Tales of Lesbian Love

This is a talk I gave at the University of East Anglia on 23 February 2012 as part of LGBT History Month.

Gather round the old camp fire.

Darling Heart, we are not an ‘affair’ are we – We are husband and wife.

I have never said or written Eternity before I have never as I have said to you over and over again – felt it before..I was always looking for you, always hoping against hope for you – but never in my innermost heart did I think I had found you until I really did so… until you I count my life a dream and do not feel I even became conscious or began to live until I met you and claimed you.

Now it all seems crystal clear, merely with a few roots to stumble over, a few brambles to cut away before reaching freedom and light.

Goodnight my most precious. I must just add two lines I discovered in an old notebook. Don’t know who wrote them or whence they came…

They have most power to hurt us whom we love

We lay our sleeping lives within their arms

I love you I long for you I want you and I need you. All of you for all of me.

That’s from Gluck my first dyke book. She wrote that letter and zillions like it in the 1930s to Nesta Obermer, the grand love of her life. I’m afraid it ended in tears.

In my digging for dykes I’ve unearthed a great many letters like that. Love fuelled by separation. Historically the odds have been against stumbling over the roots and cutting away the brambles and settling down with the bills to pay.

The roots and brambles were all to do with family, society, expectation, the law.

Nesta was in love with Gluck but she had an old money bags husband whom she wasn’t going to leave, she had a house in Honolulu and liked wintering on the ski slopes and having tea with kings.

I thought of calling this talk Di’s dykes. It’s an opportunity for me to look back on my queer contribution to literature. Gluck was published in 1988.

I remember carrying the cardboard boxes of her personal papers up to the top floor flat I was living in and saying to myself make a life out of that. The papers had a musty smell. Gluck’s nephew had kept them in his garage. And when I opened the boxes I couldn’t read the writing and I didnt know who the letters were to or from because they all used nicknames like Dearest Rabbitskinsnootchbunsnoo, or Darling Timothy. But bit by bit I worked it out.

Gluck was a society painter in the 1920s. What led me to write about her was when I saw the painting she did of two profiles fused together, hers and Nesta’s. She called it the YouWe picture. I felt I knew what was going on.

Gluck chose her own name. She broke away from her rich family, had her hair cut at Truefitt gentlemen’s hairdresser’s in Bond Street and had a last for her lace up shoes at John Lobb’s the royal boot makers.

She was 41 when she met Nesta. Nesta was 43. They’d both been around. Gluck used those little blue Lett’s diaries and she put an asterisk when she had sex. It didn’t take me long to work that out. One of her surprising affairs before Nesta was with Annette Mills who created Muffin the Mule. A friend of Gluck’s found the two of them, as she put it, ‘in the woodshavings’ of Gluck’s new studio. I thought it brought new significance to We Want Muffin everybody sings. Another of Gluck’s affairs was with Constance Spry, flower arranger to the Queen and the aristocracy. Gluck painted her flower arrangements and did portraits of her clients. At a dinner party with her she met Nesta Obermer. On 23 June 1936 she and Nesta then went to Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne. Gluck said she felt the music fused them into one person. The YouWe painting followed and the next day the entry in Gluck’s little blue diary was ‘C. dinner and night BH. Talked and said no more asterisk.’ C was Constance. BH was Gluck’s house Bolton House and the asterisk was … the asterisk. ‘Now it is out’ Gluck wrote to Nesta. ‘And to the rest of the Universe I call Beware Beware We are not to be trifled with.’

It was downhill all the way after that.

Love between women in this country for most of the twentieth century has been doomed because of the establishment and the hypocrisy of the ruling class. My book Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter was a study in that hypocrisy. The great British marriage, the royal family, could accommodate just about any infidelity so long as the outward show was maintained. Mrs Keppel was mistress of Edward VII and great grandmother of Camilla Parker Bowles. Hers was the acceptable and profitable face of adultery. But she found it entirely unacceptable when her daughter, Violet Trefusis, fell in love with Vita Sackville West. At a society ball, in spring 1919, in front of 700 guests, Mrs Keppel announced Violet’s engagement to Denys Trefusis. Violet was congratulated by everyone there. She wrote to Vita when she got home at two in the morning at what she called ‘the conclusion of the most cruelly ironical day I have spent in my life’. She said she could have ‘screamed aloud’.

