These wild women were Symbolist poets in literary Paris at the turn of the 20th century, culturally advantaged and intellectually determined. They were Women of The Left Bank who set up boutiques: publishing houses and artistic salons across the city forging a Sapphic Utopia with their grandiose gestures of a luxury-bohemian, women-centred lifestyle, a place where self-indulgent hedonism went hand in hand with a record of intellectual fervour.
Barney and Vivien were immediately intrigued by each other. Barney was fascinated by her after hearing her read her poetry, leaving her with a feeling that she described as being ‘haunted by the desire for death’, and Vivien admitted it was love at first sight. But despite the wondrous creative exchanges, and the joint learning of Greek to study Sappho coherently to write plays about her, they had a jealous and possessive affair. Natalie was promiscuous and unfaithful, Renee believed in fidelity but truly loved another – their entire relationship was stacked with guilt.
Ah! Habit, how musical and shy
That outworn miracle: our ecstasy!
Between their hands that clasp their empty palms
This daily prayer is in our psalm of psalms!
What is this nothing that was more than all?
Thinned as a golden ring that dare note fall,
That unsuspected danger: faithfulness,
Has linked us strangers, and a something less!
Exchanging vows and other platitudes,
As beggars chained in separate solitudes.
Though jealousy keep live the rotten core,
Lovers that were be lovers nevermore.
Natalie Barney, 1920, from What Sappho Would Have Said, ed. Emma Donoghue
Barney is mostly discussed as an elitist socialite over a fine writer. She rarely revised her work, insisting that the first flush of inspiration was the best, that editing turned her writing stale. She travelled across Europe as a young girl, sharing many mystic tales of wonder and endless horizons. Later she settled in Paris, as it was the only place discreet enough to allow her her indiscretions after avoiding an arranged marriage to Lord Alfred Douglas (Wilde’s lover) by her parents. She opened a literary salon that was a breeding ground for the merging of French and American writers and artists, thus soon winning her popularity. She was candid and open about her polyamorous affairs with women only, her sexual independence was secured by financial privilege and social distinction.
After her break up with Vivien many desperate love-letters were written when Barney tried to win her back. Barney even convinced a young mezzo-soprano singer to serenade her under her window as she tossed a poem up to her window wrapped in a bunch of flowers (the governess handed them back). Barney then incarcerated herself in her boudoir feeding on the works of Baudelaire and Zola, and filling her poetry with lesbian love, artificiality, exoticism, enclosure, perfume and death.
Yet this was what Vivien herself seemed to want, to be thrown full-throttle into the suffering of love post-mortem, for the sake of art. She dipped away from her muse deliberately, until a brief interlude was offered, when Vivien and Barney reconciled and travelled to the island of Lesbos to live; they even spoke about setting up a school for Female Poets, until Vivien received a letter from her lover and returned back to Paris to break-up with her. Instead she never returned to Barney. But Barney was, as well as being a gifted hostess and howling poet, a towering seductress, enamouring a long list of writers and poet’s, including Colette; Radclyff Hall, Romaine Brooks, and Dolly Wilde.
Vivien romanticized death as her health soon began deteriorating: she was addicted to the sedative chloral hydrate and attempted small suicides with overdoses of laudanum whilst outstretched over divans with bouquets of violets strapped across her chest. She hardly ate anything, drank heavily and soon after died of pneumonia in 1909, aged 32. Barney said some 50 years later that “She could not be saved. Her life was a long suicide. Everything turned to dust and ashes in her hands”. Barney was a few years away from turning 100 years old before she died, most of her work remains untranslated though she repeatedly appears in the novels and poetry of many renowned writers, and a memorial plague for her is ensconced alongside a few artefacts from the salon at The Brooklyn Museum of Art.