essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
Liane de Pougy is a pseudonym of Marie Chassaigne, later Princess Ghika (1869-1950), a novelist, actress and courtesan of France’s belle époque, one of the best known women in Paris at the end of the 19th century. Her novels include L’Insaisissable (1898) and Idylle saphique (1901). She had a passionate love affair with the rich American Nathalie Barney, a woman who attained some celebrity by flaunting her numerous lesbian affairs among the Parisian demi-mondaine.
My Blue Notebooks consists of excerpts from a diary kept by Liane, a fascinating slice of a life, a postcard from another age. Although she flourished in the 1880s and 1890s, her diary is written in the period 1919-1941, a vivid evocation of her personality and her world.
This is a journal, its content the minutiae of life, and is marked by lack of pretension, realism and extreme honesty. Famous names abound – Proust, Max Jacob, Poulenc, Coco Chanel… but the underlying story is a love story. It is the love story of Liane and Nathalie Barney, and the love story of Liane and Georges Ghika. The story is marked by reticence, by a finesse one recognises as a characteristic of pre world war European culture. In itself this is a disturbing measure of how our world has been transformed, and lessened, by the loss of cultural standards as a result of the extermination in the wars. Be warned, this is a foreign territory; we have to try a bit harder to appreciate this sensibility.
Liane portrays herself as human, as ignorant, as determined to survive, as damaged by her origins and her associates, and as someone who succeeded on the path of the ‘artiste’, the beautiful woman who successfully sells herself while allegedly practising an art. She knew and admired Sarah Bernhardt, and pays tribute to her dominant gift, her marvellous voice.
It is said that Nathalie Barney was the love of Liane’s life, and Liane’s journal bears this out by what it does not say, by what it does not reveal. Every statement about Nathalie, who rejected Liane’s love to play the field, reveals Liane to be a woman who had given all of herself, unaffected by the distance and lack of contact with Nathalie. Liane was one of the great romantics. Her romanticism makes of her a great contemporary, of all eras. This sensitivity married to such pragmatism and determination makes Liane someone to value and respect. How sad that modern readers have ignored her book, perhaps because it does not reveal intimate lesbian details of who touched who where. Lesbianism in the 1890s was a bit more innocent than it is now.
The period of Liane’s fame is well in the past when she begins writing. She has mundane worries such as inflation and war wiping out most of her income, an ailing and discontented husband to contend with, and her own failing health. When her loves failed her (for both Nathalie and Georges rejected her for others, despite her beauty and charm – perhaps she was too honest for them), Liane turned to the Catholic Church for solace, and became a rather saintly woman, though she didn’t herself think she was more than a sinner.
This is a vivid self portrait, the work of a gifted writer, even though Liane was writing for herself, with no thought of publication. Liane is someone I like enormously, and I would have liked to know her. In a sense, a poignant one, I know her through these notebooks.
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.