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Tea and Scandal: Renée Vivien and the Fin de Siècle Salon


Fig 1. Renée Vivien c. 1905 (Public domain image)

Today, the image of the fin de siècle salon conjures up for many the image of a social network fuelled by intellectual fervour, creativity, and sexual liberation. Yet this liberation did not necessarily extend to all literary women, for as Shari Benstock notes, many ‘remained in the shadows of…male colleagues…husbands, lovers or literary supervisors.’1 However, the crucial contribution of such women has been the subject of much renewed scholarly interest, following the republication and retranslation of several out-of-print works and memoirs by trailblazing fin de siècle women.2

One of these writers is the poet and author Renée Vivien (1877-1909), a wealthy Anglo-American expatriate who wrote almost exclusively in French and lived mainly in Paris. Despite significant recent scholarly appraisal, Vivien’s work has often been critically overlooked. Yet during her lifetime Vivien was a unique presence within the fin de siècle salon of the heiress Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972). As this article will seek to demonstrate, Vivien embodied the salon’s defiance of sexual and societal norms, with much of her work scandalizing critics and anticipating modern concepts of queer theory, gender performativity and sexuality.

Born in London in 1877 and christened Pauline Mary Tarn, Vivien left England for Paris at the age of twenty-one, where her chosen nom-de-plume of ‘Renée Vivien’ signified her entry into Parisian society and her immersion within French culture. As Diana Souhami notes, Vivien ‘discarded the name Pauline Tarn…the repressions of English society…[and] desired…to be free to write poems about lesbian love.’3 This goal was nurtured by Parisian salon culture, which offered LGBTQ+ expatriates greater freedom from the moral, social and legal restrictions of Britain at the time, where homosexuality remained a prosecutable offence.

Vivien installed herself in the literary salon of Natalie Clifford Barney, who – like Vivien herself – was a wealthy writer, lesbian and expatriate. The two began a passionate but turbulent relationship, with Barney inspiring several of Vivien’s poems, and fictionalized within Vivien’s only novel, A Woman Appeared to Me (1904). Unusually for the time, Barney lived openly as a lesbian, and her salon became a meeting place for sexually unconventional literary women throughout the fin de siècle and beyond: Rachilde (1860-1953), Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), Djuna Barnes (1892-1982), Radclyffe Hall (1880-1943), Colette (1873-1954), and Dolly Wilde (1895-1941) – the niece of Oscar Wilde – were all favoured guests. Tea and cake were served, and guests enacted dances inspired by the lesbian poet Sappho within a small Doric temple that Barney constructed within her garden. According to Souhami, such activities proved so scandalous and unpredictable that the poet Paul Valéry described Barney’s weekly salons as ‘hazardous Fridays’.4

With her delicate looks (Fig.1) and love of decadently tactile, elaborate and often androgynous costumes (Figs. 2-3) Vivien herself was just as intriguing and provocative as Barney. She cut a striking presence within the salon, hosting elaborate dinner parties, posing for a series of photographic tableaux vivants in which she cross-dressed as a prince, and learning Greek in order to translate Sappho’s fragments.


Fig 2. Vivien in dress and veil c.1901
(Courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 96-153, Alice Pike Barney Papers, Image # SIA2015-006912) 


Fig 3. Vivien in male costume c.1900
(Courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 96-153, Alice Pike Barney Papers, Image # SIA2015-006918.)

Re-embodying the lesbian experience

Vivien’s early work was published under the gender-neutral pseudonym of ‘R.Vivien’, but dared to articulate a sense of lesbian desire and identity at a time when both were overtly medicalized and largely condemned. Benstock has observed that, ‘the image of lesbians in both literature and life was constructed around notions of illness, perversion, inversion and paranoia.’5 This affected the literary portrayal of the lesbian body, which was often viewed by male writers through a Baudelairean lens of disease and damnation that equated the lesbian with the sterile yet sexually voracious lovers in Baudelaire’s poem ‘Delphine and Hippolyta’ (1857). At the same time, increasingly popular sexological discourse saw homosexuality classified as both a medical abnormality and a scientific aberration. Vivien’s sensual and decadently synaesthetic depiction of same-sex love challenged this dominating narrative, whilst Barney’s salon became one of the few intimate spaces where lesbian writers could support one another’s intellectual and creative endeavours and counteract feelings of isolation. Yet the world beyond Barney’s salon remained largely homophobic, for when Vivien’s status as a woman writer was revealed, critics rejected her writing as both scandalous and perverse. As Tama Lea Engelking notes, while upper-class lesbians such as Vivien and Barney were protected – at least to some extent – by their wealth and status, ‘the lived reality of lesbian experience was far different,’6 and remained either marginalized, sensationalized or appropriated through the work of male heterosexual writers.

