Women Lovers, or The Third Woman by Natalie Clifford Barney
Chelsea Ray's translation of Natalie Clifford Barney's Women Lovers, or The Third Woman provides a fresh and fascinating window into the life of the writer, salonière (salon hostess), and translator Natalie Barney for English-speaking audiences. Originally published posthumously in French in 2013, this experimental novel reveals not only new dimensions of Barney's personal life, but it also makes an important contribution to LGBTQ and French literature, as well as cultural history.
Barney was at the epicenter of Paris's burgeoning lesbian communities of the Belle Époque and interwar years. As an American heiress, she was educated at the exclusive girls' school, Les Ruches, outside of Paris, and afterwards spent most of her life as an expatriate in France. Barney established a reputation as an engaging intellectual force around whom circulated some of France's most celebrated writers, musicians, artists, and thinkers. She actively worked to promote female writers and artists, often offering everything from emotional to financial support. A writer herself, Barney has been far less known on this side of the Atlantic because her French literary production remained untranslated into English. The unfortunate consequence is that Anglophone audiences are relatively unfamiliar with her works in comparison to one of her contemporary American expatriates, Gertrude Stein. Yet, the artistic and literary luminaries in the gravitational pull of Barney's salon included Marcel Proust, Colette, Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, Paul Valéry, Djuna Barnes, and numerous others.
The majority of the novel centers on a fictionalized account of Barney's changing relationships with Mimi Franchetti and Liane de Pougy—the three women represented in the narrative by their first initials N., M., and L.—and the forced examination of her own principles and theories on love, friendship, and polyamory. The love triangle began with the end of Pougy's sixteen-year marriage to the Romanian Prince Ghika. Pougy had engaged in a same-sex affair with a beauty named Manon Thiébaut with her husband's full knowledge and consent, but her husband also began a secret affair with Thiébaut. When Pougy discovered the affair, she took [End Page 220] her husband's offer to share Thiébaut in a ménage à trois as an intolerable double betrayal and divorced him. Lonely and out of sorts, Pougy wrote to Barney, her former lover, and soon received unexpected aid. Barney, who Djuna Barnes once described as a "one-woman relief organization for the disappointed in love, a sort of lesbian Red Cross," offered Pougy an amorous distraction: a three-way relationship with herself and Franchetti (qtd.p. xix). Barney believed that sharing herself and her new lover with Pougy would be the tonic to cure her depressed mental state. Instead, Barney's old and new lovers quickly formed a real attachment that exiled Barney to the periphery—the proverbial third wheel. Within this framework, the novel serves as an exploration of Barney's feelings of jealousy, abandonment, and betrayal as well as a discursive laboratory where she could play with rhetorical elements such as form, genre, and voice while meditating on her philosophies of friendship, romantic attachments, and love.
Women Lovers, or The Third Woman is an important translation for the fields of French literature, women's literature, and women's and gender studies for many reasons. First, this novel further cements Barney's place in LGBTQ cultural and literary history as a sexual renegade who challenged bourgeois social mores on both sides of the Atlantic. She never made any secret of her sexual orientation, and her novel eschews any trace of the morbidity or deviance so often associated with same-sex desire and lesbian literary representation during that period. Women Lovers illustrates how Barney normalized female same-sex desire rather than internalizing the pathologizing medical discourse so pervasive during the Belle Époque and through the interwar years in the works of novelists such as Radclyffe Hall, Claude Cahun, and other lesbian writers. In addition, the novel goes beyond conventionalizing lesbianism; Barney also vigorously attacks constricting gender binaries. Her conceptualization of the "Third Woman," as she identifies herself, is not merely the female hypotenuse of a lover's triangle but rather a broader theoretical position. The Third Woman is a being that does not need or seek another for completion nor crave coupledom. Furthermore, these beings can move freely in and out of relationships of various configurations without guilt or jealousy. Barney describes them as a "category of people that may become less rare when the age-old earthly couple is definitively discredited, permitting each person to keep or rediscover her own wholeness" (p. 16). Barney's advocacy for women's sexual and emotional independence that did not rely on marriage, motherhood, and men for self-actualization reveals just how pioneering her ideas were for her generation and their continued relevance today.
Putting aside the importance of this novel's gender and queer theories long before the advent of those critical movements, it is further noteworthy because of its structure and composition. Women Lovers is composed of three distinct parts—"Notes from N.'s Journal," "Written in the Third [End Page 221] Person," and "N. Takes Up Her Travel Diaries Again"—in which Barney experiments with various genres, symbols, and narrative voices to create a thoroughly modernist novel. In an introduction to Ray's translation, Melanie Hawthorne likens the novel to a collage composed of "poems, letters, social announcements (faire-parts), extracts from diaries, and dialogues" (p. xxvi). The result is a modernist novel that creates the impression of autobiography while gesturing to the performativity of writing. For instance, the shifting of narrative voice between the first and third person creates a distance that underscores the autofictional nature of the novel while the novel's use of epistolary and cinematographic narration alternately creates a sense of intimate familiarity and questions its authenticity.
Ray has succeeded in rendering Barney's novel into English with a grace and fidelity made all the more difficult because she was translating a bilingual author's novel written in her second language back into her original language. This atypical situation creates editorial and linguistic obstacles that make translation often much more challenging. For instance, Barney's use of the masculine pronouns or adjectives to describe herself would be striking to a French audience—a linguistic choice that reinforces her ideological stance regarding gender fluidity—but cannot be represented easily in English. Despite her fluency in French, Barney had moments of awkward French syntax influenced by English that needed to be rendered back into English to illustrate the linguistic tension of a non-native speaker working in her second language. Adeptly overcoming the many particular pitfalls that Barney's original work presented, Ray has provided a translation that not only permits Barney's genius to shine through but also captures Barney's gift for the well-turned phrase.
Rarely does a novel so markedly change a writer's legacy or challenge the myths and assumptions about an author as Women Lovers, or The Third Woman has. Part of Barney's legend was her resolute disavowal of heteronormative conventions such as marriage and gender categories and roles as well as bourgeois expectations of fidelity and chastity. Women Lovers reveals an undiscovered—perhaps unsuspected—side of Barney that is vulnerable, fragile, lonely, and fiercely dedicated to living by her principles despite the emotional cost. This remarkable translation works both to contribute substantially to a reevaluation of Barney's life and to make her visionary ideas and social commentaries available to a much wider audience. Barney once quipped that being bilingual is like having a wife and a mistress—one can never be sure of either. Thanks to Ray's translation, we are assured that in Women Lovers, or The Third Woman, we have the beauty of both. [End Page 222]