I hav spent over forty years studying Romaine Brooks. I think I understand her as well as any biographer does her subject. Perhaps this because of my experience as a sapphist and conversion-therapy survivor that gives me a peculiar sensitivity into Romaine’s interiority.
Living between the wars Romaine and her circle were challenged by events not unlike the ones we are now struggling with: Covid, endless wars, fascism, disinformation, polarized politics, distrust of governments and class discriminations that have led to BLM, CRT, cancel culture, us vs them, immigration wars, bloody mass killings, denials of science, climate change deniers and the tragedy of Afghanistan.
With the winds of war whipping up the seas. Of change Romaine sent Matthew Arnold’s love poem to Natalie Barney.
Dover Beach. The sea is calm tonight. The tide is full, the moon lies fair Upon the straits; on the French coast, the light Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand, Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. Come to the window, sweet is the night-air! Only, from the long line of spray Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, At their return, up the high strand, Begin, and cease, and then again begin, With tremulous cadence slow, and bring The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow Of human misery; we Find also in the sound a thought, Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. But now I only hear Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, Retreating, to the breath Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true To one another! for the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.
this is for ERASE HER. We are still working on the idea of a red gash with the title above or across the bird as in cancel her which is so often the case when non-conforming women resist patriarchal colonization and demand their own individuality.
People keep asking me about me about me and my author page. I write about things that interest me. I have a lot of interests. I love mother nature. I am fascinated by space and the universe I try to coexist in. I am dedicated to try and make the world a better, kinder, more compassionate place. And, I fail at times in controlling my anger and exasperation at what goes around me that I seem unable to have any affect whatsoever on. So I am a lot like many other human beings on this little planet of ours.
I like films, photography, art, architecture, design, acting, comics, and too many interesting things to list here. I relax when I am at the beach, sailing, riding horse, petting dogs and purring with cats.
I’m telling those of you in follow me all this as I go about the business of preparing to try and make some decisions about launching my new memoir Erase Her and I could use some help. I need people to give me honest feedback on the story and feelings about the tentative design for a cover.
In return, I will be happy to send you the first chapter and list you in the acknowledgments if you are willing to be on my listserve. So let me know by emailing me. Thanks for your support.
Poetry has been a light in the dark tunnel of Covid. Romaine Brooks sent poetry to Natalie Barney. Brooks was a voracious reader always requesting books and citing authors she enjoyed.
I now have two collections of poetry available from Lulu. Rainbow Blues and Visages of Venus. Covid has given me the time and my next yet unnamed will be my political and social Justice collection.
My conversion therapy memoir tentatively title Erase Her is under review at University of Wisconsin Press where they are functioning at half tilt so when I have a date of publication I will let you know.
I have already reviewed this here for all Romaine Brooks followers. The British lesbian author Diana Souhami has spent a life time restoring women writers who have loved women to the modernist literary canon. She deserves kudos despite excluding opinions, authors and fresh, if unflattering to some of her subjects.
I, on the other hand do nothing cringe on giving the facts even when revealing our idols feet of clay. We are, all of us, all too human if not always humane, empathetic and kind. Romaine and her circle could be all of the above but they could also be cruel, gossipy, insensitive to the pain of others, jealous and simple-minded when it came to politics.
The Next Time You Admire a Picasso, Thank a Lesbian
Reviewer Arvind Dilawar makes some excellent points in her article for the Daily Beast below.
Reading her review and comparing it to mine for The Gay&Lesbian Review (formally Harvard G&LR) will allow readers to have a comprehensive overview view when they read the American edition of No Modernism Without Lesbians
Diana Souhami’s new book, “No Modernism Without Lesbians,” spotlights the women who ensured history would remember artists like Picasso, Joyce, and Eliot.
Perfection may be the enemy of good enough—but apparently nobody told that to James Joyce. In Paris in 1920, with the printing of his modernist masterpiece Ulysses already underway, Joyce continued making changes to his 600-page novel, over which he had already labored for seven years. He reworked the manuscript daily, then continued reworking the printer’s proofs—meant to set the novel for printing—as if they were mere drafts, adding about a third of the book after it was already ostensibly complete. The handwritten changes not only necessitated the assistance of a typist to make sense of Joyce’s scrawling, but required rearranging the printing press one letter at a time. Two years of seemingly endless changes drove half a dozen typists to quit and added additional printing costs that ate into nearly 5 percent of what the entire first run was expected to net.
Joyce’s publisher, Sylvia Beach, bore these last-minute alterations as no other publisher likely would have. “The patience she gave to him was female, was even quasi maternal in relation to his book,” said Janet Flanner, The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, of Beach and Joyce. The publication of Ulysses is just one of the many cases that author Diana Souhami marshals in her bookNo Modernism Without Lesbians, to effectively argue that, without women like Beach, there would be no modernist men like Joyce.
