It cannot be denied that Marie Corelli (1855 – 1924) was an enormous success as a writer of science fantasy and romance. She sold more books than H.G.Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling put together and her fans were as loyal as the literary critics were dismissive.
But was she a lesbian, as many modern commentators have alleged, or did the fact that for forty years she shared her life with a certain Bertha Vyver, an irrelevancy? It has been rightly pointed out that it would be ridiculous to ascribe any homosexual leanings to Sherlock Holmes and John Watson based merely on the fact that they shared a flat in Baker Street. And the same could be said of many literary figures, both real and fictional. In the case of Corelli, it could also be argued that she was passionately attached to the painter Arthur Severn for many years, but that her feelings were not reciprocated.
In his autobiographical Everyman Remembers ( 1931), the litterateur Ernest Rhys recalls his friendship with Frank Podmore, one of the more colourful members of the late nineteenth century Spiritualist community, a co-founder of the Fabian Society and the author of a fat biography of the proto-socialist Robert Owen.
Like Anthony Trollope, the Oxford-educated Podmore, was a writer who held down a day job with the Post Office. But unlike the Victorian novelist, he was, to quote Rhys, ‘unimaginative’ and ‘practical to a degree, but cultured and full of intellectual curiosity ‘—ideal qualities for a paranormal investigator. But although Rhys touches on his friend’s investigations, he seems more interested in the odd personal lives of Podmore and his wife Eleanor. Here, for instance is his impression of the odd couple in their Hampstead home:
They set up house in Well Walk, and furnished it with extreme taste and a touch of virtuosity.
Sexology : The Magazine of Sex Science was a magazine founded by Hugo Gernsbach ('the father of Science Fiction') and seems to have flourished in the 1930s. It had many anatomical diagrams and articles about 'female inverts', pregnancy, infibulation, venereal disease etc. It probably sold well. This letter is in the 'Questions and Answers' column and has to be assumed to be typical of its time, regarding homosexuality as a sickness to be cured by determination and the love of a good woman. Autre temps, autre moeurs. What is slightly strange is that the 'doctor' providing the answer suggests physical violence if the other man persists in his attentions - 'beat him up.' Odd advice from a doctor. The reference to drink - 'you got drunk and became intimate' may refer to other matter in an abridged letter or simply be an assumption…again, curious.
Reading Which of Us Two? The Story of a Love Affair (Viking, London 1990).It is the record of a 'youthful, illicit and intense' relationship between John Tasker (1933 – 1988) the theatre director and Colin Spencer (born 1933) artist and writer. Spencer uses a collection of letters the lovers wrote to each other (his were returned after John Tasker's death) and considers the relationship and why he 'murdered its future'. Spencer makes acute and amusing comments on literary figures including John Osborne (whose library we bought last year). This entry was starred by Osborne in his copy:
17.iii. 59. Yesterday I began drawing the great Mr Osborne, tall, thin, spectral: in black skin-tight trousers that showed a cute bottom and a huge lunch. And camp, my dear – not 'arf. And the musical, my dear, cor that's a queer dish too, everybody changes their sex halfway through and deliciously lovely Adrienne Corri grows hair on her chest. Most peculiar: he was moving about so much, it's only the second week of rehearsals...though I did some lightning things with a brush, it just won't do so I'm going back after Easter and try some more. He has a curiously camp voice and he appears to stare at one with his teeth...
Colin Spencer says of this letter:
The John Osborne musical was of course The World of Paul Slickey, soon to become the only commercial failure of his early years. [We]admired Look Back in Anger, our generation felt that Osborne encapsulated the rage we all felt over the limitations of the British theatre.Yet like so much of the later Osborne the play now seems an hysterical diatribe, the characters thin and invalid,the plot negligible..it was brilliant journalism.. masquerading as theatre.
Found in one of our catalogues from 2002 a very limited and exquisite edition of Djuna Barnes's The Ladies Almanack. It was found by Martin Stone in Paris and was catalogued by him for us. It sold fairly easily to a high end London dealer for £5000.
