Literary lesbian heroes: Natalie Barney

Diana Souhami

Natalie Barney was an unapologetically lesbian woman in a time when such a thing was highly taboo. Her forthright writing about her conquests and desires has become legendary. 

"Love has always been the main business of my life," Natalie Barney said when old. This main business involved lots of sex. Natalie went where desire led her. She shared her bed, the train couchette, her polar bear rug, the riverbank or wooded glade with many women, and not always one at a time. Modernism in art upended nineteenth-century rules of narrative and form. Modernism in Natalie’s life upended codes of conduct for sexual exchange. For Natalie, modernism meant lovers galore.

Natalie Barney portrait in a fine dress
Natalie Barney. Image via Wiki Commons

Desire and Conquest were her twin themes. She was remarkable for her exuberant commitment to lesbian life. "Living is the first of all the arts" was one of her epigrams. "My queerness is not a vice, is not deliberate, and harms no one" was another. Throughout her long life, she managed concurrent affairs. She met her last amour on a bench by the sea in Nice when she was 80.

""The finest life is spent creating oneself, not procreating""

Natalie liked drama and extravagant display. Jealousy and the florid feelings provoked by infidelity enhanced her desire. "One is unfaithful to those one loves so that their charm will not become mere habit." Many women fell in love with her, even more had sex with her. Of herself she said: "I have loved many women, at least I suppose I have." Her sexual enthusiasm was unwavering.

She was rich—very—and felt entitled. Disinhibited, she did not stall at taking off all her clothes in or out of doors. There are photographs of her from the 1890s, naked in Acadia National Park in Maine. No pleasure was more intense for her than orgasm. In an autobiographical piece, she wrote of how, as a child at bath time, "the water that I made shoot between my legs from the beak of a swan gave me the most intense sensation". Thereafter, she pursued this sensation with scores of women.

Natalie Clifford Barney, painted in 1896 by her mother Alice Pike Barney
Natalie Clifford Barney, painted in 1896 by her mother Alice Pike Barney. Image via Wiki Commons

Her mother, whom she adored, was a diva, startling and theatrical. Her father was violent and alcoholic. Defying him was an essential component of Natalie’s freedom. "I neither like nor dislike men," she wrote. "I resent them for having done so much evil to women. They are our political adversaries." 

She said she became a feminist when travelling in Europe in her teens with her mother and seeing women treated as badly as mules and slaves. She scorned the view that a woman’s lot was to be wife to a husband for life and to give birth to his children. "The finest life is spent creating oneself, not procreating" was Natalie’s view. "What makes marriage a double defeat is that it works on the lowest common denominator; neither of the ill-assorted pair gets what they want." 

Natalie was not going to battle with the male establishment to change man-made laws, or march for women’s right to vote or be deans of colleges, or lawyers, doctors, politicians. Nor, like Sylvia Beach, did she set herself a mission to accomplish, a goal to achieve. She took her own freedom as a birthright. Her defining characteristics were independence of thought and doing as she pleased.

A portrait of Barney in her youth
A portrait of Barney in her youth. Image via Wiki Commons

Her inspired contribution was to be transparent about same-sex desire in a repressed and repressive age. Too impatient, privileged and self-occupied to give much time to a task or a cause, she led by candid example. Many women followed and were liberated by her courage. She bleached of stigma the language of same-sex love, was proud of her love affairs and cocked a snook at her detractors. "Why should I bother to explain myself to you who do not understand—or to you who do?"

She had a sort of moral compass, though of her own calibration. She valued and sustained friendship, dispensed with euphemism and guilt and tried to live the truth of what she felt. She bore no grudges, was patient with difficult partners and emotional frailty, and her lovers felt understood by her.

"Too impatient, privileged and self-occupied to give much time to a task or a cause, she led by candid example"

"You are capable—and it’s your only fidelity—of loving a person for that which she is. For that I esteem you,"  the poet Lucie Delarue-Mardrus wrote to her. "I often reflect that nothing has come to me from you, great or small, that has not been good" was Colette’s view. 

On the downside, her multiple and overlapping involvements hurt many vulnerable women. Dolly Wilde, Rénee Vivien, Romaine Brooks, Eva Palmer were among those who suffered being adored by Natalie one night but left alone because she was with someone else the next. And after a time, with the litany of so many women, and Natalie’s reluctance to draw a line as her list of lovers accrued, more really did come to seem like less. 

 

This extract is from No Modernism Without Lesbians by Diana Souhami. Available now, £9.99. Published by Head of Zeus. 

 

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