No Modernism Without Lesbians is a collection of four biographies of women who were instrumental to the modernist movement in literature and art: Shakespeare and Co. proprietor and publisher Sylvia Beach, patron of the arts Bryher, author and art collector Gertrude Stein, and socialite Natalie Barney.
Souhami convincingly illustrates how these four women are responsible for the modernist movement, despite it being typically associated with men, such as Joyce and Pablo Picasso. Through Close Up, a magazine about film launched by Bryher, the Western world was exposed to the revolutionary pictures of Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, whose Battleship Potemkin is still considered one of the greatest movies of all time. Besides writing her own books like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Tender Buttons, Stein was one of Pablo Picasso’s earliest collectors and a lifelong champion of his work. Barney’s weekly salons brought together up-and-coming writers—including T. S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, William Carlos Williams, and Rainer Maria Rilke—with the French Academy, helping win recognition for the former by the latter. And Beach, of course, had Ulysses as her cross to bear. In that light, No Modernism Without Lesbianscould be considered revisionist in the best sense of the word: that of setting the record straight.
“I wanted to turn the issue around,” says Souhami of women’s contributions to modernism, “gain the upper hand, move from campaign and argument for acceptance and civil rights, and show what women in same-sex relationships achieved—singly and, even more so, collectively—in that crucial twentieth-century transition to new ways of seeing.”
The women that Souhami profiles are likewise united by their love of other women: Beach and Adrienne Monnier, Bryher and Hilda Doolittle, Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Barney and, as the author writes, “all her lovers, too many to list.” Despite these well-documented relationships, Souhami acknowledges the difficulty presented by semantics when describing these women, who lived at a time when society prevented them from openly naming their lovers as such, relegating them to mere “friends.” The author opts for the term lesbian, but other identities along the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender could also be applicable—such as trans in the case of Bryher, who rejected her birth name and gender from a young age.“The freedom that these four women had found for themselves in Paris extended from their personal lives to their artistic endeavors.”
Bryher, Beach, Stein, and Barney were further united by their love of interwar Paris. All were expatriates—Bryher from the United Kingdom, the latter three from the United States—who found their way to France in the 1920s. All were pushed from their homes by prevailing efforts to suppress “indecency” in private life and the arts, as typified by Prohibition and censorship. On the other hand, Paris was cheap, as France was still recovering from the carnage of World War I, and Parisian society placed few expectations on expatriates. A comment from Picasso about Beach could stand in for Paris’ perspective of them all: “They are not men, they are not women, they are Americans.”
The freedom that these four women had found for themselves in Paris extended from their personal lives to their artistic endeavors. In Paris, Beach not only found and fell in love with Moore, she published Ulysses, which had previously been thwarted by censors in London and New York. There, as in Paris, publication of the novel was supported by lesbians who were challenging society’s control of what they could read as well as whom they could love. Yet it was only in Paris, where self-actualization and artistic advancement were unfettered by patriarchal control, that modernism could fully bloom. Souhami’s lesbians were seeing themselves differently—as independent, rather than as the daughters, wives, or mothers of men—so why shouldn’t they see the world differently too—through stream-of-consciousness in literature or cubism in painting? The personal and political, the romantic and artistic did not need to be divorced in Paris. As Souhami writes in No Modernism Without Lesbians:
They gravitated to Paris and each other, turned their backs on patriarchy and created their own society. Rather than staying where they were born and struggling against censorship and outrageous denials and inequalities enforced by male legislators, they took their own power and authority and defied the stigma that conservative society tried to impose on them. Individually, each made a contribution; collectively, they were a revolutionary force in the breakaway movement of modernism, the shock of the new, the innovations in art, writing, film, and lifestyle and the fracture from nineteenth-century orthodoxies.
If Souhami’s revisionism succeeds in reintroducing the role of women in the history of modernism, it leaves other questions yet begging. The first is the less flattering aspects of some of her subjects—for example, Stein’s relationship with, and early support for, fascists in Spain and France, which Janet Malcolm details in her biography Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, but Souhami mentions only in passing. The second is the question of women of color, who make occasional appearances in No Modernism Without Lesbians—such as Josephine Baker, who was redefining dance in Paris in the ’20s—but whose general absence becomes especially noticeable when Souhami begins tracing Barney’s lovers, and Barney’s lover’s lovers, a long list of white women.
“Availability of research material was one limiting factor,” says Souhami in explaining the absence of women of color in her work. “Another was the reluctance of mainstream publishers to commission books about little-known people. I hope, despite this, I’ve made a contribution.”
No Modernism Without Lesbians is undoubtedly a contribution, correcting the history of modernism to more accurately account for the women who made possible such a lasting transformation in literature and art. Yet despite the strides taken by Bryher, Beach, Stein, and Barney, it’s evident that there’s still a way to go. Souhami says that, after decades of her writing about lesbians, this was the first time that a mainstream publisher was open to using the word on a book cover. With No Modernism Without Lesbians, Souhami has opened the door to history a little further, creating more precious space for the whole truth to enter.
