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Vivien, Renée (1877-1909)  
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In La Dame à la Louve (The Woman of the Wolf, 1904), Vivien turned her attention to the biblical Vashti, the first wife of King Ahasuerus. Instead of depicting her as the wife who was cast out in favor of Queen Esther, Vivien portrayed her as a heroine who defied the king's scandalous demand that she appear before his courtiers without her veil.

Vivien's attempt to rewrite literary history was quite broad-ranging. Some of the tales in The Woman of the Wolf are set in the American wilderness. Invariably, the female protagonists are braver than their male peers. Inevitably, they die rather than submit to the powers of nature or of men.

Vivien even tackled the genre of the fairy tale. In "Prince Charming," the prince and princess have a fabulous wedding, after which the astounded family of the bride discovers that the groom is the prince's sister disguised in male clothing.

Rewriting Her Own Life

Vivien also rewrote and reimagined elements of her own life. In numerous poems, prose poems, and in her novel A Woman Appeared to Me, Vivien obsessively recreated her relationship with Natalie Barney. Barney is repeatedly portrayed as the femme fatale who seduces and betrays the poor poet. One of Vivien's favorite images was to recreate Barney as the faithless Atthis, who drives the talented poet Sappho to suicide.

However, recent scholarship by Jean-Paul Goujon and Agnès Théveniault suggests that Vivien was far less of a victim than she liked to portray herself.

For example, amid her emotional drama with Barney and the Baroness, Vivien was carrying on a torrid correspondence with Kérimé Turkhan-Pacha, a highly cultivated Turkish woman living in Constantinople, to whom she wrote in 1905: "I love you, I love only you, and I suffer, because one suffers from every love." Yet in her lyrics, she portrays herself as the hapless victim of others' infidelities.

Vivien's Literary Reputation

The literary reputation of Renée Vivien has changed dramatically in the course of the twentieth century. In the first two decades after Vivien's death, Charles Maurras attempted to tie Vivien to other late Romantic writers, such as Anna de Noailles.

Others, such as Yves-Gérard Le Dantec in Renée Vivien: Femme damnée, Femme sauvée, focused on her conversion to Catholicism, which placed Vivien in a tradition of reformed Decadent writers, such as Baudelaire, who had also repented on his deathbed.

In an attempt to preserve her reputation as a writer and to keep her lesbian secrets away from public scrutiny, scholar Salomon Reinarch reportedly locked up Vivien's private papers in the Bibliothèque Nationale until the year 2000.

Natalie Barney attempted to keep Vivien's name alive by establishing a literary prize in her honor.

Despite these efforts, Renée Vivien lapsed into obscurity as a writer, in part because her Symbolist techniques were already dated while she was still writing, the movement having hit a peak in the final decades of the preceding century.

Her rhymes and sonnets were considered unadventurous and passé in contrast to the experimental poetry and blank verse of the early decades of the twentieth century. Vivien's radical ideas were often overlooked beneath the traditional forms in which they were cloaked.

The blatantly lesboerotic nature of her work made it unpublishable in England and the United States so that in fact nothing appeared in English until Jeannette H. Foster's stilted translation of A Woman Appeared to Me was published by Naiad in 1976.

But Vivien's Symbolist roman à clef did not stir the imaginations of readers so much as her real-life romance with Natalie Barney. And Vivien's poetry, filled as it is with violets and lilies, made Vivien seem more of a garden poet than a revolutionary thinker.

Like her aborted plan to turn Mytilene into a lesbian artists' colony, Vivien's ideas were often more wonderful in conception than execution.

But her stories of powerful women who fearlessly faced every type of risk and her dreams of woman-controlled spaces in an era when most women were still domestically enclosed make her worthy of the attention of "the women of the future" for whom she wrote.

Karla Jay

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Barney, Natalie Clifford. Adventures of the Mind. New York: New York University Press, 1992.

_____. A Perilous Advantage: The Best of Natalie Clifford Barney. Norwich, Vt.: New Victoria, 1992.

Colette. The Pure and the Impure. New York: Farrar Straus, 1967.

Goujon, Jean-Paul. Tes Blessures sont plus douces que leurs Caresses: Vie de Renée Vivien. Paris: Régine Desforges, 1986.

Germain, André. Renée Vivien. Paris: Crès, 1917.

Jay, Karla. The Amazon and the Page: Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

LeDantec, Yves-Gérard. Renée Vivien: Femme damnée, Femme sauvée. Aix-en-Provence: Editions du Feu, 1930.

Lorenz, Paul. Sapho, 1900: Renée Vivien. Paris: Julliard, 1977.

Maurras, Charles. Le Romantisme féminin. Paris: Cité des Livres, 1926.

Théveniault, Agnès. "Un léger Murmure": Vie et Oeuvre de Renée Vivien (1877-1909), Master's Thesis, Université de Paris VII, 1991.

Tinayre, Marcelle. Une Soirée chez Renée Vivien, (2 Nov. 1908). Gouy: Mesidor, 1981.


    Citation Information
    Author: Jay, Karla  
    Entry Title: Vivien, Renée  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 6, 2011  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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