Literary lesbian heroes: Sylvia Beach

Diana Souhami

Sylvia Beach, the lesbian woman who founded the world's most famous bookshop made a remarkable contribution to literature. 

"My loves were Adrienne Monnier, James Joyce and Shakespeare and Company," Sylvia Beach wrote in her memoirs of the woman who was her lifelong partner, of the author whose novel Ulysses she single-handedly published when the custodians of morality (all men) censored it as obscene in England and America, and of the bookshop she founded in 1919 in Paris, which was so much more than a bookshop and which honours her to this day.

Sylvia Beach
Image via Wiki Commons

Her appearance was sprightly but unremarkable. She was five foot two, thin, with a brisk walk, a determined chin, bobbed hair, and brown eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses. She liked comfortable clothes, mannish jackets, neckties, loose skirts and sensible shoes, and energetic outdoor pursuits like mountain hiking and horse riding. She smoked non-stop. Her conversation was humorous and open, often acerbic, but not aggressive. She spoke idiomatic French with an American accent and was fluent enough in several other languages. When she spent time in a country, she always learned something of its language.

"Books opened doors to freedom, shaped her thinking and feelings and gave her courage to rebel"

Her determination and courage were exceptional. Born in 1887 in Princeton, New Jersey, the daughter and granddaughter of Presbyterian ministers, she gave up on church but found sanctity in books, bookshops and libraries. Books, she said, were the friends of her childhood. Books opened doors to freedom, shaped her thinking and feelings and gave her courage to rebel.

The second of three daughters, as an early assertion she dropped her birth name, Nancy, and renamed herself Sylvia. Many lesbians who contributed to the modernist revolution chose their own names: Gluck, Radclyffe Hall, Bryher, Genêt, H.D., Colette, Renée Vivien… it was an aspect of creating their own image, of breaking from patriarchy and from being the property of men.

Sylvia Beach's bookshop front
Beach's bookshop. Image via Wiki Commons

Life as Sylvia Beach lived it might have eluded Nancy but much of her personality stayed true to her Presbyterian roots: "Sylvia had inherited morality", Janet Flanner said of her, "and you could feel it in her and actually enjoy it too in her bookshop, which she dominated with her cheerfulness, her trust in other human beings and her own trustworthiness for good things, like generosity, sympathy, integrity, humour, kind acts, and an invariably polite démodé vocabulary."

"She was always a lesbian, a feminist and a suffragist, even though she chose not to talk about her sexuality"

Sylvia Beach’s principles were Christian—no indulgence, concern more for others than herself, work as contribution rather than for personal profit—yet she became a champion of outspokenness and unorthodoxy in others. She actively resisted political oppression, and was at the cutting edge of what was new in writing.

She had no inherited wealth. Usually, she was broke and had to appeal to relatives and wealthy friends for money. She was no businesswoman—too generous and idealistic ever to earn much.

James Joyce portrait
James Joyce. Image via Wiki Commons

She did not call her deep and lasting love for Adrienne Monnier lesbian, although that is what it was. Reticent about sexual reference to herself, she referred to Adrienne as her "friend" and to the love between other lesbian couples, like Bryher and Hilda Doolittle or Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, as "companionship".

Only about Natalie Barney was she outspoken, perhaps because Natalie was unabashed in using direct language for her own desires. Of Natalie’s famed Friday afternoon salons, Sylvia wrote: "At Miss Barney’s one met lesbians; Paris ones and those only passing through town, ladies with high collars and monocles, though Miss Barney herself was so feminine." Her words appeared to distance herself from such company, though Natalie’s salon attendees were part of her social circle too.

She was always a lesbian, a feminist and a suffragist, even though she chose not to talk about her sexuality. When racism and sexism reached a zenith of viciousness with Hitler and his Third Reich, she remained in Paris as the German army marched in. She was interned in a concentration camp for having employed and protected a Jewish assistant, for being American, and for stocking James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in her bookshop, but not for being lesbian.

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

 

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