Literary lesbian heroes: Bryher

Diana Souhami

Patron of the modernist movement, Bryher completely rejected mainstream gender norms. 

Bryher felt trapped in the wrong body. Even as a child she viewed her birth gender as a trick, a mistake. She saw herself as a boy who needed to escape from the physical cage of a girl. She was tormented by pressure to have curls, wear frocks, be called by her birth names, Annie Winifred, or her nickname, Dolly.

Adrienne Monnier said it was impossible to speak about Bryher’s style of dress: "it is distinguished by absolutely nothing; everything about it is neutral to an extreme. When I see her I simply want to brush her beret…"

Photograph of Bryher leaning against a railing at Kenwin in Vevey, Switzerland ca. 1932. Image from Beinecke Library Digital Collections, Bryher Papers.
Photograph of Bryher leaning against a railing at Kenwin in Vevey, Switzerland ca. 1932. Image from Beinecke Library Digital Collections, Bryher Papers

Bryher did not want the patronymic of her father, the matronymic of her mother, or the name of any husband of convenience. Bryher is one of the Isles of Scilly off the Cornish coast, a part of the world she came particularly to love. She chose to be defined by the sea, the cliffs and by a landscape beyond gender. Nothing pleased her more, she said, than getting her hair cut short. Short hair and her chosen name distanced Bryher from the daughter she could not and would not be.

"Nothing pleased her more, she said, than getting her hair cut short"

Barbered hair and a changed name declared resistance. Radclyffe Hall was "Dear John" to her partner, Una Troubridge, and she had the curls painted out from a portrait of her made when she was a child named Marguerite. The society painter Gluck, whose birth name was Hannah Gluckstein, insisted on "Gluck, no prefix, no suffix, no quotes" in the art world, and had her hair cut at Truefitt gentlemen’s hairdresser in Bond Street; Alice B Toklas cropped Gertrude Stein’s hair with the kitchen scissors.

Isles of Scilly

Money shaped Bryher’s life and work—she was born into a vault of it. Access to great wealth meant the power to do good as she saw it. "I have rushed to the penniless young, not with bowls of soup but with typewriters," she wrote. She became a patron of modernism. She was the rock and saviour of her partner, the poet H.D.—Hilda Doolittle. She funded the Contact Publishing Company in Paris, supported James Joyce and his family with a monthly allowance, gave money to Sylvia Beach and subsidised Margaret Anderson’s Little Review in New York.

She started the film company POOL Productions in Switzerland, financed its experimental films, and founded Close Up, the first film magazine in English.

"She chose to be defined by the sea, the cliffs and by a landscape beyond gender"

She built a Bauhaus-style home in Switzerland. She supported the emerging psychoanalytical movement in Vienna and funded Freud and other Jewish intellectuals hounded by the Nazis to help them get out of Germany and Austria.

 Bryher’s allegiance was to new ways of saying and seeing, civil liberties, gender equality. "I was completely a child of my age," she said, by which she meant the age of modernism, of new ways of seeing and saying.

typewriter

Bryher’s life was long, her interests wide. Subversive in the causes she supported and in her revisionist ideas of gender and relationship, she made two lavender marriages with gay men, one to secure her inheritance and pacify her parents, the other to secure adoption rights for H.D.’s child. She accepted the open sexual relationships of those with whom she was involved and was vocal and dedicated in her opposition to fascism. And yet there was something neutral "to the extreme" about Bryher’s demeanour.

She did not drink, smoke or party. She liked unfussy food (toast and Yorkshire pudding), seemed humourless, stayed quiet when others were talking and was overlooked in a group.

"There was something neutral "to the extreme" about Bryher’s demeanour"

No one fell in love with her, though numerous people were hugely grateful for her help and the way she realised their dreams. Among her writings were a number of novels in which the hero was a twelve-year-old boy and it was as if this boy were an identity trapped within herself.

Bryher was Sylvia Beach’s trusted friend for 40 years. They confided, corresponded and looked out for each other even when living in different countries. Bryher discreetly helped Sylvia and Adrienne Monnier keep their bookshops going.

rue de l’Odéon
Rue de l’Odéon. Image via Wiki Commons

In her memoirs, she wrote: "There was only one street in Paris for me, the rue de l’Odéon. It is association I suppose, but I have always considered it one of the most beautiful streets in the world. It meant naturally Sylvia and Adrienne and the happy hours that I spent in their libraries. Has there ever been another bookshop like Shakespeare and Company? It was not just the crowded shelves, the little bust of Shakespeare nor the many informal photographs of her friends, it was Sylvia herself, standing like a passenger from the Mayflower with the wind still blowing through her hair and a thorough command of French slang, waiting to help us and be our guide. She found us printers, translators and rooms… she was the perfect Ambassador and I doubt if a citizen has ever done more to spread knowledge of America abroad."

 

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

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