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Vivien, Renée (1877-1909)  
 
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Renée Vivien, who had many affairs with women, openly celebrated lesboerotic love in her poetry and dreamed of women-controlled spaces in an era when most women were still domestically confined.

Vivien was born Pauline Mary Tarn on June 11, 1877, in Paddington, England, into a prosperous family of merchants. Pauline and her sister, Antoinette, attended school in Paris until their father, John, died when Pauline was nine. Their mother, Mary Gillet Bennett, decided to return to England, the prospect of which dismayed Pauline since she already identified herself as French, a fact that would influence her writing and thinking.

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Her life in England was not pleasant. Her mother tried to have Pauline declared insane in order to acquire the money left directly to her daughter. The magistrates sided with Pauline, who was made a ward of the court until she reached her majority in 1898 and returned to Paris.

Once there, Pauline changed her name, first to René or R. Vivien, to signify her "rebirth." Though she had begun writing in English at the age of six, as an adult she wrote only in French, and at first pretended that the romantic sonnets contained in Etudes et Préludes (Etudes and Preludes, 1901), and Cendres et Poussières (Ashes and Dust, 1902), were written by a man.

In 1903, she altered her first name slightly to the feminine Renée on the cover of Evocations (1903), a transformation that initially took her readers by surprise but that did not diminish the reputation she had already garnered as one of the best second-generation Symbolist poets.

Vivien and Natalie Clifford Barney

At the end of 1899, Vivien's childhood friend, Violet Shilleto, introduced her to Natalie Clifford Barney, the wealthy and beautiful American, who was already leading an active lesbian life in Paris.

As Vivien recounted in her novel Une Femme m'apparut (A Woman Appeared to Me, 1904), she was almost instantly fixated by the magnetic personality of Barney: "I would evoke over and over again the faraway hour when I saw her for the first time, and the shudder which ran down my spine when my eyes met her eyes of mortal steel. ... I had a dim premonition that this woman would determine the pattern of my destiny, and that her face was the fearful face of my Future." Much of Vivien's work was inspired by their relationship.

In the summer of 1900, Vivien and Barney traveled together to Bar Harbor, Maine, to visit Barney's family, after which they studied classical Greek for several weeks in the early fall at Bryn Mawr. On their return to Paris, Barney and Vivien continued to study classical Greek and French prosody with Professor Charles-Brun, a classical scholar.

Vivien, the apter pupil, was soon writing verse imitative of Sappho's. Charles-Brun drew the attention of the publisher Alphonse Lemerre to Vivien's poetry, and her first book, Etudes and Préludes, was published in 1901. The volume set the tone for her subsequent work since it alternated melancholy love sonnets addressed to women with decadent longings for the embrace of death.

Vivien's personal life was less harmonious than her poetry. Vivien was tormented by Barney's infidelities and by the death in 1901 of Violet Shilleto, who was one of the major inspirations for Vivien's poetry, which is filled with images of the purple flower, so much so that she is often called "the muse of the violets."

While Barney was away in Bar Harbor, Vivien, on hearing false rumors of Barney's impending marriage, broke with Barney and then tried, for the second or third time in her life, to commit suicide.

Vivien and Baroness Zuylen de Nyevelt

At the end of 1901, Vivien met the Baroness Hélène de Zuylen de Nyevelt, a Rothschild, with whom she would spend the next several years. The Baroness offered Vivien emotional and perhaps financial security, under which her poetry flourished. Most of Vivien's work is dedicated to "H.L.C.B.," the initials of the Baroness's first names.

But Barney briefly reignited her affair with Vivien in 1904 when the two ran off together to Lesbos, where they hoped to establish a Sapphic circle of artists. The project was abandoned when Vivien decided to rekindle her relationship with the Baroness.

Vivien's Last Years

In 1906, the Baroness ended her relationship with Vivien, who went on to have affairs with a singer and at least two members of the demimonde. Eventually, she spent most of her time shut up in her apartment at 23, avenue du Bois de Boulogne. There she nailed the windows closed and filled the rooms with buddhas and incense. At other times, she traveled widely, including to many parts of Europe and Asia as well as to Turkey, Mytilene, and Hawaii.

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An undated photograph of Renée Vivien.
  
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