Mitya – that was her nickname for Vita –

I cant face this existence I am losing every atom of self respect I ever possessed. I want you every second and every hour of the day, yet I am being slowly and inexorably tied to somebody else….

You know how I loathe and abominate deceit and hypocrisy. To my mind it is the worst thing on earth and here I am putting it all into practice… I belong to you body and soul. I ache for you all day and all night. You are my whole existence – O Mitya it is so horrible so monstrous so criminal to be with someone one doesn’t care for when your whole being cries out for the person you do love and do belong to. In all my life I have never done anything as wrong as this.

How can I get out of it…?

She didn’t get out of it. Her mother saw that the marriage plans went ahead. Vita agreed she’d elope with Violet on the day of the ceremony. She reneged on that and joined up with her husband. Violet sent her a pencilled note: ‘You have broken my heart goodbye. Then she was driven to St George’s church in Hanover Square. The royals were there, eight bridesmaids, trumpet voluntary, ave maria and the rest. Vita sat with a watch in her hand as the hour of the wedding ticked past. ‘All that time I knew she was expecting a pre-arranged message from me which I never sent,‘ she wrote in her diary.

The ruling class in this country, the guardians of the nation’s morals, until about the day before yesterday has had a blustering terror of sex between women. In The Trials of Radclyffe Hall I wrote about the prosecution and banning of Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness in 1928. The Well of Loneliness is a dull tale of lesbian gloom. ‘And that night they were not divided’ is as sexy as it gets. But its theme was obscene its prosecutors said. It condoned ‘horrible and unnatural practices between women’. It ‘brought the name of God into corrupt passions’. It would ‘incite the weak minded to vice’ and ‘suggest thoughts of a most impure, immoral, unclean and libidinous character to the minds of the young’. The peers of the realm, The Lord Chief Justice, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Home Secretary and the rest consigned the book to the King’s furnace. The ban on it wasn’t lifted until 1949. The case caused a pall of embarrassment to surround same-sex relationships between women. Silence ruled.

Tonight and tomorrow at 11.30 on radio 4 there’s a repeat of a two part programme From the Ban to the Booker, which shows how lesbian fiction has taken off since that ban. Val Macdermid’s presenting it.

Radclyffe Hall called herself John. She thought of herself as a man in a woman’s body. That’s ok but she went on about congenital sexual inversion and said she was a third sex and mixed it all up with catholicism, spiritualism and oddball ideas on endocrinology and came up with a theory of lesbian identity that’s enough to make a girl go straight.

Things got pretty alarming when after nineteen years with her wife, Una – Una the Lady Troubridge she called herself – John fell in love with a Russian nurse Evguenia Souline who came to minister after Una got gastroenteritis from drinking dodgy iced water in Paris. John called Evguenia Chinkie Pig:

‘I agonised to take your virginity’ she wrote to her,

and to bind you to me with the Chains of the flesh because I have and had so vast a need that my wretched body has become my torment, but through this all but unendurable suffering my spirit cries out to you Soulina and tells you that love is never a sin. If this is wrong then there is no God, but only some cruel and hateful fiend who creates such an one as I am for the pleasure that he will gain from my ultimate destruction. But there is a God make no mistake and He knows very well why you and I have been forced to meet… Through me you are now no longer a child. Wonderful yes, but terrible also – terrible because so achingly sweet. All the facts of life I believe I have told you…. Same heart, you are not your own any more. You are mine.

You wouldn’t want to get that letter would you. You’d be off out of it.

Radclyffe Hall bombarded Chinkie Pig with such letters and scared her witless. Una got the night sweats and went as thin as a grass blade and prayed all the time to God and St Anthony and built a shrine in the dining room to Our Lady of Pity. It wasn’t a tale of jolly lesbian love.

Radclyffe Hall wasn’t going to leave Una and Una wasnt going to leave her, and Evguenia was a Russian refugee, and hadn’t any money or anywhere to go, and Radclyffe Hall gave her quantities of cash. They became a ghastly triangle. ‘I am not, and I have not been for years, the least in love with Una’ Radclyffe Hall wrote to Chinkie Pig. ‘I feel a deep gratitude towards her, a deep respect and a very strong sense of duty.’ But she said now she belonged to Chinkie Pig. ‘Only you can make me feel alive. You are my rest, my joy and my ultimate justification. No face seems beautiful to me but yours, no voice seems beautiful to me but yours. I am only half alive when we are apart…’ And so on.

