Author Diana Souhami talks to Jane Czyzselska about how women who love women became a revolutionary force


When she was growing up, Diana Souhami says there was no vocabulary for what she felt she was. Born in 1940 – “I’ll be 80 this year” she says proudly – the references to homosexuality made by family members were negative and she remembers them vividly. “They weren’t vicious,” she remarks, “they were more like asides”. 

She remembers her mother saying she thought her daughter preferred the company of women to men to which the young Diana retorted, “Well, what if I do?” The reply lodged in her like a bullet: “Well I can’t say we like it very much.” Once, her father said of Gertrude Stein, “Wasn’t she a dirty lesbian?” In the 1970s, during the gay sex scandal involving Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe, her youngest brother said, “I’ve nothing against homosexuals, I just don’t want them running the country”. Souhami’s mother concurred. “I couldn’t defend myself,” she recalls. “I would make some hot reply at the time but they were wonderful lines and I built them into radio plays and other bits of writing. For me, it was a liberation and salve and a way of getting my pride back; my assertion, my dignity, finding my own identity.”

Souhami has been giving voice to long-gone lesbians and gender non-conforming individuals for the last 35 years, documenting the lives and loves of people such as author, poet, playwright and art collector Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, who stayed together from the day they first met in 1907 to Stein’s death in 1946. In the home they shared in Paris, they wrote notes to each other inscribed DD and YD – Darling Darling and Your Darling. In Souhami’s first book about the couple, Gertrude And Alice, written in 1991, the focus was on “the happy marriage between two eccentric women when so many heterosexual marriages failed. It was a model marriage if you like”, Souhami smiles. 

In her new work, No Modernism Without Lesbians, Souhami’s focus places Stein and queer others as leading modernists. Gertrude Stein collected and celebrated art by the then little-known artists Matisse, Picasso and Cezanne and she considered Cezanne’s portrait of his wife Hortense revolutionary. The painting influenced Stein’s writing in her first book, Three Lives. “She said Cezanne built up his portrait with planes of colour and she built up her characters with repetitive sentences”. In contrast to Stein and her circle, others were appalled by the painters who broke the rules of realism and representation and who collectively were known as the Fauves (French for “the wild beasts”). Gradually, Stein grew more interested in the modernist writers who broke away from 19th century ideas of narrative, form and content as she herself did. She wrote of her wife’s “cows” (orgasms) and the title of her book Tender Buttons is said to refer either to clitorises or marinated mushrooms. Always distinctive looking and with cropped hair styles, neither of them apparently ever wore trousers. “Sometimes Gertrude identified as a man, sometimes as a girl, sometimes as a stick of rhubarb. Her consistent identification was as a genius and the creator of 20th century literature,” Souhami explains. 

Back in 2004, when she wrote about the lives and loves of Paris-based Americans poet and socialite Natalie Barney and painter Romaine Brooks, Souhami wanted the title to be Sapphic Idyll with an ironic twist but mainstream publishers insisted on Wild Girls instead. In No Modernism Without Lesbians, Souhami explains she “wanted to write about four women who loved women; their characters, relationships and huge contribution to modernism – the shift from 19th century orthodoxies to 20th century freedoms – and how collectively they became a revolutionary force”. Writing the book over the last two years sequestered away in the London Library, she notes how much has changed since then, not only in the field of research which is now possible mostly online, rather than trekking across the globe to find original papers in dusty libraries, but also culturally in respect of lesbians. “Ironically and wonderfully, the publisher really wants the word lesbian on the jacket. Now they can see dollar signs and also these words need bleaching of negative impact. There are still people who blush red when I say I’m writing about lesbians in Paris. Words can [cause] discomfort but if you use them often enough and hold them up to the light you make it a triumphant word.”

In previous works, Souhami says she’s been circumspect about using the word lesbian in order to concentrate on literary merit. “But now I wanted to turn the thing on its head and show that the fault lay with the patriarchy, that the heroes were the lesbians and they weren’t pleading for acceptance; they were better than their detractors.” 

Indeed, none of the s/heroes featured in Souhami’s work were prepared to exist in the spaces that had been created for them by patriarchy; rather they created their own society, their own rules. Natalie Barney, who famously said of her being lesbian: “People say it’s unnatural, all I can say is it’s always come naturally to me”, was a liberating force to others in her circle of friends. She paid tribute to Sappho in her poems and at the garden parties that annoyed her neighbours, where friends would dress up in white sheets. “Sappho was a huge inspiration to them which relates to now as well, the words we use and our own feelings about a community of women, so it was in their minds that this was the Greek ideal which then became a modernist thing, which then became an opposition to patriarchy but with a classical reference,” Souhami explains.

Bryher – born Winnifred Ellerman in Kentish Margate in 1894 – fell in love with imagist poet Hilda Doolittle, or H.D as she was known, and their appreciation of the modernist ideas that challenged old orthodoxies of gender, sexuality, class and race drove their generous philanthropy. Assigned female at birth, and born to the richest man in England, Sir John Ellerman, Winnifred chose the name Bryher so as “to be defined by the sea, the cliffs and the landscape beyond gender.” Bryher is one of the Cornish Scilly Isles, an area they loved. 

Bryher made two lavender marriages to gay men to secure their father’s inheritance and also to become the legal guardian of H.D’s daughter, Perdita. They gave money to film makers, artists, poets, writers including Paul Robeson, Djuna Barnes, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and many others. Souhami describes how Bryher “felt trapped in the wrong body” and gives details about their “sense of gender incongruence” but stops short of considering the philanthropist as trans or non-binary. Through the contemporary lens of transgender theory, we can read Bryher and also Gertrude Stein as trans masc. Souhami chooses to use she and her for Bryher, however, explaining “with H.D she was Fido and H.D would sometimes refer to Bryher as he. She did feel herself to be a man but she built this Bauhaus villa in Switzerland with the homosexual man she married, so she could adopt H.D’s Perdita and she called it KenWin for Kenneth and Winnifred.” She dedicates the book “to LGBTQIAPD, Quiltbag + or whatever gets you to the light.”

Souhami’s fourth shero is the Paris-based American bookseller and publisher Sylvia Beach, who unlike Bryher had no inherited wealth. She was usually broke and had to ask family and friends for money. “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 the zenith of viciousness with Hitler and his Third Reich, she remained in Paris as the German army marched in.” She was the only publisher willing to publish banned books such as James Joyce’s Ulysses and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. “She was interned by Nazis for being American, for employing and protecting her Jewish assistant and for stocking James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake” in her Left Bank bookshop, Shakespeare and Company. 

Souhami was born when many of the people in her book came to the end of their lives, so in a way, there’s a continuum. “Yes, this wonderful and extraordinary community ended – the second world war came down like a blind and ended all that aspirational creativity of the first decades of the 20th century.”

It’s unsurprising that individuals who, by virtue of their marginalised sexualities, race, gender roles and expression, were instrumental in driving modernism. In the decades since the end of the second world war, social structures and hierarchies have been challenged through the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, feminism in the 70s, gay and lesbian rights in the 80s and trans, bi, intersex and non-binary rights in the 90s to the present and Black Lives Matter today. Those who are marginalised are often at the forefront of social change whether that’s through activism, or art, or both.

Does Souhami sees Afrofuturism and queer futurity as the contemporary challenges to 20thand 21st century orthodoxies? “Well, James Baldwin said white people won’t know themselves unless they know Black people and there is something that’s very stuck about white culture, don’t you think? It keeps lurching backwards, so you have Trump saying where’s ‘Gone with the wind?’ If you don’t have that on your shoulders, you can feel taller.”

No Modernism Without Lesbians is out now

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!

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