Renée Vivien (1877 – 1909)
I have to admit, I first heard about Renée Vivien from that viral Tumblr post. It's taken a couple years for me to finally sit down and read about her properly, but I'm glad I finally did!
She was relatively well known in her time and hung out in the major gay and lesbian circles of Paris, with people like Dolly Wilde (Oscar's niece), Radclyffe Hall, Colette, etc. She quickly fell into obscurity, but her memory was revived briefly during the second wave feminist movement in the 70's and 80's where many of her works were translated into English for the first time. It seems like people were more interested in her personal life and ideas than her works, though, as remarked in Karla Jay's biography of both her and Natalie Clifford Barney, The Amazon and the Page (1988) [which can be read online here].
A brief summary: having moved to France when she was very young, Renée (not her real name, btw) fell deeply in love with her neighbor, Violet Shilleto (who died pretty early and Renée never really got over), who then introduced her to Natalie Clifford Barney in 1899. Renée and Natalie had an explosive, passionate relationship that, while only lasting a few years, heavily influenced them both for the rest of their lives. Apparently, Natalie was drawn to Renée's depressive personality and obsession with death and wanted to help her open up and see the bright side of life; meanwhile, Renée "perceived Barney as her radiant muse, her Beatrice [from Dante's Divine Comedy] who would deliciously draw her into hell as well as paradise" (Jay 11). It suffices to say, they were both very theatrical: lots of grand displays of public affection involving elaborate costumes and full orchestras (Jay 14). There was also a lot of drama – putting aside Natalie's serial infidelity that ultimately tore them apart, they also started a cult together, centered around the surviving writings of Sappho and worshiping Aphrodite (Jay 67). They also wanted to start a women's poetry school in Mytilene (home of Sappho), but Renée died in 1909, before they could actually get it started up. In 1927, though, Natalie started L'Academie des Femmes (The Women's Academy), which held readings and supported female authors.
In regards to her actual writing, Renée Vivien wrote a lot about relationships between women and reframing historical symbols and myths to go along with this. For example, while, at the time, mainstream society's image of Sappho was predominately heterosexual and particularly focused on her allegedly jumping off a cliff for over a man, Phaon, Renée Vivien wrote about how she was actually devastated over one of her friends, Atthis, betraying her. Other common themes in her life and works included the romanticization of suffering, courtly love (like knights, pages, and the like who are passionately in love with an unattainable woman, showing "devotion, humiliation, and unquestioning subservience" (Jay 89)), and women refusing men's affection even at the risk of death.
It seems like the second wave feminists, while appreciating her proto-feminist ideals and her advocating for homosexuality as a natural phenomenon, criticized how dark her writing could get, saying she was too heavily influenced by the Decadent movement and authors like Charles Baudelaire to be a "proper" feminist. I don't know – I think she's really interesting…
I've noticed that there aren't really a lot of her works easily available in English online (and, honestly, I wanted an excuse to practice my French), so here are some assorted translations I've done mixed in with some of the few I could already find. (I might add more translations at some point, also...) Enjoy!
- "The Moat" (1904): a dark medieval romance sort of thing. [original / my translation]
- "A Little Erotic Poem" (1908): "And I regret and I search for Psappha…" [original / my translation]
- "Lessons" (1908): "You wish to learn the secrets of sorceresses?" [original / my translation]
- "This House of The Past" (1908): "You who have now forgotten me, you who once were mine..." [original / my translation]
Prose (which is still quite poetic)
- A Woman Appeared to Me (1905): a loosely autobiographical novel, talking about her complicated relationship with Natalie Barney (and Violet Shilleto). [You can read an English translation on archive.org. I also wrote a review of it.]
- "Prince Charming" (1904): They had a romance found only in fairytales – still, she couldn't help but wonder: what makes this boy different from all the others? [original / my translation]
- "Brown as a Hazelnut" (1904): A pathetically lovestruck man, Jerry, goes on a hunting trip with Nell, who only sees him as a friend or even a brother, to his great dismay. (Also, he nearly gets them killed multiple times.) [original / my translation]
- "White as Foam" (1904): A look into Andromeda's thoughts as she's tied to the rock, waiting for the Sea Monster to come for her... [original / my translation]