discussion of this great American photographer.  What Latimer has gained by focusing on a limited time period she may have lost in historical depth.  I am not convinced that women-loving women had to wait until the interwar years to fashion visual self-images.  In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the cross-dressed sailor was already a well-known figure.  Surely both Bryher and Solidor knew about this gender-crossing tradition.  Perhaps too much is made of Judith Butler’s notion of lesbian performativity.  Most Modernists, in Bryher’s words, sought “a sternly truthful approach” to life (Heart).  Coming out as a specific kind of sexual person was part of her revolt against the Victorians, as it was for many lesbians who moved to Paris.   But these are quibbles, for Latimer has opened the door to a rich world that deserves further exploration.          

 

Martha Vicinus, who teaches at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is the author of Intimate Friends: Women who Loved Women, 1778-1928 (2004). She is currently working on a book-length study of women writers who lived in France and Italy during the years 1880-1913, tentatively called Cosmopolitan Women.

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