No Modernism Without Lesbians

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Release Date: 
May 1, 2021
Head of Zeus
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“Sylvia Beach, Bryher, Natalie Barney, and Gertrude Stein—all rebelled against outworn art and attitudes. They wrote and published what they wanted, lived as they chose, and were at the vanguard of modernism . . .”

Diana Souhami weaves a mesmerizing tale of the part four women, all lesbians, living in Paris, and playing an integral part in the development of Modernism.

Sylvia Beach founded the bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, that became a haven for tourists and literati alike. Its supporters included Gertrude Stein Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce.

Bryher, abandoned her birth name at the first opportunity, and maintained her place in the mix by financing books and films that were beyond the mainstream.

Natalie Barney “aspired to live her life as a work of art and make Paris the sapphic centre of the Western world.” And she had the money and personality to make that happen.

Finally, Gertrude Stein, probably the most well-known of the four, promoted and endorsed modernist painters and writers. Stein is also known for breaking “the mould of English prose.”

Each chapter concentrates on one woman and modernist writers, painters, filmmakers, and other creatives, who populate her life. Readers are then provided a more complicated picture what was happening in Paris before and after World War I.

However, these mini-bios break the narrative’s rhythm. A reference to some might be helpful, but most of the information is unnecessary. And some of the people are uninteresting and annoying.

For example, James Joyce comes across as a pathetic, selfish, self-centered, solipsistic man-child who whines. Sylvia Beach arranged to publish Joyce’s Ulysses, and, Bryher financed it. Without them, would we have ever heard of James Joyce? 

The author fails to explore the aversion Beach and Stein showed to promoting women writers. “Sylvia was a feminist but not a zealous promoter of women’s writing.” Why not?

Beach was designated an “enemy alien” by the Nazis and, eventually, was arrested and interned in a camp. The bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, was deemed subversive and closed; the books confiscated. It never reopened.

Bryher’s father was the richest man in Britain. She was born into wealth, and it was never enough. She “viewed her birth gender as a trick, a mistake. She saw herself as a boy who needed to escape from the physical case of a girl.” She changed her name and created her own unique identity.

Souhami describes her as “humourless,” “quiet,” and “overlooked in a group. “No one fell in love with her,” because “[S]olitude was Bryher’s natural state. She lived behind a wall of money and was not open to being loved.” Being rich gave her the power to become “a patron of modernism.” Her wealth also allowed her to support subversive causes and a revisionist view of gender and relationships.

Of all the chapters in the book, Barney’s is the most entertaining. She once said, “I am a lesbian. One need not hide it nor boast of it, though being other than normal is a perilous advantage.” This is an important quote because, as Natalie also said, “[L]ove has always been the main business of my life,” and, Souhami writes, Natalie’s “main business involved lots of sex.”

This woman saw modernism as a synonym for upending codes of conduct, especially those involving sex. According to the author, Barney was “remarkable for her exuberant commitment to lesbian life.” Barney’s wealth was extraordinary—she inherited $2,500,000, that’s $75,000,000 in 2020 dollars. Her money allowed her dictatorial control over everyone in her life, which included endorsing a Sapphic mantra for all the women in her life. Her primary concern was the “open expression of lesbian identity.”

The final chapter deals with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Stein was a patron of emerging modernist painters: Matisse, Picasso, Degas, Cezanne, etc. The walls of her apartment were covered in their paintings. Stein also supported young male writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. And, like Sylvia Beach, had little interest in women writers.

An interesting sidelight deals with Gertrude’s total dependency on Alice. Alice jealously guarded access to her wife by relegating women to the kitchen; only men were permitted in Gertrude’s presence.

Like Joyce, no one wanted to publish Stein. Her work has no beginnings, middles, and endings and no one understood what she was writing about. She wanted to be successful and make money but refused to write anything that anyone wanted to read.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas became Gertrude Stein’s bestseller.  According to Souhami, it was Alice’s autobiography, but Gertrude wrote it. The book launched scathing attacks and rebuttals from those she skewered.

Gertrude Stein was 72 when she died in 1946 in Neuilly, France.

This book introduces readers early 20th century Paris. It was a rollicking time when everything was changing, and it seemed people knew no limits. After World War I, Paris saw a further emergence of pent-up energy and the determination to leave behind the staid, stoic parameters of the 1800s.

Paris changed when World War II struck, and it never recovered its pre-war lustre.

Souhami’s book introduces readers to the lives of four women who had an impact but their contributions have faded into historical mists. The story is convoluted, confusing, infuriating and, at times, messy. But that is what makes No Modernism Without Lesbians a worthwhile read.