Natalie Barney (1876 – 1972) and Romaine Brooks (1874 – 1970) were lesbians whose extremely long lives and 50-year non-monogamous romance spanned a period of time from the fin de siècle to Stonewall. They were both from wealthy families and active in the arts – Natalie was a poet and novelist and Romaine was a painter. Between them they seem to have been friends or lovers with most of the famous lesbians of the period.
Let me start by saying that I don’t think this is a very good book. It reads like an extended gossip column (all description and little analysis), the prose is serviceable at best, the title is inappropriate for a book about two such highly complex women and Souhami weirdly intersperses the narrative with episodes that are apparently drawn from her own life.
However, I also have to admit that I enjoyed reading Wild Girls and might call it a ‘guilty pleasure’ if, that is, I felt guilty about reading silly books. Even in such an unsophisticated take on their lives, Natalie and Romaine come across as fascinating characters and I really enjoyed finding out more about them and their relationships with women like the poet Renee Vivien, Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dolly, lesbian writer Djuna Barnes, the dancer, Ida Rubenstein, and of course Radcliffe Hall and her partner Una Troubridge. Truman Capote once referred to Romaine Brook’s paintings as ‘the all-time ultimate gallery of famous dykes’ and you really can’t argue with him on that one. The book includes some great photographs and images of Romaine’s paintings.
Romaine, in particular, had an incredibly traumatic upbringing and I would have liked to read a more nuanced and sympathetic approach to her subsequent mental health problems. Actually, it was the attitude to mental health that made me most uncomfortable with this book, as a lot of the women had problems which come across as sensationalised – Renee Vivien’s anorexia is one example and Dolly Wilde’s depression and addictions another
Wild Girls is a non-challenging introduction to a specific lesbian sub-culture of the fin de siècle and first half of the twentieth century and it’s probably the kind of book best read while lying on the sofa sick with the flu.