It’s a relief to get across the channel to Paris the city of light. In the first decades of the twentieth century Paris was a different planet from London. In Paris ex-patriate American and Engish lesbians expressed themselves freely in life and art. They were free from the strictures and repressions of family, society and politics.

My favourite tale of lesbian love was the long happy marriage of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. I wrote about it in my second book Gertrude and Alice and I’m glad it’s been republished twenty years on. They first met in Paris on the 8 September 1907. From that day until Gertrude’s death thirty nine years later they were never apart. They never travelled without each other, or entertained separately or worked on independent projects. Gertrude felt low in her mind if she was away from Alice for long. And Alice, writing about their relationship at the end of her own long life, said that from the moment they met ‘it was Gertrude Stein who held my complete attention, as she did for all the many years I knew her until her death and all these empty ones since then.’

She said she heard bells ringing in her head when she first met Gertrude. She said that was how she knew she was in the presence of genius. It only happened to her one other time – when she met Picasso.

Gertrude was large and liked loose baggy clothes. She wore sandals even in winter with fronts like the prow of gondolas and Alice used cut her hair wickedly short. She did it with the kitchen scissors and said she never knew when to stop. Ernest Hemingway said it made Gertrude look like a Roman Emperor. That was all right, he said, if you liked your women to look like Roman Emperors. Alice was under five feet tall and cultivated a gypsy image. She took great care of her hands and nails and she had a moustache which the food editor of House Beautiful said made other faces look nude by comparison.

Neither of them ever wore trousers but their appearance could confuse. Gertrude in summer wear was sometimes mistaken for a bishop. A tourist in Avila asked to kiss the amethyst on her ring finger, and the three year old child of an American friend they stayed with said of them that he liked the man but why did the lady have a moustache.

They called each other Lovey and Pussy. Alice was Pussy.

Their deepest point of agreement was that Gertrude was a genius and that she and her genius must be served. ‘It takes a lot of time to be a genius,’ Gertrude said. ‘you have to sit around so much doing nothing.’ She liked to lie in the sun, write a bit, talk to people, walk the dog and drive the car. Anything else made her nervous. Alice did the rest. She was always fiercely busy. She could knit and read at the same time. She typed Gertrude’s manuscripts, dealt with household affairs, planned the menus, did the cooking, embroidered the chair covers, dusted the pictures. In the country she grew the vegetables and got up at dawn to pick wild strawberries for Gertrude’s breakfast. ‘Alice B Toklas is always forethoughtful’ Gertrude wrote. ‘Which is what is pleasant for me.’

‘Twentieth century literature is Gertrude Stein,’ Gertrude said in her modest way. She wrote stacks of manuscripts that eluded publication because her prose was so innovative no one could understand a word of it. But Edmund Wilson writing of her in Axel’s Castle in 1931 put her in the same company as Proust, Yeats, Joyce and T.S.Eliot. He said that although she wrote nonsense:

One should not talk about ‘nonsense’ until one has decided what sense consists of…. whenever we pick up her writings, however unintelligible we may find them, we are aware of a literary personality of unmistakeable originality and distinction.…

In these unpublished writings Gertrude wrote a great deal about the joys of sex with Alice. She described one of her stories which she called ‘A Book Concluding As A Wife has a Cow. A Love Story’, as her Tristan and Isolde.

Cows, Steinian scholars tell us are orgasms. Here’s a bit of Gertrude’s Tristan and Isolde for Alice:

having it as having, having it as happening, happening to have it as happening, having to have it happening. Happening and have it as happening and having to have it happen as happening and my wife has a cow as now my wife having a cow as now, my wife having a cow as now, my wife having a cow as now and having a cow as now and having a cow and having a cow now, my wife has a cow and now. My wife has a cow.

It goes on for some pages.

Gertrude’s inherited money allowed them to live well. But her true fortune, her collection of modernist paintings was acquired through love. She bought them for very little money, for the most part with her brother Leo, before she met Alice. The ones they liked just happened to be by Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Gauguin, Degas, Braque before they were well-known. She never insured them, and she didn’t frame them because she thought frames constrained them. She just stuck them on the walls and Alice dusted them.