Djuna Barnes 'The Ladies Almanack' (Privately published, Paris 1928)
Small 4to. pp 80. Illustrated. Number 4 of 10 copies on Verge de Vidalon with illustrations hand coloured by Djuna Barnes. The complete first edition was 1050 copies In full vellum wraps with highly attractive hand coloured cover. Signed on the limitation page in Djuna Barnes hand as 'A Lady of Fashion' and also on fep presented to Lady Rothermere signed 'Djuna Barnes, Paris 1928.' Lady Rothermere was married to the press baron Viscount Rothermere (Lord Harmsworth) and was the patron of various writers most notably T.S. Eliot who was able to give up his bank job due to her financial assistance. 'Ladies Almanack' was printed by Darantiere in Dijon and has a curious publishing history - it was originally to be published by Edward Titus at the Black Manikin Press in Paris. However when Djuna Barnes found out how much Titus was charging her she decided to publish and distribute the book herself with financial help from Robert McAlmon. The name Edward Titus is blacked out on the title page in all copies. The ordinary edition was $10, the hand coloured one of 40 $25 and the ten hand coloured and signed copies were $50 a sizeable sum in 1928. The work, a celebration of female sexuality and a rebuke to heterosexual patriarchy, portrays in disguised form, many of the cultural and artistic elite of the Parisian avant garde of the time- epecially the Lesbian circle which was gathered around Natalie Clifford Barney - Janet Flanner, Romaine Brooks, Solita Solano, Dolly Wilde ('Doll Furious') Lady Una Troubridge ('Lady Tilly Tweed-in-Blood') and Radclyffe Hall. Janet Flanner called her 'the most important woman writer we had in Paris.' In fine fresh condition - an exemplary copy of this beautiful expatriate book; in tirage de tete the black orchid of Lesbian literature.
Found, folded into an American thriller from the Donald Rudd collection of detective fiction, this napkin - a memento of Mona's 440 Club generally credited as being the first lesbian bar in the United States -'Where Girls Will be Boys.'
James R. Smith's San Francisco's Lost Landmarks (2004) says the following about Mona's:
Mona's 440 Club was another [club] that took advantage of the city's tolerance and tourism. Opening in a Columbus Street basement in North Beach in 1936, Mona Sargeant's tavern quickly hit the travelsheets as a place "where girls will be boys." The first openly lesbian club, Mona's female waiters and performers wore tuxedos and patrons dressed their roles. Within a couple of years, Mona's moved to 440 Broadway and took the address as part of the club's new name, Mona's 440 Club. Great entertainment, first local and later national talent, made a night at Mona's an event.
Found - a scrap of paper from a book on America maritime history - this note by the eccentric /decadent writer and artist Stephen Tennant (1906 -1987.) He often used pages of books for notes, poems, rants and observations. He made many hundreds of pages of notes for his projected novel Lascar; A Story of the Maritime Boulevard but it remained unfinished at his death. He produced a few slim volumes and some superb drawings. The writer mentioned is anonymous but being rich and eccentric and talented ST knew many writers including Willa Cather, Siegfried Sassoon (a former lover) V.S. Naipaul (a neighbour) and W.H. Auden (who praised one of his poems.) The scrap reads thus:-
There is no element or trait in human nature that a writer can ignore - But to give prominence to the Noble profound, to the calm, the wise, the Beautiful- the exquisite, the sacred is surely his proudest need? June 1976 S T
But he is no prude or evader of odious things.
ST with David Hockney at Wilsford Manor
Design for a cover for 'Lascar'
'Ah, Marseille, - c'set le Vrai.'
A writer said this a propos my novel Lascar.
Stephen Tennant's possessions were dispersed in a big Sotheby's sale at his home Wilsford Manor, Wiltshire in 1987.
This was bought there in a van full of books. Some of the books appeared to be scented, some had letters loosely inserted including one from Willa Cather. The catalogue itself is sought after, at Ebay a copy recently made £100 although it is not uncommon...