In “The Lives of the Obscure”, Virginia Woolf imagines entering a hushed, remote country library and pulling a volume at random from the dusty shelves – the Life of a seventeenth-century woman poet, say, or a Victorian woman of science, some such “stranded ghost” of history. The series of short essays, published in the first volume of The Common Reader (1925), was a pointed response to the work of Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, on the Dictionary of National Biography, which – from its first volume in 1885 – indexed the achievements of notable British men. The riposte was part of a lifelong mission to create an alternative tradition of biography – one that accounted for thes of women and made space for the textures of their experience, their dreams and desires.
Selby Wynn Schwartz’s After Sappho is a similarly revisionary project, and a Woolfian one at heart. The not-quite-novel (though it is being marketed as fiction, and was recently longlisted for this year’s Booker prize) is structured as a series of headed vignettes – entries in an alternative dictionary of biography – which cumulatively tell a version of history through the interleaving stories of various women artists and writers, individuals condemned by society as “sapphists, introverts, tribades, amazons, viragos, actresses, delinquent women”.
The narrative begins in 1880s Italy before arriving in Paris in the 1920s and moving finally to London and Sussex later that decade. The cast of characters includes the actors Eleanora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt, the painter Romaine Brooks, the dancers Josephine Baker and Isadora Duncan, the writers Colette, Natalie Barney and Gertrude Stein, and the designer Eileen Gray. (Other lives are more obscure: Margaret, or Mary, Honeywell, for example, who masqueraded as a male cab driver in 1870s Liverpool.) The principal players appear and reappear throughout the book: the infant who will become the poet Lina Poletti throws off her swaddling in a church in Ravenna, later beginning a relationship with Sibilla Aleramo and, later still, living in Florence with Eleanora Duse; Virginia Stephen holds a lantern aloft for catching moths with her siblings before embarking on her literary career. We see her writing ardent letters to Vita Sackville-West and scribbling in her notebook at the obscenity trial of Radclyffe Hall. Through the patterning of such lively, glimpsing sketches, Wynn Schwartz illuminates webs of romance and creativity, an illicit world of sexual encounter or great, tremulous loves, and an underground hoard of books – novels, essays, memoirs, manifestos – written (and as often as not unpublished, or published by hand presses, or in private editions) by the women in communion with each other.
Wynn Schwartz ends her narrative in 1928, the same year Woolf ended – and published – Orlando, her own biographical experiment across centuries and genders. And, as with Woolf, who looked at Sappho (“someone will remember us / I say / even in another time”), time, in Wynn Schwartz’s hands, extends both forwards and backwards. After Sappho‘s historical sweep includes the emergence of feminism, the acknowledgment of lesbianism and its denunciation, the upheavals of the First World War and its aftermath, yet these events are imbued with a timeless quality; they are acts of prohibition and resistance as old as Sappho herself. In this airy, ageless space the voices of poets, novelists and artists emerge as a chorus, or collective, engaged in the process of “our careful becoming”. Throughout the book is written in a daring, inclusive first person plural. “None of us wished to live overmastered”, intones the collective narrator after Sibilla Aleramo has left her marriage to the man who raped her. “We arrived in unknown cities … We shuddered and threw off our names. We began to find each other.” The community of women grows, Sappho and Woolf, the lantern bearers, leading the procession.
Wynn Schwartz makes use of a multitude of literary sources, though she rarely quotes directly. Instead she practises a kind of ventriloquism, not quite fictive, and at the same time subverting the genres of biography and literary criticism. Her style might be called hybrid, though the label doesn’t capture the pleasures of its originality or inventiveness. After Sappho is the kind of project that Woolf might have produced: part essay, part manifesto, a rewriting of history, a compendium of lives across time. Woolf’s irony and playfulness, which in part provided a guise for the radicalism of her writing, provide a methodology for this book.
Some reviewers have questioned the ethics of moving so freely between fact and fiction in writing these women’s lives. In an extended biographical note the author describes her fragments as “speculative biographies”, and this feels closest to the truth. “Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by”, Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own (1929), before conjecturing on Shakespeare’s gifted sister. Wynn Schwartz joins writers including Saidiya Hartman and Rebecca Birrell, for whom there is possibility in the space between the facts giving out (due to a lack of archival evidence or of other material traces) and imagination taking over. It is a quietly radical technique, and not without risk. But Wynn Schwartz pulls it off. How else, these writers ask, to account for the lives of the unaccounted?
After Sappho is hardly a reckless endeavor. Rather, it is a dexterous, scholarly performance that asks not to be read too literally. It takes a lesson from its subjects, women who passed across identities, who defined convention. After all, as Selby Wynn Schwartz reminds us, Orlando was first a love letter, “a heroically private joke”.
Harriet Baker is writing a group biography of interwar women writers in rural England
Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS at the TLS Shop
The post their careful becoming appeared first on TLS.