Natalie and Romaine by Diana Souhami

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Natalie and Romaine by Diana Souhami

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Category: Biography
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Ostensibly a dual biography of the lesbian relationship between poet Natalie Barney and the painter Romaine Brooks, but in effect more or less an account of the Parisian network of unconventional artistic characters of which they were at the centre
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 262 Date: March 2013
Publisher: Quercus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781780878829

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Although this was first published in 2004 under the title 'Wild Girls', the author would have preferred 'A Sapphic Idyll' instead. To underline what a strange world this is, the reissue appears under a different title altogether.

The main focus of the book is the relationship between Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, two very well-off American lesbians who first met in Paris when the former was 39 and the latter 41. It was the beginning of an often mercurial partnership which lasted for fifty years. However, despite the author’s insistence, it is less a double biography than a survey of the Sapphic society life which centred on Paris for much of this period. Barney, a poet, was a flamboyant character who used to say that 'living was the first of all the arts' and often vowed to make 'my life itself into a poem'. Brooks, a painter whose self-portrait adorns the front cover, was the product of a difficult childhood, abused by her mother who far preferred her mentally unbalanced brother, often proclaimed sadly that 'my dead mother stands between me and life'. An aloof soul, she made a brief marriage with the homosexual John Ellingham Brooks but left him within a year.

Both women had what seems like a never-ending list of shortlived lesbian affairs. Openly unconventional, they spurned monogamy and regularly returned to each other. Despite this Brooks tended to prefer her own company. It was as if she sometimes seemed to be deliberately distancing herself from relationships; she never trusted anybody but Brooks, who however recognised the importance of giving her her own space when necessary.

By the time I was halfway through the book, I was finding it difficult to keep tabs on everyone. I can only nod and agree with another reviewer who remarked that it reads more like a lesbian soap opera than a biography, for it seems as if the world in which both women moved was full of lavender marriages (in which husband and wife were both gay) and short-term relationships. Judging by the incidence of alcoholism and drug addiction, there were too many wasted lives. In particular the references to Dolly Wilde, daughter of Oscar’s bibulous brother William, who killed herself after years of fighting both demons and at least one failed suicide attempt, make pathetic reading. Barney had an affair with her which lasted for fourteen years on and off until Wilde’s death, much to the irritation of Brooks, who wrote her an angry letter in which she said that her life was infested by rats, one of which (the noted Victorian writer’s niece) was 'gnawing at the very foundation of our friendship'. In fact, there is more than a whiff of 1960s/1970s-style rock star hedonism about the whole book. Barney and Brooks were strong enough to stay the course, but those who were not paid the price.

For a while, Barney and Brooks had a house together, but with separate front doors and workrooms. They may have been together for half a century but it was in the loosest possible relationship which never prevented either, particularly the more outgoing Barney, from having other liaisons – even into her eighties. You have to applaud her stamina. The only time that the women really lived with each other as a couple was during the Second World War in a house in Florence. Both were great admirers of Mussolini, and deeply regretted his violent death, even if few others did.

It all came to an end in the 1960s. Brooks suffered from depression and heart trouble, and broke off contact with Barney, even refusing to answer her letters. Nevertheless they were evidently pretty robust. The former died in 1970 and the latter fourteen months later, both in their nineties, but it seems to have been a bitter old age for each of them. All things considered, the title 'sapphic idyll' would hardly have rung true.

Diana Souhami is clearly enthusiastic about her subject, but she also seems too keen to write about herself at the same time. In the Personal note at the front, she explains that she has deliberately chosen an unorthodox structure to the book as it seemed appropriate in the case of a book about two such unconventional women. To this end, she has prefaced most of the chapters with brief and generally inconclusive stories about some of her own same-sex liaisons, or in her own words, 'quasi-autobiographical snippets' which are 'to undercut Natalie's Temple of friendship and privilege'. They seem disjointed and make the book appear even more so. Moreover, the text is peppered with footnotes, some of which seem superfluous. Her defence of this policy is that her 'many odd-ball footnotes were meant as a mild spoof of biography’s claims to authority and objectivity'. Make of that what you will.

I certainly found it an interesting read, but it must be said a rather eccentric and flawed one.

If the idea of this book appeals then we can recommend The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev by Simon Morrison.

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