Overall, Linda Mead, president of D&R Greenway, tells the Times, the project presents “a real opportunity to celebrate the history and at the same time make this very relevant to people today who want to come and walk on the trails, learn about the land and possibly even garden on the property.”
In 1806, Napoleon issued an imperial decree making his brother king of Naples. Two years later, during the Peninsular War, the French emperor forced Spain’s king, Ferdinand VII, to abdicate and appointed the elder Bonaparte in the Bourbon monarch’s place. The new king ruled Spain as José I until 1813, when he returned home to France.
After his younger brother’s empire came crashing down, Bonaparte fled to the U.S., briefly settling in Philadelphia before purchasing Point Breeze in 1816, notes Jesse Greenspan for History.com. (He would later go on to purchase an even bigger property in upstate New York.)
At Point Breeze, Bonaparte constructed one of the marvels of 19th-century America: a magnificent estate that featured decorative gardens, 12 miles of carriage trails, a number of brick bridges, underground tunnels for transporting luxury goods from the docks and a man-made lake. According to NJ.com, the self-exiled ruler hoped to recreate the luxury of Château de Mortefontaine, his former home in France.
“Swan boats glided on the half-mile-long lake [Bonaparte] created,” reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Tulip poplars rose skyward from a carefully curated ‘picturesque’ landscape that he designed and whose style he helped popularize.”
At the heart of the estate stood a palatial three-story mansion—the largest building in America save for the White House. There, Bonaparte displayed his extensive collection of fine art and allowed townspeople to take tours of his library, which held more volumes than the Library of Congress, making it the biggest collection in the country at the time.
In 1838, Bonaparte left Point Breeze for the final time. He suffered a serious stroke in 1840 and died four years later, at the age of 76, in Florence, Italy. After his death, the New Jersey estate changed hands several times; most of its Bonaparte-era buildings were torn down.
Peter Tucci, a board member for the Bordentown Historical Society and D&R Greenway, is a community member and history enthusiast who campaigned for the Bonaparte estate to become public land. He tells NJ.com that Bonaparte relied on hundreds of people from the surrounding New England towns to run his estate.
“[T]he best way to think about it is for the people of Bordentown, he was really like a one-person WPA project,” Tucci says. “He literally employed hundreds of workers from Bordentown and the surrounding areas and paid them a very fair wage. And he spent roughly 20 years in Bordentown, most of his adult
Per the Inquirer, D&R Greenway is now working to restore the gardener’s house—the only extant structure dating to Bonaparte’s time in residence. The group also plans to replicate the many vegetable gardens that flourished in the former king’s lifetime.
Monmouth University professor Richard F. Veit, who previously conducted a three-year excavation at Point Breeze that unearthed more than 20,000 artifacts, tells the Inquirer that for much of the mid-19th century, Point Breeze stood as a premier example of “picturesque” landscape architecture, a school of gardening that emphasized natural harmony and expansive landscapes.
“Point Breeze was a big estate on America’s highway between New York and Philadelphia, and everyone saw it and commented on it,” Veit says. The scholar adds, “It’s fantastic that several folks came together and formed this great alliance that allowed them to think outside the box and save one of the region’s great treasures.”
Why does this interest me? Because RomaineGoddard Brooks charged her lover, Natalie Barney with researching a vague reference her mother, Ella made about their being related to the Bonaparte Family.
In the course on my research I was surprised that Romaine who seemed unimpressed by the European Aristos she met and painted, would be the least bit interested in following up such family lore. But she was so I dug deeper. I found out that a relative of Barney’s lived in Philadelphia and went to the trouble of researching Romaine’s paternal side of the family, the famous Goddard furniture dynasty and discovered a letter stating that they were related to Joseph through marriage. Why this mastered to Romaine remained unknown?
Indeed, there was no love lost between Romaine and her father, who was an alcoholic. In fact, she only met him once, wasn’t impressed, and would have had no respect for him since her mother had given him a small pension to get rid of him. Ironically, this made Romaine an aristocrat in her own right, although not a Princess of the Blood like Lily de Gramont, leaving Natalie the only untitled partner in their polyamorous relationship. But Natalie earned her own title as the High priestess of love conferred on her by the author of Nightwood, Djuna Barnes.
The author and gay dandy who stung like a wasp with his tongue left intriguing clues in the search for missing Romaine Brooks Paintings. In his unfinished book Answerer Prayers he described his visit to Romaine’s Paris studio.
Below is The Guardian’s description and a review of the new film of the interviews he had with the Paris Review that I find fascinating. But then as the Twenty-first century biographer of Romaine Brooks, I am always interested in all things related to Brooks and her circle. I am also hoping for the scent of something that will lead me to rediscovering another missing work by this brilliant and under appreciated artist