No Modernism Without Lesbians

‘No Modernism without Lesbians’ by Diana Souhami

Head of Zeus · 432 pp · 2020

Winner of the 2021 Polari Prize
A Sunday Times Book of the Year 2020

This is the extraordinary story of how a singular group of women in a pivotal time and place – Paris, between the wars – fostered the birth of the Modernist movement.

Sylvia Beach, Bryher, Natalie Barney, and Gertrude Stein. A trailblazing publisher; a patron of artists; a society hostess; a groundbreaking writer.

They were all women who loved women. They rejected the patriarchy and made lives of their own – forming a community around them in Paris.

Each of these four central women interacted with a myriad of others, some of the most influential, most entertaining, most shocking and most brilliant figures of the age. Diana Souhami weaves together their stories to create a vivid moving tapestry of life among the Modernists in pre-war Paris.

Over the past 35 years I’ve written many biographies of famous lesbians. My hope has been to chip away at prejudice and concealment. I started with the society portrait painter Gluck. I was inspired by her iconic double portrait of her and her lover Nesta Obermer; the You/We picture she called it. Then I wrote about the long happy marriage of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and the irony that it was between two women. And then I wrote about Greta Garbo, Cecil Beaton and Mercedes de Acosta and the strange business of photographing the gaze and Beaton trying to capture Garbo’s beauty and her fear of losing beauty and him wanting to be her, and how elusive and shifting and beyond gender identity can be.

And then I wrote about hypocrisy in a book called Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter, where Alice Keppel, who was the mistress of Edward VII, was lauded by English Society, while her daughter Violet Trefusis was forced into a nightmare marriage and exiled to Paris because she was openly in love with Vita Sackville-West.

And then I wrote about the scandal of censorship in The Trials of Radclyffe Hall, and how her totally anodyne, rather dreary novel The Well of Loneliness was censored, burned and banned, because the subject of lesbian love was deemed obscene. And then I wrote about the relationship between Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks in a book first published as Wild Girls. I interpolated semi-fictional first person revelations so as not to distance myself from the subject

This one will be the last in my oeuvre of Di’s dykes. It’s a sort of coming together of the others. In it, I focus in depth on four individuals but group impact is an important part of what I think results. Just as a relationship is more than, or different from, those who form it, the group has an impact that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It was interesting for me to end up with more in a book than I put into it. I concentrated on individuals, but something else happened. Collectively they became more than their individual lives. Within these four lives were other creative women who loved women, their friends, their exes. A momentum built up. Newcomers sought out kindred spirits. A gravitational thing happened, a groundswell, much like the later gay liberation movement. I hope the book’s a celebration of the achievements of women who should never have been pushed to the margins of society.


Read an excerpt

Throw over your man

‘The world has always had lovers. And yet as near as I can observe, for thousands of years the concentrated aim of society has been to cut down on kissing. With that same amount of energy […] society could have stopped war, established liberty, given everybody a free education, free bathtubs, free music, free pianos and changed the human mind to boot.’

Janet Flanner

In the decades before the Second World War, many creative women who loved women fled the repressions and expectations of their home towns, such as Washington and London, and formed a like-minded community in Paris. They wrote and published what they wanted, lived as they chose and were at the vanguard of modernism, the shift into twentieth-century ways of seeing and saying.I focus on the lives and contribution of Sylvia Beach, Bryher, Natalie Barney and Gertrude Stein – three were American, one was English. All rebelled against outworn art and attitudes. Sylvia Beach started the bookshop Shakespeare and Company and published James Joyce’s Ulysses when no commercial publisher could or would. Bryher, born Winifred Ellerman, daughter of the richest man in England, used her inheritance to fund new writing and film. Natalie Barney aspired to live her life as a work of art and make Paris the sapphic centre of the Western world. Gertrude Stein furthered the careers of modernist painters and writers and broke the mould of English prose. All had women lovers whom they kissed, and they changed the human mind to boot.

