Anna Marie reviews Women Lovers, Or the Third Woman by Natalie Clifford Barney 

Women Lovers or the Third Woman by Natalie Clifford Barney is an intense and poetic modernist novel about three women (N, L and M) deeply devoted and in love with each other, and chronicles the transformation of their relationship. The idea of the “Third Woman” is not only a reference to one of the women in the novel being left out by the others, but also to the idea that being a lesbian was being part of a “third sex” (something also explored at around the same time by Radclyffe/John Hall in The Well Of Loneliness and by various sexologists circling around at the time). The novel is also an exceedingly thinly veiled autobiography about Barney’s relationship with Mimi Franchetti and Liane de Pougy, both key figures in sapphic Parisian (generally immigrant) circles in the 1920s.

The language of the novel (in translation from French) is electric and so alive and sensual, just as the love story and relationships it depicts are. L is a decadent woman whilst M is frenzied and soft – “Her hands are more evolved than she herself is, and they get hurt on everything, just as souls do.” Barney’s description of herself, of the character N, is a potent snapshot of a person who constantly feels like the odd one out: “she communes with humans through joyful pleasure, even though she seems to miss out on it in every other way”. I think something in this novel that made it even more captivating than a queer love and loss story might have been is this positioning of some people as “thirds”, as constantly missing out because they don’t have a singular partner or relationship that consistently puts them first. It reminded me a little of this article that Caleb Luna wrote about being “denied intimacy and care… who reserve it for others” the ways that people undermine platonic relationships by focusing so intensely on romantic coupling. Obviously N in the novel has multiple other pairings, so its not an entirely accurate comparison, but I think it adds interesting current contexts for the novel.

The earthy but whimsical tone of Women Lovers as well as the descriptions charmed and inspired me so much. As someone studying the period, it’s also interesting to see who else weaves their way into and through the narrative, from their “Dearest Friend” (the artist and long term partner to Barney, Romaine Brooks) to “The Newly Miserable Woman” (Djuna Barnes author of Nightwood and The Ladies Almanack), as well as references to Radclyffe/John Hall and her partner Lady Troubridge.

Although this word is never used in the novel, it is clear that N and the women she is involved with are in some way polyamorous: they generally participate in and create non-monogamous relationships with each other, overlapping intimacies, so it’s a record of the way that historical queers connected separately and related to their communities and their partners/lovers/friends. The other really enjoyable part of reading this novel is the many ways in which the current sapphic and queer community I witness and participate in mimics these wild lesbian and bi+ women from almost 100 years ago! Just like when I read The Ladies Almanack, this novel/autobiography made me really feel like nothing has changed – we make the same jokes, we care about the same things, we use similar imagery and vocabularies, we have the same issues to work through, we are all dating each others exes and so on!


Marthese reviews Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin

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“Isabella was joy and excitement and adventure and everything else seemed dull in comparison”
Silhouette of a Sparrow is set in 1920s America and follows the story of Garnet. I had been meaning to read it since it came out; the chapters of the book all feature a different bird which is a quirky concept that ties in well with the story.
Garnet is 15, finishing high school and loves birds. She had to conform to her mother’s expectations, so instead of bird watching, she does bird silhouettes on the spot. She is sent to live with the Harringtons over the summer for many reasons, but primarily because her father suffers from PTSD after the war and her mother needed some time alone with him.
The Harringtons are not very interesting company, so Garnet finds a job at a hat shop–interesting choice for a bird lover. But Garnet is not just a bird lover: she is an activist as well. At the shop, Garnet meets and makes friends with Isabella, a flapper who is close to her age. Isabella wakes up Garnet’s more rebellious side and soon she has to make a choice between freedom and conformity.
This book is more than this plot. To me, it is also about complex parental relationships. Parents who have their own story, who only want the best for their  children but do not always know what that is. It is also about love for ones family, and the choices one has to make to incorporate them in their future. It’s about taking a stand for your future and growing into someone’s true potential.
The ending is open with potential. Things are just starting. It is not a fairy tale ending but it is far from sad or tragic. It is realistic.
It was interesting to read this book–to learn more about birds, but also to reflect on the importance of families while enjoying a cute love story that was bound to happen. I feel that most people would enjoy this book.

