(Natalie Clifford Barney)


Mary Eichbauer was living in Paris when she learned that much of the work of Natalie Barney (1876-1972) had never been published in English. She received permission to translate some of Barney's writing and to find an English audience for this work.
Eichbauer described Natalie Barney's life and work to me in a recent correspondence.
"In her last book, Souvenirs indiscrets (Indiscreet Memories), Natalie says that she had always felt drawn to women, from her earliest days. In the first chapter, 'Renee Vivien,' she describes an intense crush she had on a beautiful young cousin, how she loved to be close to her and comfort her (the young woman was pining for some young beau).
"Natalie fell in love with a school friend when she was 16, at a time when her family lived in Washington, D.C. and she was being courted for her beauty and inheritance by more than a few young men. She and her friend Eva Palmer spent a summer together in Bar Harbor playing naked in the woods at nymph and shepherd. After that summer, their respectable families made sure they were placed in separate boarding schools.
"Ironically, her father's own egotism finally gave Barney the chance she needed to begin her preferred way of life. Albert Barney was so eager to get back to his beloved London and so bored with the business of parenting that he left Natalie at a boarding house under scant supervision, supposing her to be occupied with shopping and fittings for a gown for her Washington debut.
"Instead, Natalie visited Carmen, an artist's model who had posed for her mother. The beautiful Carmen welcomed Natalie into her bed and educated her in some of the ways of the world. (According to Jean Chalon, Natalie wasn't quite sure that she could make love to a woman without getting pregnant!) She walked home from her first meeting with Carmen repeating to herself, spellbound: 'I have a mistress, I have a mistress.'
"Next, she fell madly in love with Liane de Pougy, a celebrated courtesan. Liane took Natalie for a ride in her carriage through the Bois de Boulogne, and their affair began. Later, Liane wrote Idylle saphique (Sapphic Idyll), a novel about her 'Flossie.' It was the first of many literary tributes dedicated to Barney over the years. Renee Vivien, Djuna Barnes, Radclyffe Hall and Lucie Delarue-Mardrus wrote novels featuring Barney as a character.
"Barney's father never forgave her for causing a scandal back home. In fact, he bought up all the copies of Liane's book he could find, along with the printing plates, and had them destroyed. Too latethe book had already been circulated widely.
"The greatest passion of Barney's youth, however, was Renee Vivien, another expatriate in Paris. The first chapter of Souvenirs indiscrets describes their affair in detail. Natalie's affair with Vivien was tempestuous and involved frequent separations. Although they loved each other dearly, they were essentially incompatible. Natalie refused to pass up any chance for pleasure that came her way; Renee eventually left her for another woman. Renee died young of anorexia and alcoholism."
"Natalie's life was more important to her than her writing. She described the process of writing a book as one of cleaning out her desk drawers. Her writing is seldom sustained; she expressed herself in sharp lightning-bolts of intelligence. In her introduction to Souvenirs, she says, 'If too little of the love I invoke appears in this book, it is because I have better spent it elsewhere. Here there remain only fragments.'"
Because of the importance of her salon, Barney is mentioned at least in passing, in most accounts of American expatriates in Paris.
Esther Rothblum is Professor of Psychology at the University of Vermont and Editor of the Journal of Lesbian Studies. She can be reached at John Dewey Hall, University of Vermont, Burlington.

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