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Ink on Paper | The Literary Legacy of Women Expats in Paris
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Ink on Paper | The Literary Legacy of Women Expats in Paris

Picture of Alice Shevlin
Updated: 14 November 2015
In London and New York, they were known as the ‘Roaring Twenties’. Paris, however, went one step further. The cultural and artistic dynamism of Paris in the decade proceeding WWI was unprecedented. Today, even the mention of those ‘crazy years’, or années folles, is enough to bring to mind images of decadence, glittering nightlife, and spirited bohemianism. We investigate the role of women writer’s in this creative decade and explore their impact upon today’s literary sphere.

Artists, writers, and intellectuals of all persuasions were drawn to the relatively high degree of freedom and tolerance that Paris offered, allowing them to live and work as they chose. Indeed, many of the most prominent cultural figures were in fact expats, lured across the Atlantic by the promise of a cheaper life and liberation. For those American women that chose to make Paris their home, freedom was especially important. These were independent women – in spirit if not always financially – and, to them, Paris represented an escape from what was later perceived to be the patriarchal narrow-mindedness of contemporary American society.

Like their male compatriots, these women were artists, writers, and thinkers, who formed a close community of their own, positioned on the left bank. It was a community of friends, of lovers, of women supporting women, and it left behind a hugely important cultural legacy – a legacy of prose, of letters and of poetry. Putting ink on paper was the way they became visible to the world through expression, it was their manifestation of that freedom that they had come to Paris to seek.

The left bank oozes history – every façade contains a story, every shuttered window is a glimpse into a long-ago life. The atmosphere is one of quiet, faded, intellectual bohemianism – an echo of the days when the cafés, bars and nightclubs were full of those artists and writers that would later become household names. The habitual meeting places of these artists are mostly still there. Their apartments and houses are still lived in, occasionally with the addition of a subtle commemorative plaque on the outside wall. Their lives – played out, in the words of Alice B. Toklas, like ‘kaleidoscope[s] slowly turning’ against the backdrop of the City of Light – were documented in exquisite detail.

The physical legacy of these women is still prominent in the many bookshops that pepper the narrow streets. There, in prominent places on the shelves, you will find Gertrude Stein, Janet Flanner, and Djuna Barnes, perhaps even a biography of Natalie Barney, or the letters of Sylvia Beach – an appropriate place to start, since Beach’s own bookshop was a central meeting place for many of the literary expats in Paris.

Situated in the middle of the left bank on rue de l’Odéon, Shakespeare and Company was – and still is – so much more than a bookshop: it was a lending library, a hub for literary events, a place to meet and talk and discuss. Together with her friend, lover, and fellow-bookseller Adrienne Monnier, Beach created a heart for the burgeoning Modernist literary movement. Her most famous achievement was the publication of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ – a labour of love that eventually left her bankrupt – but she also provided support and friendship to many of the women who had congregated on the Left Bank.

Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, were amongst the first subscribers to Beach’s lending library, whilst Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbott and Janet Flanner later became regular visitors. In addition to her memoirs, Beach’s legacy survives in bricks and mortar. Although she closed the shop on rue de l’Odéon during the WWII and never personally reopened it, American bookseller George Whitman continued its ethos and spirit in his shop Le Mistral, opened on rue de la Bûcherie in 1951. The name was changed to Shakespeare and Company in 1964, not only in honour of William Shakespeare’s 400th birthday, but as a tribute to Beach’s original shop. Today, it is still one of the most popular bookstores in Paris.

Whilst Beach may be remembered more for her support of the literary community than for her direct contribution to it, she gained a reputation for being an unrivalled, astute judge of character with impeccable taste in literature. It was not only Joyce that she admired: she described Djuna Barnes as ‘one of the most talented, and, I think, one of the most fascinating literary figures in the Paris of the Twenties’.

This opinion was based largely upon Barnes’s most famous work, ‘Nightwood’. Now considered to be one of the classic works of Modernist literature, ‘Nightwood’ emerged from the break-up of Barnes’s eight-year relationship with artist Thelma Wood. It was, as Barnes later stated, ‘written with my own blood while it was still running’. Jeanette Winterson wrote that reading ‘Nightwood’ is ‘like drinking wine with a pearl dissolving in the glass…..from now on a part of you is pearl-lined’. The excitement, the thrill and the tinge of the exotic that filled 1920s Paris all feature in Barnes’s masterpiece, yet despite this, ‘Nightwood’ also reveals a bleak, strange and very private world that makes it unique to Barnes’s personal experience.

Other women writers, however, portrayed Paris in very different ways. For Janet Flanner, life in the city was figured in short, sharp, often amusing observatory bursts. She wrote her first ‘Letter from Paris’ for the New Yorker in 1925 – under the pen name of ‘Gênet’ – and from then on, nothing seemed to escape the scathing attention of her pen. Art, society, music, fashion, literature, and later politics were all subjected to her dry, sarcastic sense of humour, and her opinion on everyone – from Jean Cocteau to James Joyce – is given in full. Flanner recorded the debut of Josephine Baker and the last days of Diaghilev, but what really sets her letters apart is the attention to detail. The minutiae of city life was recorded with vibrancy and today, her letters are seen as an unique historical resource.

Even her friends were not safe from her literary dressings down. Of Gertrude Stein, she wrote:

Miss Stein likes to look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing. The two ladies [Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas] drive around in their Ford till they come to a good spot. Then Miss Stein gets out and sits on a campstool with pencil and pad, and Miss Toklas fearlessly switches a cow into her line of vision. If the cow doesn’t seem to fit in with Miss Stein’s mood, the ladies get into the car and drive on to another cow. When the great lady has an inspiration, she writes quickly, for about fifteen minutes. But often she just sits there, looking at cows and not turning a wheel’.

Irreverent, humorous, slightly barbed – this is Flanner at her best. Whether she indeed did look at cows whilst writing or not, Stein has, like Barnes, gone down in literary history as one of the greatest Modernist writers of the period. Her legendary Saturday evening salons played host to an extraordinary guest-list – from Parisian writers to renowned artists and intellectuals – and were documented by Stein in her most famous book, ‘The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas’. Stein also wrote novels, short stories and plays, all in her own distinctive style, combining elements of Modernism with a stream-of-consciousness technique that was, at the time, used primarily in psychiatric research.

Akin to Flanner, Stein’s subject matter was seemingly limitless. She wrote on Paris itself (‘Paris France’), lesbian sexuality (‘Tender Buttons’, ‘Q.E.D’), and her friends and acquaintances (‘Word Portraits’). Whilst her work was not always well-received, the Chicago Daily Tribune commented in 1935 that, ‘no writer in years has been so widely discussed, so much caricatured, so passionately championed’.

There are more of these women, far more than can be covered in a short introduction. They were not only writers, but photographers, editors, publishers, artists: their lives were as vivid and as colourful as the city they called their home. Their legacy – the ink on paper that they left behind – displays their talent. These literary works of art showcase their drive, their determination, their independence, but also their love for the city that gave them a place to truly find and be themselves. They are indebted to Paris but thanks to their talent and legacy, Paris is equally indebted to them.

By Alice Shevlin