Paris Was a Woman, Bristol her Admirer

The Gothic has always been an inclusive space, with room for voices from all sorts of marginalised spaces. Deciding who to celebrate (belatedly) this World Pride Day, I was happily spoilt for choice.

As founding father and author of the earliest Gothic novel, Horace Walpole (who is commonly believed to have been gay) paved the way for many Gothic LGBT+ authors and characters to follow.
• Oscar Wilde, whose ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ (1898) is essential reading, for example.
• Bram Stoker, whose Dracula (character) provides enlightening subtext on fear and discrimination surrounding homosexuality, is another popular choice.
Virginia Woolf deserves attention…
• As does Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’, which explores so many important topics, including race and gender, as well as sexual identity…

Instead, however, I’ve decided to offer a subgroup within a wider literary movement that I don’t see as often discussed; that is the lesbian and bisexual females of the Modernist movement who flocked to Paris’ Left Bank in the 1920s.

At their centre was Sylvia Beach, publisher and founder of the original Shakespeare & Co. Bookshop,
was Gertrude Stein whose dissected language is a microscope to the soul,
was Djuna Barnes whose novel is an important moment in lesbian fiction with some of the first overtly gay characters.

Nightwood is on my tbr; I am excited to discover how the Gothic manifests in Barnes’ representation of multicultural Parisian life 100 years ago. In the meantime, however, I will share an article I wrote on Paris Was a Woman – the documentary which accompanies the book pictured below.

© Generally Gothic

𝕻𝖆𝖗𝖎𝖘 𝖂𝖆𝖘 𝖆 𝖂𝖔𝖒𝖆𝖓, 𝕭𝖗𝖎𝖘𝖙𝖔𝖑 𝖍𝖊𝖗 𝕬𝖉𝖒𝖎𝖗𝖊𝖗

The third annual Bristol Women’s Literature Festival began with a launch event hosted at Spike Island artspace. The cafe was filled to capacity with an all female audience. The atmosphere was warm and friendly, as everyone bustled to buy cakes, and teas, and wine, and, chattering, found their seats. The organiser began with a reading of ‘Ada’ by Gertrude Stein – a delicately erotic love letter to her wife, Alice B. Toklas. This was followed by three other readings, including ‘The Hand’ by Collette, and a fragment from Djuna Barnes’ cult classic Nightwood. Receptive and warm, we relaxed into our stiff seats as the lights were dimmed and the main event – a screening of the hard to find documentary, Paris Was a Woman – began.

On screen: ‘Paris was Woman’, dir. Greta Schiller (1996) | © Hannah Emadian for The State of the Arts

Set against the black and white backdrop of 1920s Paris, narrator Andrea Weiss took us on a literary journey into the lives of the women who occupied the Left Bank. These women stood in proud opposition to the men who dominated the scene at the time, who excluded them from their art academies, denied them formal education and were, in some cases, consequently left behind on far away continents. They found muses in each other, and sometimes lovers. In Paris they found a place in which they could proudly be intellectual, artistic, lesbian, female. They found a place where they could write and have their words read. Amongst them, a collection of figures, often paired, paved the way, hosting salons or bookshops, publishing each other and themselves. One of these such figures was Gertrude Stein, along with her partner-muse, Alice B. Toklas. Whilst herself greatly uncelebrated, Stein is responsible for the fame of surrealist painter, Pablo Picasso. Along with her brothers, she funded his early career, purchasing a great number of Picasso’s works, which lined the walls of her home-come-literary salon.

Paris Was a Woman, by Andrea Weiss (1995), screenwriter and narrator of the documentary of the same name | © Hannah Emadian for The State of the Arts

Another pivotal duo discussed in the documentary were Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier. They established a pair of bookshops, the latter for the French, the former for English and American readers, but the two very much operated in unison with one another. Beach set up the world famous and ever popular Shakespeare and Company, now situated in a prime location opposite Notre Dame. Rather at odds with the philosophy of the Left Bank ladies, Beach was only able to purchase and open her business thanks to the financial support of her father. Nonetheless, Shakespeare and Co. became the home and heart of the English language literary movement in Paris at the time, for all manner and gender of writers and readers. Beach famously published James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, when no other publisher was willing to accept it. Tragically, Joyce betrayed Beach, accepting a last minute offer from Random House, leaving Beach heavily in debt from publication costs. Had she paid greater attention to the largely unpublished and struggling Stein – and kept their endeavours primarily female – perhaps her fortunes would have differed.

Greta Schiller, the filmmaker behind the documentary, was kind enough to permit Spike Island to show her work free of charge as part of Bristol Women’s Literature Festival. This, I think, is the perfect honorarium to the female subjects of her film – to share and promote the work of our foremothers, to makes muses for and of one another. And as the credits rolled, and crowd dispersed, an air of excitement lingered as we all looked forward to a full weekend of events celebrating, exposing, and encouraging the specifically female within the shared wider literary landscape, of Bristol, and beyond.


This post was originally published here. As the former regional editor for The State of the Arts, I selected a monthly ‘Well Lit’ literary event for review. In 2018, Bristol Women’s Literature Festival Launch empowered the idea of woman as muse, with a special screening of literary documentary, Paris Was a Woman. In 2020, I share this for Pride month, in celebration and support of LGBT representation within the Gothic.

Continue with:
Curate a Library to Help you See: in Maya’s Words on anti-racism and reading,
New Gothic Voices: an Interview with New Gothic Review on fresh perspectives and representation in short stories, and
Aesthetically Hoarded Guest Post: Witches of Western Art on how the witch evolved from marginalia to subject with the stroke of a brush.
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2 thoughts on “Paris Was a Woman, Bristol her Admirer

  1. This is wonderful! The influence of people like Stein and Beach is so often missed when talking about the modernist movement, it’s great to keep reading and finding out more about them 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Sam!
      Yes – I absolutely agree. They were unsung Modernist pioneers, championing men who remain globally recognised to this day.
      Whilst I don’t see any need to be bitter about historical sexism in the arts, I do think they deserve a little more contemporary appreciation!

      Liked by 1 person

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