Jonathan Keates

Sappho’s Priestesses

Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho and Art - The Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 224pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

If there had been a lesbian map of the world in the first half of the twentieth century, the twin poles would have been located, not at icy regions to north and south, but at a Greek island and a French city. Lesbos itself, where Sappho had first given utterance to the sexual desire of one woman for another, was a place of pilgrimage, despite its primitive tourist infrastructure and the bemused or frankly hostile attitude of its inhabitants towards those who came to commune with the spirit of the classical poetess. Lesbianism’s true nirvana, however, lay beside the Seine rather than the Aegean. Paris, orientated towards the female in everything from haute couture to the grandes horizontales became, sometime around 1890, the paradise of sapphists, especially those with time and money at their disposal.

Clifford Barney (the daughter of a whisky heiress and a railway magnate), whose awareness of her own sexuality had kicked in when, as a small girl, she played with a toy swan in the bath. Adolescent crushes were soon followed by more serious liaisons,

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