Within each of their stories, other women figure large: where would Sylvia Beach be without Adrienne Monnier, Bryher without the imagist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Natalie Barney without all her lovers, too many to list, or Gertrude Stein without Alice B. Toklas (‘little Alice B. is the wife for me’). And then there were the women friends of the women friends, and the women they kissed too…

They gravitated to Paris and each other, turned their backs on patriarchy and created their own society. Rather than staying where they were born and struggling against censorship and outrageous denials and inequalities enforced by male legislators, they took their own power and authority and defied the stigma that conservative society tried to impose on them. Individually, each made a contribution; collectively, they were a revolutionary force in the breakaway movement of modernism, the shock of the new, the innovations in art, writing, film and lifestyle and the fracture from nineteenth-century orthodoxies.

In 1947 the novelist Truman Capote went to Romaine Brooks’s studio in Paris with Natalie Barney. Natalie’s relationship with Romaine lasted fifty-four years, until Romaine’s death in 1970. Romaine painted many of the lesbians in their set; the portraits were large scale and lined the walls of her studio. Capote called the collection ‘the all-time ultimate gallery of famous dykes’. They formed, he said, ‘an international daisy-chain’.

I call them all lesbians, but the words lesbian, dyke and daisy were not much used by them. ‘Friend’ was the usual catch-all, though Natalie Barney nailed her colours: ‘I am a lesbian. One need not hide it nor boast of it, though being other than normal is a perilous advantage.’ She drew up and signed a bespoke marriage contract with one of her partners, Lily de Gramont, duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre. Its terms would not have been countenanced in her home town of Washington or by the French aristocracy. Gertrude Stein freely called Alice her wife, and Bryher, who chose her own gender-neutral name, viewed herself from an early age as a boy trapped in the body of a girl.

I duck the initialism of the present age: the LGBTQIA, the QUILTBAG (queer or questioning, undecided, intersex, lesbian, trans, bisexual, asexual or allied, gay or genderqueer) plus the +. Added recently are P and K: P for pansexual or polygamous and K for kink. And now there is prescriptive use of the pronoun ‘they’ for a person resistant to he or she. I favour H.D.’s revision: ‘When is a woman not a woman? When obviously she is sleet and hail and a stuffed sea-gull.’ But in French, sleet is masculine and seagull feminine, so where to draw a line?

There are but twenty-six letters in the Roman alphabet and life is short. Gertrude Stein said of her large white poodle, Basket, that of his ABCs he knew only the Bs – Basket, Bread and Ball. With canine simplicity, of my LGBs I use only the Ls – Lesbians and Love. This is not to disrespect all efforts of inclusiveness and search for identity and self-expression. I want a place in the rainbow. But I am a tyro in this language class and when writing of past times, today’s language seems incongruous. I cannot talk about cisgender for Virginia Woolf, call Bryher they, or struggle with No Modernism Without QUILTBAG+. And all the initials in the alphabet will not help in what I hope shines through: the uniqueness, the utter singularity of each individual life. I juxtapose four women within the lesbian category. Their juxtaposition shows the inadequacy of any label. I marvel at how different, original and irreplaceable each one is, formed by their childhood, their nature and nurture, imaginative in their contribution, unique in who they happen to be. Lining them up highlights their differences. For, of course, what matters from A to Z is not what you are, but how you are what you are, and the contribution made.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, censorship laws in Britain and America prevented lesbians from publishing anything in fiction or fact about their love lives. The subject matter was deemed obscene. Sex between consenting men was a criminal act. The 1895 trial and ruin of Oscar Wilde hung in the air of English society. Sex between consenting women was not illegal. Silence was the weapon of its repression.

In 1920, Violet Trefusis and Vita Sackville-West caused a furore when they eloped to France and their respective husbands piloted a plane to bring them back. The following year, a Conservative member of parliament, Frederick Macquisten, a minister’s son, proposed that a clause ‘Acts of Gross Indecency Between Female Persons’ be added to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which indicted Oscar Wilde. Lesbianism, he told the House of Commons, threatened the birth rate, debauched young girls and induced neurasthenia and insanity. His clause was agreed and went to the House of Lords to be ratified.

