DJUNA BARNES, American author born (d. 1982); an American writer who played an important part in the development of 20th century English language modernist writing and was one of the key figures in 1920s and 30s bohemian Paris after filling a similar role in the Greenwich Village of the teens. Her novel Nightwood became a cult work of modern fiction, helped by an introduction by T.S. Eliot. It stands out today for its portrayal of Lesbian themes and its distinctive writing style. Since Barnes’s death, interest in her work has grown and many of her books are back in print. In the 1920s, Paris was the center of modernism in art and literature; as Gertrude Stein remarked, “Paris was where the twentieth century was.” Barnes first traveled to Paris in 1921 on an assignment for McCall’s Magazine. She interviewed her fellow expatriate writers and artists for U.S. periodicals and soon became a well-known figure on the local scene; her black cloak and her acerbic wit are remembered in many memoirs of the time.
Even before her first novel was published, her literary reputation was already high, largely on the strength of her story “A Night Among the Horses“, which was published in The Little Review and reprinted in her 1923 collection A Book. She was part of the inner circle of the influential salon hostess Natalie Barney, who would become a lifelong friend and patron, as well as the central figure in Barnes’s satiric chronicle of Paris Lesbian life, Ladies Almanack. They probably also had a brief affair, but the most important relationship of Barnes’s Paris years was with the artist Thelma Wood. Wood was a Kansas native who had come to Paris to become a sculptor, but at Barnes’s suggestion took up silverpoint instead, producing drawings of animals and plants that one critic compared to Rousseau.
By the winter of 1922 they had set up housekeeping together in a flat on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Her Ladies Almanack (1928) is a roman a clef about a predominantly Lesbian social circle centering on Natalie Clifford Barney’s salon in Paris. It is written in an archaic, Rabelaisian style, with Barnes’s own illustrations in the style of Elizabethan woodcuts. Barney appears as ‘Dame Evangeline Musset, ‘”who was in her Heart one Grand Red Cross for the Pursuance, the Relief and the Distraction, of such Girls as in their Hinder Parts, and their Fore Parts, and in whatsoever Parts did suffer them most, lament Cruelly”. “[A] Pioneer and a Menace” in her youth, Dame Musset has reached “a witty and learned Fifty,” she rescues women in distress, dispenses wisdom, and upon her death is elevated to sainthood.” In other words, Miss Musset’s Home for Wayward Girls and Women.
Also appearing pseudonymously are Elisabeth de Gramont, Romaine Brooks, Dolly Wilde (Oscar’s niece) Radclyffe Hall and her partner Una Troubridge, Janet Flanner and Solita Solano and Mina Loy. The obscure language, inside jokes, and ambiguity of Ladies Almanack have kept critics arguing about whether it is an affectionate satire or a bitter attack, but Barney herself loved the book and reread it throughout her life.