- 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...