Their lordships speculated on the effect of breaking silence. Lord Desart, who was Director of Public Prosecutions when Oscar Wilde was indicted, said: ‘You are going to tell the whole world there is such an offence, to bring it to the notice of women who have never heard of it, never thought of it, never dreamed of it. I think this is a very great mischief.’

Lord Birkenhead, the Lord Chancellor, agreed:

I am bold enough to say that of every 1,000 women, taken as a whole, 999 have never even heard a whisper of these practices. Among all these, in the homes of this country, the taint of this noxious and horrible suspicion is to be imparted.

Whispered or heard, ‘these practices’, Birkenhead believed, would cause contagion. In the home of his mind, a woman’s place was on his arm and in his bed.

Then in 1928 came the startling trial and censorship of Radclyffe Hall’s anodyne novel The Well of Loneliness. The only sexy bits in it were ‘she kissed her full on the lips’ and ‘that night they were not divided’, but even such mild lesbian expression was deemed obscene and the book was ‘burned in the King’s furnace’. Radclyffe Hall left England for Paris with her partner, Una Troubridge. Sylvia Beach sold pirated copies of The Well from Shakespeare and Company.


‘England was consciously refusing the twentieth century’, Gertrude Stein said. America enforced prohibition of alcohol as well as censorship of literature and art. Lesbians with voices to be heard, who would not collude with silence and lying about their existence, got out if they could in order to speak out. Paris was waiting: the boulevards and bars, good food, low rents. It seemed on a different planet from London. Paris was where they formed their own community, fled the repressions and expectations of their fathers, took same-sex lovers, and painted, wrote and published what they wanted.‘Paris’, Gertrude said, ‘was where the twentieth century was’, ‘the place that suited those of us that were to create the twentieth-century art and literature’. Indigenous Parisians held their traditional views but did not mind these foreigners with alternative lives. Gertrude Stein said they respected art and letters: it was not just what Paris gave, she said, ‘it was all it did not take away’.

Modernism would not have taken the shape it did without the lesbians who gravitated to Paris at that time. There had been nothing like it since Sappho and the Island of Lesbos. Many of them learned Greek to read extant Sappho fragments and wrote their own verse in her honour.

As you were when the autobus called

Freedom of choice in dress and appearance was a crucial assertion. Why should fathers dictate what their daughters could or should wear? ‘As you were when the autobus called’ was a party inspired and orchestrated by Elsa Maxwell, who turned party-giving into an art form and profession.Elsa Maxwell lived for fifty years with ‘Dickie’, the socialite Dorothy Fellowes-Gordon. In interviews, Elsa just said she was ‘not for marriage’, it was ‘not her thing to do’ and that she belonged to the world.

Guests at her as-you-were party were picked up from their homes by bus at an unspecified time. They were to be as they were, dressed, groomed, ungroomed, when the driver sounded the horn. Cocktails were served to those waiting in the bus. For most, their ‘surprise appearance’ was contrived, costumes carefully unfinished: unzipped skirts, a woman with her face half made-up, a man wrapped in a towel with shaving soap on his face. But though guests were provocatively half-dressed, the implicit questions were: What is ‘correct attire’ and true appearance? Who is the real person, unmasked, as opposed to the presented self? Paris allowed candour, and was where pretence could be stripped, expectations confounded, identity fluid, and sexual relationships open. The autobus was a vehicle for transparency, free expression and the breaking of rules.


Modernism sent fissures through a whole bundle of myths: that a narrative must have a beginning, a middle and an end, and romance be between a hero and heroine; that art should be representative and music follow familiar notations. The modernist movement questioned orthodoxies: that God made the world in seven days, that Christ was the Son of God, parented by a virgin and a ghost, that there were tangible domains of heaven and hell, that kings were in their palaces by divine right, that man was king of all species, and that war was an acceptable way of resolving conflict between nations.


