Discovering a lost lesbian novel from 1926
Chelsea Ray speaks about bringing an unpublished 1926 French novel by Natalie Clifford Barney to light. Ray’s English translation, Women Lovers, or the Third Woman, was recently published by the University of Wisconsin Press.
How did you first learn about Natalie Clifford Barney? I knew I wanted to write my dissertation on a woman writing in French, and I was steeped in French feminist theory, drawn to writers such as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. I also adored the novels of Colette, but I thought it would be challenging to say something new about such a well-studied author! That’s when I stumbled upon Michèle Causse’s biography of Berthe Cleyrergue, who worked for Natalie Clifford Barney for many years. It opened up a whole new world to me: Paris in the early twentieth century and Barney’s salon, where her guest list reads like a veritable inventory of literary Paris. Gertrude Stein, Colette, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes, Paul Valéry, and Radclyffe Hall were just a few of the famous writers who frequented Barney’s salon. As a feminist scholar, I was delighted to find that she privileged women’s writing in many ways, founding the “Academy of Women” in 1927 as a response to the conservative, all-male Académie française.
Natalie Barney’s literary salon, her wit, her appetite for love and life: all of this captivated me. She was nearly mythic in literary Paris, an image she cultivated. Unfortunately, her larger-than-life personality overshadowed her writing. When I started reading her literary works, I could see that she was a very strong writer. But she hasn’t been studied much. Her works don’t quite fit into American literature, since she was an American writing in French. And, she wasn’t really a “French” writer, either, though she engaged with other French literature. Her second book of aphorisms, Pensées d’une amazone (1920), was written as a response to Blaise Pascal’s Pensées. It contains many compelling passages on love, spirituality, and Barney’s philosophy of life. I worked on translating some of her aphorisms for a translation studies group, Babel, that I helped found at UCLA with the late Dr. Michael Heim, my mentor. That’s when I started developing my passion for translation. It allows me to merge my desire for creative writing with my love of foreign languages.
Why did you choose to translate Women Lovers, or the Third Woman? During my year of research in Barney’s archives at the Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet in Paris, I had the rookie ambition of setting my eyes on everything there. But I had a tip for this particular work. I was lucky enough to be working alongside Suzanne Rodriguez, who was writing a biography on Barney at the time. It has since been published as Wild Heart: A Life.
Rodriguez told me that I might want to take a look at the unpublished manuscript of Amants féminins ou la troisième. So I read it right away. I couldn’t believe that this novel, written in 1926, was so unabashedly unapologetic about sexuality and showcased such a different side of Barney, distinct from the myth that surrounds her. The dramatic love triangle between N. (based on Natalie), M. (based on the Italian baroness Mimi Franchetti), and L. (based on the famous French courtesan Liane de Pougy) was astounding in its complexity, and the descriptions of their erotic entanglements were well ahead of their time. The gender bending in the erotic scenes between N. and M. helped me to better understand how these women, in their real lives, were intentionally playing with the boundaries of gender identity.
I believed this novel could appeal to both general readers and specialists of the period. The final dialogues on the nature of love between N. and the “Newly Miserable Woman” (based on Djuna Barnes) will be of great interest to scholars of Barnes as well.
The lyrical beauty of the passages drew me in, as well, and convinced me that this novel deserved to see the light of day. It took me fifteen years off and on to complete the translation and notes, so I am looking forward to finally hearing from readers.
So, this novel hadn’t been published in French? Dr. Melanie Hawthorne, who wrote the introduction to the translation, connected me with Yvan Quintin of ErosOnyx publishers in France. He was very interested in the text, and he and I co-edited the manuscript. The French edition appeared in 2013 as Amants féminins ou la Troisième.
What would you say to readers who have never heard of Barney or read her works? This novel is a gem from 1926. You will get to know these marvelous characters and their passion for life—and each other. It is a quirky modernist novel, moving between the first and third-person perspective. It is a testament to Barney and the women in her circle, who inspired each other to create such masterful renditions of their lives and their loves.
is an associate professor of French and comparative literature at the University of Maine at Augusta. She has been honored as a Chevalier des palmes académiques by France’s Ministry of Education.
Early Reviews for Women Lovers, or the Third Woman:
“Leaps energetically to life. . . . [This] autobiographical, sprightly 1926 novel of a Belle Époque lesbian love triangle [is] appearing in English for the first time.”
“A first-ever translation that shines new light on Natalie Barney, the invincible ‘Amazon,’ sexual rebel, and arch-seducer of women who in the 1920s aspired to make Paris ‘the Sapphic Centre of the Western World.’ Chelsea Ray shows us another side to her: vulnerable, jealous, and volatile in love.”
—Diana Souhami, author of Natalie and Romaine
“Women Lovers has shown me a Natalie that I never knew, a fragile Natalie. This novel is an amazing revelation.”
—Jean Chalon, author of Portrait of a Seductress
“Barney’s experimentation in Women Lovers with offbeat structural choices and narrative strategies, and its stylistic allegiances to decadent traditions, indicate how much of literary modernism’s rich texture has been ironed out in the writing and rewriting of that literary history.”
—Tirza T. Latimer, editor of Women Together/Women Apart