The British poet, noted Sappho fangirl, and one of the most
high-profile lesbians of Paris’s Belle Époque days, Renée Vivien, was born on this
day in 1877.
Pioneer of depressed moon lesbian culture, Renée Vivien poses with two black cats on her shoulders (x).
Born in London on June 11, 1877, Renée’s wealthy British
father and American mother originally gave her the name Pauline Mary Tarn,
which she would drop later on in life. She was sent to Paris for school, but was
forced to return to London when her father died in 1886. Renée made no secret of
the fact that she loved Paris and hated her family, so the move was devastating
to her. In a twist of events worthy of an American soap-opera, Renée’s mother
attempted to get her declared legally insane so that Renée would be passed over
for her father’s inheritance and all the money would go to her, but the plot failed and Renée was taken away from her mother and kept a ward of the
court for the rest of her adolescence. When she turned 21, she finally
inherited her father’s fortune and moved back to her beloved city of Paris where
took on the name Renée Vivien. .
In Paris, Renée became a notorious figure in Bohemian
society; she wore lavish men’s suits and lived openly as a lesbian. She wrote
two novels and fourteen collections of poetry throughout her lifetime and her
writing was filled with allusions to Sappho, lavender, and her many
relationships with women. She even refused to write in any language other than
French because she found it to be the more romantic language. A woman named Violet
Shillito was Renée’s childhood best friend and her first love; when she died of
typhoid fever, Renée was inconsolable and many scholars interpret the frequent
use of violets in Renée’s poetry to be a symbol for Violet herself. Renée also
had a relationship with Natalie Clifford Barney, the American heiress and
novelist. The relationship was passionate and often rocky due to both women’s
jealous nature. However, there was a time when Renée and Natalie traveled to the island
of Lesbos in Greece in an attempt to connect with their Sapphic roots and start
a women’s artist colony.
Renée (left) and her partner Natalie Clifford Barney (right) photographed in 1900 (x).
Renée ended the relationship with Natalie in 1901 and she
would go on to have many more relationships with women such as the Baroness
Hélène van Zuylen and Kérimé Turkhan Pasha, but as affair after affair ended, Renée
sunk deep into depression and began to indulge even more in her party lifestyle of
drugs, alcohol, and wild sex. Her close friend Colette (who we have also covered on the blog!) was
known to base her fictional characters on real life people and she immortalized
Renée’s character and self-destructive behavior in her 1932 novel The Pure and the Impure. As
illness worsened, she eventually died in 1909 from alcoholism and anorexia.