Virginia Woolf said a woman must have 500 guineas a year and a room of her own if she were to write fiction, plus the habit of freedom ‘and the courage to write exactly what we think’. It was hard for most women to come by one of those things, let alone all. The large bank accounts of Bryher and Natalie Barney came from wealth inherited from their fathers. Both subsidized and financed friends and fellow artists; Bryher in particular was a lifelong and unstinting patron of what was new in the arts. Gertrude Stein was comfortably off, her income managed by her savvy elder brother Michael, who invested in American railroads. Her true fortune was made by indulging her passion for buying paintings to hang on the walls of her rented home. She bought works by Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne while they were still young and unknown. Her collection was soon beyond price; she could not afford insurance cover. Sylvia Beach had no private income – her father was a vicar – and her constant problem was how to glean enough to keep her projects going. Bryher gave her money and so did Natalie Barney. More than the privilege of having wealth was how those with it used it. None of the moneyed modernist lesbians looked for profit. They used money made by men to further the modernist cause.

Escape from patriarchy

Same-sex relationships have always been there, have always been diverse, complex and individual. It was always far past time for the world to recognize that truth. ‘You can’t censor human nature’, was Sylvia Beach’s view. It was always senseless to close the door on benign relationships of the heart, which will express themselves, however brutal, damaging and disheartening any penalties imposed.The Paris lesbians had to free themselves from male authority, the controlling hand, the forbidding edict. They escaped the disapproval of fathers and the repression of censors and law-makers, defined their own terms and shaped their own lives. They did not reject all men – they were intrinsic to furthering the careers of writers, film-makers and artists whose work and ideas they admired. What shifted was the power base, the chain of command.

A community of women who called the shots was no bad idea 100 years ago, nor is it a bad idea now. Why are there still so few works by women in the art galleries, why are their symphonies and songs not filling the concert halls or their statutes defining the laws of the land?

‘It is true that I only want to show off to women. Women alone stir my imagination’, Virginia Woolf wrote in 1930 to the composer and suffragist Ethel Smyth, who had declared love to her. Women needed their 500 guineas, a room of their own and ‘the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think’. Three years earlier, Woolf had written to Vita Sackville-West, with whom she was, in her way, in love: ‘Look here Vita – throw over your man and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head… They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come.’

‘Throw over your man’ was quite a call. It might have been a way forward before the cataclysm of two world wars. War tore apart the lesbian web woven by the women in these pages. It might be a way forward now, in the dark, tipsy and in love, in the beautiful garden the world might be, before the moonlight disappears and all the things in women’s heads are lost forever.

‘Throw over your man, I say, and come.’

Praise for No Modernism Without Lesbians

‘There had been nothing like it since Sappho and the island of Lesbos,’ Diana Souhami writes in the introduction to her vastly entertaining and often moving group biography, No Modernism Without Lesbians, about four women in Paris in the first half of the 20th century.

This is a book about love, identity, acceptance and the freedom to write, paint, compose and wear corduroy breeches with gaiters. To swear, kiss, publish and be damned. One wants to have Beach’s defiant ‘You can’t censor human nature’ printed on a T-shirt. This is a book too about small presses, good bookshops and banned manuscripts smuggled up trouser legs.

There isn’t a page without an entertaining vignette, but there is much that is heartbreaking too.

Laura Freeman · Times.

Souhami is one of our most rewarding and inventive biographers, and this book is a splendidly hectic and vivid read. She has a novelist’s gift for the deft evocation.

Philip Hensher · Spectator

Souhami has written several fine biographies … Now, in a comprehensive cultural history, she awards lesbians the credit for modernising art, manners and morals in the early twentieth century.


Souhami challenges the Modernist canon that has dominated cultural education at their expense, foregrounding instead great men and their muses … No Modernism Without Lesbians is important for 2020 because it rips apart the prevailing patriarchal model. What Souhami calls for is abandoning the Modernist canon and rebuilding it one lesbian at a time to create a new, inclusive, 21st-century model.

Gay & Lesbian Review

Diana Souhami argues that modernism would not exist without these extraordinary women, and their courage, passion and verve certainly make this lively group biography an inspirational read.

Sunday Times