Danika reviews Orlando by Virginia Woolf

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Orlando is the book that I’ve been most ashamed of never having read. It’s a queer classic! So when I was picking out which book should be my first read of 2016, it seemed the obvious choice. The funny thing about reading the classics is that I always go in thinking that I have a general idea what this book is about and what’s going to happen, and they always surprise me. The societal interpretation of the classics is never the same as the actual text. Which is all to say that I was pretty surprised when the book started with Orlando as a kid batting at a shriveled head strung up from his ceiling. Apparently, his ancestors had a habit of decapitating “savages” and keeping the heads as trophies. That’s the sort of bizarre and racist content that people usually don’t mention when discussing it.

This was my first Virginia Woolf book, and I spent most of the novel not sure whether I liked her writing style or not. It can be ornate, even long-winded or overwrought, but it’s also so clever and sometimes hilarious. The whole book is also framed as a biography, and the biographer narrating often interjects to talk about the difficulties of writing biographies, including one section where they explain that Orlando is not doing anything interesting right now, so they narrate what’s happening outside the window with the birds, instead. It’s her writing that takes central stage in the reading experience.

Orlando has some magical realism elements, including the sex/gender (conflated) change in the middle of the book, but also that Orlando lives for several centuries. This huge time range is accompanied with some odd pacing: often a moment will be described for several pages, even just to detail how little is happening, while decades pass within a paragraph. Enough happens in the first 50 pages that it could easily have been an entire novel to itself, but other points the action slows to a crawl. The machinations of the plot are fairly irrelevant, though: the focus is much more on Orlando’s internal life.

The unexpected highlight of reading this classic was the humor. I love Virginia Woolf’s winks throughout the novel, often feminist ones. One of my favourite things is when she pokes fun at her own writing, like writing–in the middle of a sentence that runs almost an entire page- “… nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldly length of this sentence”. She also has an expert way of describing the ridiculous ways people behave, like Orlando’s housekeeper, after Orlando comes home a woman overnight, conspiratorially telling the other servants over tea that she always had her suspicions. But the character I had the most fun reading about was Orlando themselves, especially as a young person, because he is incredibly melodramatic. At some point he just lays facedown on the ice, contemplating death. Later, he gets a bad review of his poetry, and after burning all of his work, he bids his servants to go get two more dogs (with haste!) that he can sulk with in his study because he is “done with men”.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Orlando is worth the read as a classic novel and as a feminist one–but is it queer? I’ll wave away the magical sex/gender change, because the conflation of the two doesn’t seem to anything for trans representation, but is there queer content? Orlando is famously a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, but that aside, there are still some nods to Orlando as a queer character. She does get romantically involved with men as a woman, but there are two instances that suggest that she is still attracted to women:

And as all Orlando’s loves had been women, now, through the culpable laggardry of the human frame to adapt itself to convention, though she was herself a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man.

Later, when Orlando mentions girls in her poetry, a “power” stops her, saying that the poetry about flowers is all well and good, “but–girls? Are girls necessary? You have a husband at the Cape, you say? Ah, well, that’ll do. / And so the spirit passed on.” but Orlando is extremely doubtful whether “if the spirit had examined the contents of her mind carefully, it would not have found something highly contraband”. Orlando feels that by marrying a man, she has escaped from being judged too harshly for her unorthodox inner life. The only disappointment I had with the book was the ending, which focuses on her husband in a way that doesn’t seem to reflect the rest of the novel. The romance and marriage between them didn’t really interest me, though it didn’t seem out of character, and having the story end with the spotlight on him seemed insincere.

I’m glad that I finally picked this one up, and I look forward to reading more Virginia Woolf (especially her diaries and letters). I wish this was one I had studied in school, because I’m sure I would get more out of it by digging a little deeper. I may have to have my own little study session around it! If you, too, have been putting off reading Orlando, consider this your signal to give it a try!

Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the color fades. The earth we walk on is a parched cinder. It is marl we tread and fiery cobbles scorch our feet. By the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life–(and so on for six pages if you will, but the style is tedious and may well be dropped.)

Laura reviews All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen

Much as I despise cold weather, there’s something really wonderful about the rituals of early autumn. You pack up your shorts and sundresses. You begin wearing scarves and boots. You convince yourself that flannel is fashionable outside the lesbian bar. You slurp Oktoberfest ales every evening, and pumpkin spiced lattes every morning. You reach for increasingly heavier blankets at night. You stack books high beside your bed, snuggle in, and read, and read, and read. This fall, make sure All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen ends up in your stack.

