Souhami is one of our most rewarding and inventive biographers, and this book is a splendidly hectic and vivid read. She has a novelist’s gift for the deft evocation. Beach’s appearance was ‘sprightly but unremarkable. She was five foot two, thin, with a brisk walk, determined chin, bobbed hair and brown eyes behind steel rimmed glasses.’ Neither Gertrude nor Alice ‘ever wore trousers... on one occasion Gertrude was mistaken for a bishop’. And she is often funny. When quoting a terrible poem by a Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (‘So noble soul so weak a body/Thine body is the prey of mice’) Souhami just says: ‘It went on like that.’
Souhami has written several fine biographies of what Truman Capote once reprehensibly called the “daisy-chain” of “butch-babes”; now, in a comprehensive cultural history, she awards lesbians the credit for modernising art, manners and morals in the early 20th century.
Like a tabloid headline, her book’s title is intended to provoke, and it depends on a somewhat tenuous analogy: “modernism in art upended 19th-century rules of narrative and form”, so why shouldn’t modernity in life revise the “codes of conduct for sexual exchange”, licensing women to defy men or dispense with them and love each other instead? To paraphrase her slogan a little more modestly, what Souhami shows is that there might have been no modernism if the lesbian bookseller Sylvia Beach had not arranged to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses in Paris when editors in London and New York, fearing prosecution for obscenity, refused to touch it.
This is a book about love, identity, acceptance and the freedom to write, paint, compose and wear corduroy breeches with gaiters. To swear, kiss, publish and be damned. One wants to have Beach’s defiant “You can’t censor human nature” printed on a T-shirt. This is a book too about small presses, good bookshops and banned manuscripts smuggled up trouser legs. Souhami convincingly makes the case — more persuasively with Beach, Stein and Bryher than with Barney — for foresighted, free-minded lesbian women as particular promoters, patrons and practitioners of modernism, from cubist painting to the stream-of-consciousness novel, from free-verse poetry to improvised film.