by Djuna Barnes
1992, originally published 1928 • 91 pages • Dalkey Archive Press
This is what I was reading when the Supreme Court of the United States (I will never say SCOTUS, because it makes me giggle like a twelve year old) ruled that same-sex marriage was constitutional on June 26th. I’ve talked a little about how I, a pretty quiet nerdly type who occasionally transforms into the hissing GOTH QUEEN OF THE INTROVERTS at the drop of a hat, often feel alienated from mainstream queer culture because I don’t like to party, drink, or stay out late. (This is why events like FlameCon are so incredibly important to me.) But what a time for pride and Pride. Watching the New York Pride March make its thundering way south on Fifth Avenue out of a foggy, rainy morning felt like watching us all march out of history.
Which is, of course, where we’ve been this whole time. Reading loosely over the dissenting opinions of the court, I was miffed to discover the age-old argument that same-sex marriage is a something brand new and totally alien to the human concept of matrimony. (Which also smacks of the strange idea that queer folk were invented in the seventies.) I’d like to point everyone to the late medieval French practice of affrèrement (“brother-making”), which was used to unite property owners (so, dudes) who wanted to pool their resources, which was the basic concept of marriage for most of human history. The idea was that it would be used for literal brothers who needed certain legal rights (i.e., sharing property and becoming each other’s legal heirs). But the idea that two men wouldn’t have used it in the context of a loving relationship is absurd. I point you to Wikipedia for more information on same-sex unions in other cultures.
It’s important to know your queer history, In any case, I often find my link to the queer community at large through queer history, be it recentering Oscar Wilde as a queer icon, swooning at the dashing adventures of La Maupin, or overly identifying with Natalie Clifford Barney. I mean, come on, an entire salon of lesbian women (except for Mina Loy, whom they considered their token heterosexual) writing extensively, rolling their eyes at the sausage fest that was L’Académie française and starting their own, and generally raising hell through Paris in the early twentieth century? Perfection.
Djuna Barnes wrote Ladies Almanack in 1928, to cheer up her lover Thelma Wood while she was in the hospital. Despite being a very pointed parody of their social circle in Restorian English (instead of French), it nonetheless found some popularity outside of said circle. The Darantiere Press (which, incidentally, also published Ulysses) put out a small run that was sold by word of mouth.
It’s not hard to see the little text’s wider appeal. As many in-jokes as there are (Natalie Barney’s personal copy was annotated with a list of which character presented which woman) and as inscrutable as the language can be (probably moreso for me than for 1920s Parisians), it’s just so nice to see a group of queer women talking about and joking about their lives. One column features Barnes explaining that “Women with a Difference” were born after all the astrological signs (all female, of course) had a wild orgy and managed to give birth to the first lesbian as a unit. Dame Musset, the Barney analogue, has a section where she complains about how it used to be so rewarded to seduce closeted women; now girls are after her because being into girls is so fashionable nowadays. British women wonder why on earth same-sex marriage hasn’t become legalized in order to make women accountable. Tea is taken, the proper way to declare one’s love is considered, and Doll Furious (Dolly Wilde, as well my new roller derby name) turns up in Dame Musset’s bed.
And they, too, are sensitive to the utility of knowing one’s queer history. Barnes references Sappho—somewhat disappointed in her methods and choices of women, but nonetheless delighted at the respect afforded her. But more important is a reference to the lack of queer history that they have access to: “…how much Luck and how much Cunning this was on the part of the Outrunners in the Thickets of prehistoric proability, none can say, for doubt me not but from Fish to Man there has been much Back-mating and Front to Front, though only a Twitter of it comes out of the Past” (43). That just makes me more grateful that, all things considered, I’m a modern—and Modern, in Barnes’ characterization—woman. I am infinitely glad that these women are my history.
I rented this book from the public library.