All We Know is a triple biography exploring ideas of ephemerality and what it meant to be a woman in the anxious modernist moment of the 1920s and ‘30s. It tells the stories of three lesbians:

  • Ester Murphy – A verbose intellectual who played an integral part in the literary scene of New York.
  • Mercedes de Acosta – A muse, collector, seductress, and devoted fan who connected with some of the most celebrated actress and dancers of the twentieth century.
  • Madge Garland – A powerful woman who was a key figure in building the fashion world in London and Paris as we know it today.

Despite their impressive influence and notoriety at the time, Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland are now largely forgotten. A brilliant biographer, Cohen deftly captures them in all their complexity, and writes a compelling analysis of how the era these women came of age in impacted the course of their lives.

Writes Cohen, “It was at this fraught moment that an American woman could first be said to have failed at something other than femininity and motherhood.” An important time for all women, this era holds special significance for lesbians and bisexuals. Particularly with the publishing of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (discussed on the Lesbrary here, here, and here), lesbians were a newly visible group in society. Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland all struggled with questions of exposure and discretion at various points in their lives — and this on top of being part of the first generation of independent women who had left home without marrying, setting out in a still largely misogynistic world to pursue other interests. Simply living through these times was an accomplishment, never mind all the actual successes they had.

So why have these women been forgotten, and why did the author choose to bring them to light now? In part, the answer lies in how society views the fields that these women excelled in. Over and over, Cohen questions the boundary between the inconsequential and the important. Why are fashion and interior decoration characterized as trivial, while painting is elevated as fine art? Why is talking seen as commensurate with failure, while writing and publication is seen as a mark of success? Why, when fans and stars both need and desire each other, is one dismissed while the other is lauded with accolades? From a certain perspective, the accomplishments of Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland can be seen as case studies in “beautiful uselessness.” Lisa Cohen asks readers to consider: why?

Early in the book, Cohen describes Murphy’s belief that history links the elusive past to the equally elusive present, and that some biographies can be written and read only at certain times, “not because of censorship or some progress toward openness, but because of what is was possible to understand when.” This fall — against the gorgeous backdrop of the changing leaves and continued (completely awful and depressing) political debate over women’s bodies and behavior — is the perfect setting to take in the lives of these women, and to try and understand.

All We Know is available in hardcover and for the Kindle. An excerpt is available on the publisher’s website. Lisa Cohen is giving a reading on the 16th at KGB bar in New York.

Danika reviews The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

Whew. I finally finished reading The Well of Loneliness. This isn’t the first time I read it, but when Cass of Bonjour, Cass! suggested we read it for pride (finished a little late), I was all for tackling this classic lesbian tome. Once again, I must reiterate: don’t let this be the first lesbian book you read! It’s way too depressing for someone first coming out. Read a nice HEA book first.

This was also the first book I’ve read that I took extensive notes through, so you’ll be hearing a lot about it. Cass and I are also going to discuss it at some point and post the conversation on both our blogs.

The Well of Loneliness (WoL from now on) takes on the majority of Stephen Gordon’s life. One of the ongoing questions I had while re-reading WoL was weather this was a story about a lesbian, as it has been traditionally interpreted, or a transgender story. This was published in 1928, so there wasn’t really the language to describe it that way at the time. I’m not entirely sure how it should be classified (or whether it’s appropriate to apply 2010 terms to a 1928 story at all), so I’d love to hear your interpretations.

Okay, time to go through my notes. My very first note is how much I dislike the first sentence: “Not very far from Upton-on-Severn–between it, in fact, and the Malvern Hills–stands the country seat of the Gordons of Bramberly; well-timbered, well-cottaged, well-fenced and well-watered, having, in this latter respect, a stream that forks in exactly the right position to feed two large lakes in the grounds.”

I hate scenery descriptions in books, so that’s just a personal preference, but man is that a sprawling, overwrought sentence. It’s no wonder it’s so hard to pick up this book; that sentence would turn anyone away. Luckily, the whole book isn’t written like that.

Actually, the clunkiness of that first sentence aside, I think Hall’s writing is quite good. She invokes imagery really well, like in this part: “[…] and his weariness had flown to her bosom as a spent bird will fly to its nest–as indeed such a bird had once flown to her, she told him, taking refuge from the perils of a storm” (pg 11). Hall goes on to describe Stephen’s parents by saying “as they ripened, so their love ripened with them” (pg 12). I think that beautiful. I also liked the description of Stephen’s birth:

“But: ‘Man proposes–God disposes,’ and so it happened that on Christmas Even, Anna Gordon was delivered of a daughter; a narrow-hipped, wide-shouldered little tadpole of a baby, that yelled and yelled for three hours without ceasing, as though outraged to find itself ejected into life.” (pg 13)

Part of the evidence for WoL being a trans novel is that both Stephen’s parents desperately wanted a son (not unusual for the time) and while Anna was pregnant with Stephen, she was convinced Stephen was a boy. They started calling the unborn son Stephen and kept the name even when Stephen turned out to be female. Stephen is also constantly described as looking exactly like her (using the pronouns used in the book) father.

