Renee Vivien (1877-1909)
Renee Vivien, a turn of the century novelist and poet who wrote exclusively in French, was born Pauline Mary Tarn in Paddington, England. She attended school in Paris until age 9, when her father died. Her mother returned her to England, much to Pauline’s dismay. In an effort to obtain the money left to Pauline, her mother tried to have her declared insane. The court declared Pauline their ward and protected her, and once Pauline reached the age of 21, she moved back to Paris.
Once in Paris, Pauline changed her name to Renee Vivien to symbolize her rebirth. She also met and became lovers with Natalie Barney, an American heiress known for her flamboyant lesbian lifestyle. Renee began publishing her poetry under the masculine “Renee Vivien”, but after publishing a couple books, she began using “Renee” to indicate her gender.
Renee’s poetry and novels show several sources of inspiration: Natalie Barney, Violet Shilleto, Pierre Louys, and Sappho. Natalie inspired retellings of their relationship through prose and poem. Violet Shilleto, Renee’s childhood friend and love who died in 1901, appears in Renee’s work through repeated images of violets and the color purple. Pierre Louys’s sensual “Songs of Bilitis” and Sappho’s evocative poems about women-love influenced Renee’s poetic style. Sappho, in particular, became an icon for Renee – she translated the work of Sappho into modern French, and even traveled with Natalie to Lesbos in an attempt to revive a women’s artist colony on the island.
Renee ended her relationship with Natalie in 1901, when she took up with the Baroness Helene de Zuylen de Nyevelt. The Baronness nurtured Renee for the next several years, then broke off their relationship in 1906. After several more relationship with women, Renee died in 1909 of alcoholism and anorexia.
From 1901 to 1909, Renee wrote fourteen volumes of poetry, three volumes of stories, and two novels. Her work is notable for her lack of apology for her lesbian expression. At this time, little of her poetry is available in English translation.
Biography by Alix North