Women of the Left Bank

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

All the guidebooks point to patriarchal pathways. In literary England one is taken to Samuel Johnson’s favorite café or William Shakespeare’s birthplace. One does not see the places important to Jane Austen in Bath or the spot where Christabel Pankhurst was first arrested in the women’s suffrage campaign or the school Mary Wollstonecraft began with Fanny Blood. In Paris one visits Victor Hugo’s house or has a coffee at Café Florin (where Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus wrote) but never looks for Colette’s house or wonders where Natalie Barney held the Académie des Femmes. One cannot find these places in indexes, on maps, or described in guidebooks. What is needed is a Lavender Blue Guide, as it were, and, happily, there are now some resources to help fill that lacuna.

Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940 is one of a growing number of works which help to guide the reader through a female literary world. It is, among other things, a female geography of the Paris of the early part of the twentieth century. Author Shari Benstock uses a quotation from Among Women (1980) by Louise Bernikow as an epigraph:Where do we meet? The geography of our friendships, the topography of the course of the relation, the spots, the fiery mountainous excitement and valleys, the silences—a steady humming when it is simply there, neither high nor low, not remarked on—all this needs a school of cartography.

Benstock attempts to write such a cartography, even providing a map of “Expatriate Paris” with all the addresses marked. The structure of her massive work reminds one of the winding streets, warrens, and cul-de-sacs of the Left Bank. Benstock gradually creates portraits of her subjects, eschewing complete contextual detail when a writer is first mentioned. Instead, she writes around and about, returning in succeeding chapters to women partially discussed earlier, going backward and forward in time, as the subject demands. The result, by the end of the work, is a composite literary historical study of the lives, work, and milieus of more than twenty creative women (mostly writers) during the period from 1900 to 1940.

The book is divided into three chronologically ordered sections. The first, “Discoveries,” introduces the subject through a sketch of the earliest of the American expatriate women writers, Edith Wharton, contrasting her in detail with Colette. The second section, “Settlements,” locates and describes in separate chapters the lives and work of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier; Djuna Barnes; and Natalie Barney. Finally, “Crossroads” follows literary Paris into the 1930’s, with chapters on H. D. and Bryher; on women in the world of bookshops, small presses, and little magazines; and on the shift in the attitude toward politics and art that World War II brought about.

Throughout, Benstock has two main theses to explore. The first is that the patriarchal power structure of contemporary literary criticism has ignored, misunderstood, denigrated, and even lost the work of the women involved in that literary movement known as modernism. Since the women were not a part of the “important” discussions and dialogue, the new theories being debated by the men simply ignored what was being produced by women. Because of this ostracism, works by women often did not fit the strictures that came to be imposed by the various literary movements, such as Imagism, Vorticism, Surrealism. Many of the most creative women were lesbian or bisexual, and therefore they were not involved socially in the same circles as the men, further contributing to their marginalization. Some of the women were well-known in their own day, but because their work did not fit “the canon,” they gradually were omitted from literary history, and by the 1950’s, they were no longer reprinted, anthologized, or studied.

The second thesis asserted by Benstock is that, contrary to what some might say, heterosexual women writers actually had an even more difficult time getting a reading than lesbian writers, since the heterosexual women were connected to the power structure but marginalized by their very existence as appendages to the men. They depended on that power structure for monetary and, more important, psychic and critical support, and had a much more difficult time asserting their artistic independence. Since lesbian women often had their own support systems and knew from the beginning that their creative work was outside the received critical establishment, they realistically expected a less-than-enthusiastic reception.

Connected to this second thesis is Benstock’s attempt to establish and map the differences among these women writers, both in their personal lives and in their styles of writing. She wants to show that modernism actually embraced a varied aesthetic, and that some of the women (H. D., for example, or Gertrude Stein) have been unfairly read by critics trying to impose an inflexible masculine standard. Thus, as a part of its ambitious undertaking, the book is an attempt to reevaluate modernism per se. Additionally, Benstock wants to show that not all lesbian writers were intent on reproducing in their own relationships the power structure of the patriarchal marriage; that some of the women were bisexual, some lesbian, and some heterosexual; and that within those groups there were many different attitudes toward sexuality and female friendship.

Benstock’s best chapters combine biography, literary history, and criticism of the major works. In “Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas: Rue de Fleurus,” Benstock...

(The entire section is 2306 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Booklist. LXXXIII, November 1, 1986, p. 380.

Library Journal. CXI, November 15, 1986, p. 97.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXX, November 1, 1986, p. 61.