Vivien’s poems defy the double erasure of both the lesbian body and lesbian identity by radically reasserting the power of same-sex desire through imagery influenced not only by decadence, but also by the Romantic, Symbolist, and aesthetic movements. Poems such as ‘The Touch’ (1903) substitute the male gaze with a boldly female gaze that restores the visibility and eroticism of the peripheralized lesbian body: ‘I follow slowly the graceful contours of your hips, the curves of your shoulders, your neck’.7(9-10). Here, the poet reclaims the lesbian body not for voyeuristic male consumption or vicarious titillation but for intimate female celebration. Yet many of Vivien’s poems also often express the struggle to maintain lesbian relationships at a time when doing so threatened social exile and condemnation – as intimated within her poem ‘Sad Words’ (1907):

‘And I know you feel cheated and I feel distant…
We stay together, with the eyes of exile,
And a thin, gold string holds us,
With weary eyes, we follow our flown dream…’8 (11-14)

The emotional anguish apparent in this poem and others seems to reflect Vivien’s increasingly distressed inner state, as towards the end of her life she retreated into her luxurious Parisian apartment, nailing the windows shut, refusing food and drinking heavily. She died when she was just thirty-two. Whilst the circumstances of her death remain unclear, most critics agree it was from a combination of anorexia, alcoholism, and drug addiction.

Despite her brief life, Vivien’s contribution to fin de siècle literature endures through new translations of both her work and Barney’s, and a growing critical appreciation of the numerous poetry and prose collections she left behind. Vivien’s loss was also felt keenly within Natalie Clifford Barney’s salon. Devastated by Vivien’s early death, Barney helped to establish the Prix Renée Vivien – an annual prize celebrating women writers writing in French9 – in her honour, whilst Colette, Vivien’s friend and neighbour, offers an account of Vivien’s life within her novel, The Pure and the Impure (1932).

As Melanie Hawthorne observes, Vivien’s legacy lives on, for ‘Vivien was one of the first modern women to write openly about female same-sex love, to celebrate women’s physical beauty, not just their intellectual powers, and to do so unapologetically.’10

The fin de siècle salon in the 21st century

Hawthorne’s view underscores that, by daring to wrestle the narrative of same-sex love from the grip of male authors, Vivien’s work remains profoundly relevant within a contemporary literary market still dominated by narratives of heterosexual romance, and in a society where LGBTQ+ hate crime and discrimination remains an everyday threat. Similarly, the primary purpose of salons such as Barney’s – to provide social interaction and intellectual stimulation – takes on a new meaning at a time of increased cuts to the arts and humanities field within the education sector, and when society is adjusting to the ‘new normal’ of social distancing and life within lockdown. It seems fitting, then, that the decadent salon has experienced a recent revival within both academia and popular culture.

Last year, the film Colette11 – a major biopic of the writer – introduced viewers to the luxurious excess of a decadent salon, in a scene where Colette (Keira Knightley) attends a Parisian salon complete with a bejewelled tortoise, a reference to the infamously jewel-encrusted tortoise within Joris-Karl Huysmans’s decadent novel, À Rebours (1884). In March 2019, the British Association of Decadence Studies hosted a series of salon-like ‘Jeudis’ – Thursday-evening lectures on decadence and performance – organized in collaboration with the Decadence Research Unit at Goldsmiths (University of London), which has now been approved for conversion into a Decadent Research Centre. In June 2019 the Loughborough University Cultural Currents 1870-1930 research group recreated an immersive decadent salon, with absinthe tastings, live readings of works by writers including Oscar Wilde – and another (fake) bejewelled tortoise! – for the Loughborough University Arts Festival (Figs. 4-8)