People wanted to see these strange modern paintings and that’s how Gertrude’s Saturday evening salons began. Picasso and Matisse became friends, they brought their friends and the evenings snowballed. Alice tended to sit in the kitchen with the artists’ wives. She threatened to write her memoirs, wives of geniuses I have sat with. But there was nothing demeaning about her servitude. She was the impresario. The power behind the throne. It was she who ensured that the quality of their days was orderly and agreeable.

When they’d heard the bells, and got their home, and decided who sits where – Gertrude in the large armchair by the fire, Alice in the small one convenient for the kitchen – they got themselves a dog – a large white poodle. They called him Basket because Alice said he looked as if he could carry a basket of flowers in his mouth. They also had a Chihuahua which they called Byron because of his sexual interest in his mother and sister. When Basket died after sixteen happy years they got another large white poodle and called him Basket as well, on the principle that the king is dead long live the king. So when they called Basket, Basket the second came bounding up.

On the same principle perhaps, if you call all your lovers Pussy they’ll all come bounding up.

When Gertrude was in her late fifties and well-known, but still virtually unpublished, at Alice’s instigation she wrote a memoir in an accessible style. It took her six-weeks and she called it The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. It was a lighthearted mix of facts, opinions and anecdotes and it was an instant bestseller. It showed how for decades she and Alice were at the creative heart of Paris: through the revolutionary exhibitions of the Fauves and the Cubists, the innovative magazines of the 1920s, the breakthrough writing of expatriate novelists after the 1914-18 war. And because six years after its publication, Europe was again wrecked by a war that ended a civilisation, it came to be seen as a model of the period.

Gertrude and Alice loved the attention and money its success brought, but as a couple, they were famous by virtue of being themselves, driving around Europe in their Ford car which they called Auntie, looking at paintings eating delicious food, talking to everyone, practising the art of enjoyable living in an unpretentious way. In many ways theirs was a paradigm of good relationship.

Natalie Barney was the most splendid American dyke in Paris. ‘Her love affairs would fill quite three volumes even after they’d been expurgated’ Radclyffe Hall wrote of her. Natalie divided her love affairs into liaisons, demi-liaisons and adventures. Alice B. Toklas said she picked up her adventures in the toilets of the Paris department stores. Natalie had the last of her demi-liaisons when she was eighty. ‘Isn’t it a miracle,’ Alice B. Toklas wrote to a friend.

I wrote about Natalie and her liaisons in a book published as Wild Girls*, a title I hated. I’d wanted it to be called A Sapphic Idyll but the publisher said no one would know what Sapphic meant. They loved Wild Girls and chose a cover picture of grubby fingers lacing a corset. I hoped the American publishers might agree to call it A Sapphic Idyll – but they said no one would know what Idyll meant. They loved Wild Girls too.

‘People call it unnatural. All I can say is it’s always come naturally to me.‘ is my favourite of Natalie’s aphorisms. She didn’t submit at all to what she called the ‘rigid protocol’ of Washington society. ‘What do I care if they vilify me or judge me according to their prejudices,‘ she wrote. Her rich alcoholic father was of the same thinking as Radclyffe Hall’s prosecutors. In 1900 Natalie published in Paris and in French a book of sonnets about her lovers. He didn’t speak French and wouldn’t have known about it, except the Washington Post reviewed it under the title ‘Sappho sings in Washington’. He went over to Paris and bought up and destroyed all available copies and the printers plates. He had a heart attack a month later.

I was in my twenties when I first read about her Natalie’s afternoon salons and her Grecian temple of Friendship in her walled garden. She wanted her salon to be the sapphic centre of the western world. ‘At Miss Barney’s one met lesbians’ Sylvia Beach who ran the bookshop Shakespeare & Company wrote. ‘Ladies with high collars and monocles…’ The salons were also a showcase for artistic innovation. Gertrude Stein, Colette and Edith Sitwell read work in progress. Romaine Brooks, Janet Flanner, Djuna Barnes, Dolly Wilde, Nancy Cunard, Peggy Guggenheim…. they all went to Natalie’s ‘dazzling Fridays’ for the cutting edge of art and strawberry tarts.

She was known as the Amazon, because of the way she rode a horse bareback in the Bois de Boulogne each morning, and because of her succession of lovers. At her salons and in her free lifestyle and poems and books of aphorisms she captured the essence of modernism – exuberance for the new.

