Natalie Clifford Barney was at the centre of decadent Paris in the opening decades of the 20th century. In this biography, Rodriguez examines the life of a controversial woman, famed more for her scandalous affairs with women and her literary salon than her own literary pursuits.
Barney is one of those subjects it's difficult to like. Rodriquez doesn't flinch away from examining her flighty nature and the selfishness that permeates the book is a bit overwhelming at times. However, it's balanced out by her generous acts and determination to help fellow writers in various ways. It creates something of a contradictory human being and that, of course, rings completely true.
Born into a life of privilege, Natalie Clifford Barney defied expectations by refusing to settle down and marry. Instead, she embarked on a series of intense love affairs with women from an early age. She didn't believe in fidelity, though, which caused problems with some of her more important relationships, In truth, it becomes a bit dizzying and her treatment of some of her partners doesn't portray her in a positive light.
It's easier to be impressed by her literary salon and the spasmodic efforts she put in to championing various writers and artists. The names peppered within this book read like a who's-who of the 20th century artistic scene with Ezra Pound, Rainer Maria Rilke and Ford Madoz Ford popping up. One of the most laudable of Barney's endeavours was to host nights specifically for celebrating women such as Gertrude Stein and Anna Wickham, one of the first attempts to draw attention to the achievements of women when men were getting most of the glory. The most amusing anecdote in the book comes via the retelling of Barney's single, disastrous meeting with Marcel Proust. It's worth reading just for that.
Barney's lack of application to her own literary talents is frustrating. Editing wasn't something she was interested in, meaning that her potential was never fulfilled. For me, anyway, this was one of the things that annoyed me about her and I was left wondering what could've been if she'd been forced to write to earn her living. However, that would've negated a lot of what made Natalie Clifford Barney who she was.
In the end, Rodriguez manages an intimate yet unflinching portrait of a flawed woman of privilege. The portrayals of American high society and Parisian life are evocative of a lost age and, overall, this is an excellent biography of a woman who, nevertheless, I couldn't bring myself to like.