The love and poetry of Renée Vivien
One of the more well-known lesbians in Paris during the Belle Époque, the British poet Renée Vivien could be considered a rock star of her time because of the artist’s hedonistic ways.
This lifestyle later drove her to an early end– but not before she left her mark on the world with her love for other women and her poetry about lesbianism.
Renée Vivien: Born to be French
Vivien was an Englishwoman named Pauline Mary Tarn, who was born on 11 June 1877 in London, England.
Shortly after she was born, her family moved to Paris in France, where she and her sister attended school. This left a mark on her life.
Speaking to Mercure de France, a French gazette and literary magazine first published in the 17th century, Vivien explained: “I love France and I am not French. I am English and I can’t like England.”
Unfortunately, at the age of nine, her father died so Vivien was forced to move back to England. Infected by romanticism, she said: “I was fifteen, the same age as Juliet– a Juliet for whom Romeo had no attraction.”
When she turned 21 in 1898, when she inherited her father’s fortune and emigrated back to Paris.
Renée Vivien: The beautiful life
In Paris, Vivien soon made a name for herself, both for her lifestyle, her dress, and her verse. With her inheritance, she could afford to be lavish.
She also did a lot of traveling, from Egypt to China, the Middle East, to Europe and America. But she always came home to Paris, a luxurious ground-floor apartment complete with a Japanese garden.
At that time, she was close with her childhood friend and neighbor, Violet Shillito, whom she had an unconsummated relationship. But then Vivien met Natalie Clifford Barney in 1899.
Renée Vivien: A great romantic
In 1901, Vivien and Barney’s tempestuous relationship was over as Vivien couldn’t handle Barney’s infidelities. Given Barney’s nature, she tried to win her back with the help of her friends.
In an essay entitled “Renée Vivien,” Barney wrote: “How could I win her back? Should I bang on her closed door? Dare to send her a more direct poem, reveal to her my suffering, how much I was suffering?”
Vivien was also involved with the Baroness Hélène van Zuylen of the Paris Rothschilds, and had an intense correspondence with Kérimé Turkhan Pasha, the wife of a Turkish diplomat.
However, van Zuylen left her for another woman and Kérimé ended their relationship when she moved with her husband to St. Petersburg. Moreover, the death of Shillito in 1901 of typhoid fever left Vivien guilt-ridden.
Renée Vivien: The muse of Violets
This drove her to an even more frenzied life of alcoholism and drugs, indulging bizarre fetishes and neuroses.
By then, she had already published her works: two books under a masculine pseudonym in 1901 and 1902, and her third book under her name in 1903.
Most of her work was autobiographically homoerotic where she wrote about being a lesbian and her romances with other women– and all of it was in French.
A prolific writer, she was dubbed as the ‘Muse of Violets’ because of her love of the flower, which was a reminder of her childhood friend, Shillito.
She died in Paris on 18 November 1909 at the age of 32 due to pneumonia.