Figs. 4-8: The June 2019 ‘Decadent Salon’ organized by the Loughborough University Cultural Currents 1870-1930 research group (Photos: Phil Wilson at Loughborough University)

Finally, in February of this year the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation’s ‘Songs from a Parisian Salon’ event brought to life the musical salon of Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac, (1865-1943) a noted arts patron. These examples show the increasing interest in the origin and function of such salons not only as hubs of artistic exchange and entertainment, but also as vital intellectual networks for the pioneering and creative fin de siècle women that Talia Schaffer terms ‘forgotten female aesthetes’.12

Renée Vivien then and now

Renée Vivien is a vital part of this extended network of lesbian literary expression, for Vivien’s celebration of same-sex desire and her playful cross-dressing anticipates modern queer theory, the concept of gender performativity championed by Judith Butler, and the gender subversion inherent in the work of experimental photographers such as Claude Cahun (1894-1954). I further argue that Vivien’s bold articulation of sexuality was instrumental in laying the foundations for writers and poets including Amy Lowell (1874-1925), Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), and Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), who all worked to dismantle heteronormative conventions within their writing. Not only did Vivien’s work enable her to construct a sexually empowered identity otherwise forbidden by society during her lifetime, it broadens our modern understanding of the fin de siècle lesbian experience today.

Eleanor Keane

Eleanor Keane (Twitter: @Eleanor_Keane1) graduated from Goldsmiths (University of London) in 2019 with an MA in Literary Studies. Her MA dissertation explored sexuality, consumption, and the image of the decadent ‘she-wolf’ within the work of the fin de siècle writers Renée Vivien (1877-1909) and Rachilde (1860-1953). In September 2020 Eleanor will commence a PhD at Goldsmiths focusing on fin de siècle fairy tales as queer decadent narratives. She is a member of the British Association of Decadence Studies (BADS) and the British Association of Victorian Studies (BAVS).


1 Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986, ii.
2 Notable examples of recent translations of work by Renée Vivien and Natalie Clifford Barney include Barney’s Women Lovers or The Third Woman, trans. Chelsea Ray (ed., with an introduction by Melanie Hawthorne) Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2016, and three anthologies of Vivien’s verse and prose:
- A Crown of Violets: Renée Vivien: trans. Samantha Pious, Washington, Headmistress Press, 2015
-Lilith’s Legacy: Prose Poems and Short Stories: trans. Brian Stableford, Snuggly Books, 2018
-Faustina and Other Stories (co-written with Hélène de Zuylen de Nyevelt) trans. Brian Stableford, Snuggly Books, 2019
3 Souhami, Diana. Wild Girls: The Love Life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks. London: Phoenix, 2005, 44.
4 Souhami, Diana. Wild Girls: The Love Life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, op. cit. p.71
5 Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940, op.cit p. 11
6 Engelking, Tama Lea. ‘The Literary Friendships of Natalie Clifford Barney: The Case of Lucie Delarue-Mardrus’ Women in French Studies, Volume 7 (1999) p. 102
7 Vivien, Renée. ‘The Touch’ (1903), trans. Margaret Porter, in The Muse of Violets: Poems by Renée Vivien, trans. Margaret Porter and Catharine Kroger, U.S.A: Naiad Press, 1977, p. 32
8 Vivien, Renée. ‘Sad Words’ (1907), trans. Catharine Kroger, in The Muse of Violets: Poems by Renée Vivien, op.cit p. 74
9 Notable laureates of the Prix Renée Vivien include Lucie Delarue-Mardrus (1874-1945) and Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987), the first woman to be elected to the Académie Française.
10 Hawthorne, Melanie. ‘Women Writing Decadence: An Introduction.’ Volupté: 2.1 (Spring 2019) []
11 Colette dir. Wash Westmoreland (Lionsgate, 2019).
12 Schaffer, Talia. The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England. Charlottesville and London: University Press Virginia. 2000


The author wishes to thank Graham Henderson (CEO of the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation), Professor Jane Desmarais (Goldsmiths), the Smithsonian Institute Archives (Washington, DC) and in particular Dr Sarah Parker (Loughborough University) for her kind generosity in sharing photographs (by Phil Wilson at Loughborough University) of the Loughborough University Arts Festival’s ‘Decadent Salon’ event from June 2019.

Posted on:Thursday 11th June, 2020