There was once a woman named Natalie Clifford Barney. She was an American. An expatriate. A francophile. A novelist, a poet, a lesbian, a hostess. A pretty cool woman living on the Left Bank in Paris in the twentieth century. This is where she held her literary salon, a weekly meeting at which people gathered to socialise and discuss literature, art, music and any other topic of interest. French, American and British writers, artists and dancers crowded into her house for these famed evenings where both lesbian assignations and appointments with academics could, and did, crackle and fizz.
Barney wished to promote writing by women and formed L'Académie des Femmes in response to the all-male French Academy. She did also give support and inspiration to male writers, but strove to feature women's writing just as prominently, or more so, than the leading male names of the day. So Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Rainer Maria Rilke all attended her salons, and were welcomed wholeheartedly. But women were given an equal platform, and were arguably the more interesting, intriguing, eccentric characters. Imagine a riverside Parisian chamber after dark, lit up with the likes of Colette, Mata Hari, Isadora Duncan, Mina Loy, Gertrude Stein, Radclyffe Hall and Rachilde...
I was not in Paris, but West Ealing. However, the well-furnished flat, with its Singer sewing machine, lobster telephone and Playmobil horse bathroom light-pull, held all the charms of the Modernist dream-world through which Barney swanned and scintillated. I was in a new place with new people, stationed next to a glossy dark-wood drinks table of gin and whiskey and rum and bottles and bottles of red wine, surrounded by top hats, cloche hats, dinner jackets, bow ties, unfamiliar repartee, cheese and crackers. I had painted my lips red for the evening. It may have rubbed off as I drank and ate and chatted, but my husky unhealthy rasp of a voice remained due to a harsh March throat-sore that seemed more alluring than gross for this particular night. We all played pin the phallic symbol on the Freud, and pass the parcel with forfeits hidden in each layer of tissue paper such as having to recite a particularly sibilant line of Stein with a pronounced lisp. I caught two night buses home through the whole of London and fell asleep wearing faded red lipstick in my four-poster bed.
While on the subject of female Modernists, the below photograph is my all-time favourite image. Virgina at Knole at the time she was writing Orlando. Wearing the most glorious outfit and facial expression. Orlando: the biography of a man who becomes a woman, who transforms and is transformative. Literature's greatest love letter, from Virginia to Vita. A love letter from a woman to a woman, capturing all sex, gender, power and magic. The life of a woman. This photograph is in the centre of my copy of the complete letters Vita wrote to Virginia, with snatches of Virginia's replies interwoven. Many letters of domesticity and romance and adventures and arrangements to meet for tea.
|Centrefold of one my obsessions|
|In 1921, early suffragettes often donned a bathing suit and ate pizza in large groups to annoy men... it was a custom at the time.|
Also, on a similar theme, yet from the sublime to the ridiculous, I would like to end with this clip. It is from A Woman's Place, an episode of BBC Four's 'Britain on Film' series which uses the Rank Organisation's Look at Life documentary shorts to look at British society during the 1960s. It is fascinating (not only for the astonishing hairstyles) and I wish the full episode was still available on iPlayer. A crying shame that the footage is narrated by men with their RP accents and outmoded views, but this does serve to highlight the absurdity of these chaps and the times they lived in, and how awesome women were and have since become.