Monday, November 07, 2022

After Sappho: a review

Spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the story introduces the reader to women who rejected factory and homestead and immersed themselves in classical poetry, plays, novels, pamphlets, paintings, dancing. The performers among them responded to contemporary works such as Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Oscar Wilde’s Salome, while others such as Colette, Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf wrote their own novels and plays.

Living in France, Italy, Greece or England, many of these women had privileges associated with a middle- or upper-class background. Apart from one named working-class character—Berthe Cleryrergue, a housekeeper who wrote a memoir about the years she spent working for Natalie Barney—most characters appear to be women of some means. They are able to host and attend salons in Paris or travel across the continent, to Lesbos or Capri. They refuse to slip easily into the robes of obedient wives and mothers, and if they cannot flee, they subvert the norms of heterosexual marriage.

Yet, this is not a novel about privilege though it does draw attention to the nature of privilege through the prism of gender. After all, what privilege does a businessman’s daughter have if her father simply hands her over to her rapist? What does privilege mean if you have no say in the workings of the nation, no matter how educated you are or how ignorant the men who rule against you?

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