This is not a happy novel. We’re only a couple pages in when we realize that Stephen’s mom resents her (as an infant onwards) for some reason, possibly because Stephen gets too much attention from her father. WoL is never a chipper book, not even in title, so it shouldn’t be too surprising, but still.

This is the part of WoL that’s depressing: it’s still relevant. 82 years later, Hall still addresses issues we’re facing today. In fact, WoL takes a firm “born that way” stance; Stephen is only seven when she starts crushing on one of the female servants.

On the trans side of things, Stephen dresses up as a boy constantly, taking on the persona of Nelson. She also says “I must be a boy, ’cause I feel exactly like one” (pg 20). A little later on that same page, Stephen is described as loathing dresses and any feminine clothing, and “she was conscious of feeling all wrong, because she so long to be someone quite real, instead of just Stephen pretending to be Nelson.” A couple pages later, she asks her father “Do you think I could be a man, supposing I tried very hard–or prayed, Father?” (pg 26) She also complains later that “being a girl spoil[s] everything” (pg 37).

Of course, on the other hand, who wouldn’t want to be a man at this point? Being a woman in the time period Stephen was living through was entirely restrictive, especially if you’re the independent sort. It wouldn’t be a stretch for Stephen to just be  a butch lesbian who envies men their freedom. I love this little passage from Stephen as a kid, because I think it so aptly describes that knight-in-shining-armor lesbian (in fact, my girlfriend is one):

“I’m going to learn fencing so as I can kill your brother-in-law who’s a beast to your sister, I’m going to fight duels for wives in distress, like men do in Paris, and I’m going to learn how to lift pianos on my stomach by expanding something–the diapan muscles–and I’m going to cut my hair off!” (pg 58)

I don’t know how you can’t be completely charmed by Stephen at this age. Actually, at this point her life isn’t so bad, because she’s got all her hobbies and her supportive father, and at this point she doesn’t really notice her mother’s disdain for her. Later, though, Stephen does some very stupid thing. I feel like she doesn’t have enough respect for women. She doesn’t let her lover make her own decisions and handles things in a very paternalistic, “I know what’s best for you” way. She ends up sabotaging herself and her relationships through pride a lot.

WoL has many small themes running through it. Her lesbianism/transgender issues, sure, but also her deep love for Morton (where she grew up), her worship of her parents’ relationship, writing, the tragedy of aging, and religion. There are small peculiarities that run through WoL, like the animals (and the occasional tree and sometimes houses) having real, articulate thoughts that they are just unable to communicate to humans. Also, looking bad, the amount of times the word “queer” comes up is entertaining.

The Well of Loneliness is not that long a book; it’s only about 450 pages, but it feels long. It feels like an autobiography of Stephen’s entire life, partly because you can’t help but think Stephen is based heavily on Radclyffe (I mean, Stephen is even a writer). It all seems so deeply personal: all of the emotions are intense and immediate.

One small thing: something I hate about reading books written way back is the surprise racism. Everything’s going along fine, and… surprise racism. WoL has it. Including “work like veritable n*ggers” (pg 288) and “His eyes had the patient, questioning expression common to the eye of most animals and to those of all slowly evolving races” (pg 362). Luckily, it’s only one scene, but that is ridiculously cringe-worthy.

To finish up, I wanted to reiterate how many of the issues we’re still discussing today are covered in this book. It’s been eight decades and we’re still trying to tackle the same old problems. DADT? Stephen wants to help in the war effort and is afraid of being turned away. Her and other “inverts” join and drive ambulances, an extremely difficult and dangerous job. She discusses how this is one of the few arenas that “inverts” can feel like participants in their own country, can crawl out of the darkness and live with the rest of the world. And the US is still not letting gay people serve openly. One of the central concerns in WoL is Stephen’s desperate want to provide for her lover a marriage and children, the respect that is inherent in that relationship, and the powerlessness of not being able to give that protection. And we’re still having that discussion, 82 years later.

Have you read Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall? What did you think of it? Do you think WoL is more of a lesbian or trans novel, or is there a problem inherent in the question?