‘Living is the first of all the arts’, she wrote. She didn’t have theories about lesbian identity ‘My queerness is not a vice, is not deliberate and harms no one‘ she wrote. ‘I am a lesbian. One need not hide it nor boast of it, though being other than normal is a perilous advantage.’

She liked lavish display and extravagant affairs with exotic women none of whom seemed like congenital sexual inverts. Among her lovers were Colette and Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s niece, the poet Renee Vivien, who lived in a darkened flat with incense and dripping candles and was anorexic and an ether addict and liked to wind snakes round her wrists at supper parties.

Natalie was an ardent lover. When she thought she was losing Renee she hired an opera singer to sing arias under her window and then when Renee came out to see what was happening threw flowers and poems at her. A crowd gathered. And neighbours complained about the sapphic rituals that went on in Natalie’s garden at her Friday salons. Cavorting naked, that sort of thing. She broke many hearts. ‘Do you love me?’ Dolly Wilde wrote to her.

I wonder! Not that it matters at all. Perhaps I shan’t even mind when you leave me – only then there could be no love making – impossible thought… Did you know that it was nearly four o’clock when I left you last night? I ache with tiredness and darling I am bruised.

Natalie’s partner for fifty years, though they never lived together, was the portrait painter Romaine Brooks. She painted lots of lesbians. Gluck and Una Troubridge and Natalie of course. The writer Truman Capote saw many of the portraits in Romaine’s Paris studio. He called it ‘the all-time ultimate gallery of famous dykes’. He said they formed an international daisy chain.

I interpolated my account of their affairs and heartbreaks with semi fictional autobiographical bits about my own life. I did this so as not to disassociate from the narratives or from new ways of writing. The device intrigued some people and irritated the bejeezuz out of others.

Sometimes I like to creep into my books. I included or alluded to one of my own tales of lesbian love in my last book Coconut Chaos. As well as writing about lesbians I like writing about remote islands. I’m sure there’s a link. Both involve being cut off in a confined space with scant resources. My last island book was about Pitcairn, a tiny inaccessible Pacific island with no transport links. It was colonised by Fletcher Christian and other mutineers in the 1700s after the Mutiny on the Bounty. Most of them murdered each other. Recently Pitcairn was international news because of accounts of incest and sex abuse by islanders who are descendants of the mutineers. I travelled out there on a container ship which had a cargo of kiwi fruit and an all-Indian crew. I and the woman I was in love with were the only passengers. I based my book on chaos theory – how one chance act has ramifications that ripple through time. I weaved in the Mutiny on the Bounty, 18th-century sea voyages, life on Pitcairn and a fictionalised version of my own crazy journey to and from the island. It was chosen as a Radio 4 book of the week – they left out the sexy bits – but it confounded the booksellers. They put it under travel. In a way it was a love letter, a valediction to the woman who’d been my muse.

She’s fictionalised in it as my irrepressible travelling companion called Lady Myre. Whenever things are getting dark and difficult in the narrative – storms, murder, paranoia, shipwreck – she crops up. She thinks she’s travelling to Picton a town in New Zealand. She’s got fourteen pieces of luggage and is expecting a five star hotel with her own jacuzzi. The Pitcairners are Seventh Day Adventists and she livens up their church services.

Before publication I sent the real Lady Myre a copy of the manuscript. Partly out of fear she’d find it libellous, but mostly because I wanted her to like it. I was trepidatious about her reply because by then things were over between us. She sent me an ebullient email which she called Verdict:

It is a MASTERPIECE – a masterpiece.

She was given to overstatement.

Such an intricate fine-woven tapestry – so full of rich colours and textures. And I the touches of hot pink and gold illuminating the menacing blue, the lush greens, the red bloody blackness… Then just when things are at their bleakest Lady Myre appears and the sun comes out… I’ve often wondered why, when life at sea was so ghastly, some returned again and again and it couldn’t just have been for the money – now I see it clearly – they went to find Lady Myre…

I see now what you mean about it being your gift to me, and yes, unexpectedly I find it is a love letter. Thank you.

So tales of lesbian love go on. In one form or another. Long may they continue.

* Reissued in 2013 by Quercus as Natalie and Romaine.