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5 Authors like Gertrude Stein: Creatively Contradictory

Mandy Baldwin itcherShe was a lesbian who despised women, an anti-Semitic Jew, a celebrity who lived to promote others, a Bohemian who preferred early nights, and a salon queen who fell out with her protégées. She was adored in her native USA but lived all her adult life in Paris. Authors like Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Vita Sackville-West, Lady Constance Malleson and Elisabeth de Gramont were all born Victorian but turned Modernist and they all led conflicted lives, but none did so as nonchalantly as the forthright Miss Stein. ~ Mandy Baldwin

Queering The Pitch

Even her 1933 lucrative best-seller ‘The Autobiography Of Alice  B. Toklas’ is an example of the living oxymoron who was Miss G. Stein.  It wasn’t written by Stein’s life-partner, Alice, and neither was it a labour of love.  It was rattled off in six weeks as a commercial product which Gertrude’s ‘frenemy’ Ernest Hemingway described as ‘a damned pitiful book.’

She mourned the damage done to what she described as ‘the lost generation’ but Gertrude and Alice, both Jews, survived life in occupied France and defended their local mayor who collaborated with the Nazis, making jaw-dropping comments in favour of National Socialism and openly admiring Hitler.

Even Stein’s last words were an attempt to start an argument. But authors like Stein who laid the groundwork for future waves of creativity. With her bold assumption that she would do as she chose, go where she wanted, and speak as she found, writers like her would become icons to the Beat Generation.

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Authors Similar to Gertrude Stein…

Elisabeth de Gramont

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A descendant of King Henry IV of France, a friend of Proust, and a regular visitor at Gertrude Stein’s Saturday evening salons: her full name was Antoinette Corisande Elisabeth Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre but she became known as ‘the red duchess’ because of her devotion to socialism.  

She was married to a duke and had two daughters, but signed a declaration of civil partnership with Natalie Barney to confirm their ‘open’ relationship.

Recommended Book: ‘Barbey d’Aurevilly’ (1946)

A biography of the 19th century French author, Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, which explores his Catholic religious beliefs and surprisingly risqué subject matter. Like most of de Gramont’s works, this is written in a dense, masculine style and is meticulously researched.  

Similarity Match: 95%
Elisabeth was also a biographer and a patron of the arts. But Gertrude was faithful to her beloved Alice, never married and remained childless.

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Lytton Strachey

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Frail and bullied as a boy, Stratchey lived with his mother until, while on an extended holiday, he grew a long beard and decided that this proved he was an adult. Declaring himself a gay man, he lived in a ménage a trois with a straight man and a lesbian, who married the straight man in order to keep the threesome together, had his child (who the couple named Lytton) then killed herself in despair when Lytton Strachey died.  

Clearly, Lytton Strachey was someone who could teach even an author like Gertrude Stein a thing or two about conflicting aims and lifestyles.

He was one of the earliest members of the Bloomsbury Group and never allowed his complex domestic arrangements to interfere with his intellectual and creative output.

Recommended Book: ‘Eminent Victorians’ (1918)

Strachey began this book in 1912 after writing to Virginia Woolf that the Victorian heroes of their childhood seemed to him to be “a set of mouth bungled hypocrites”.

He made his name as a biographer thanks to his fresh, witty and irreverent take on the lives of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold and General Gordon – who, until then, had always been portrayed as beyond reproach.

Similarity Match: 90%
Strachey didn’t hold salons, although he was a member of the Bloomsbury group, and a great friend of Virginia Woolf. Like Stein, he carved out his own life without even considering that he was defying convention.

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Lady Constance Malleson

Her background set the pattern for an unconventional life. She was the youngest daughter of the 5th Earl Annesley and was born in Castlewellan Castle in Northern Ireland in 1895, but her aunt stood as a Labour party candidate in the 1920s. Constance trained as an actress at RADA because she believed that every woman must know how to earn her own living.

She became a relatively successful stage actress although she soon became involved in politics, campaigning for financial security for young actors and actresses.  

She married twice, then began a long-running affair with Bertrand Russell, after her husband agreed that they could have an ‘open marriage’. But their relationship ended when Constance refused to have the children of either of the two men.

She wrote three novels, two autobiographical accounts of her travels, and one play which received such bad reviews that she never wrote for the stage again.

Recommended Book: ‘In the North: Autobiographical Fragments in Norway, Sweden, Finland, 1936-1946’ (1946)

After the break-up of her ménage a trois, Constance spent several years giving lectures on feminism, predominantly in Scandinavia. The journals she kept during her travels form the basis for this book, which is mainly a series of personal reflections on her experiences.  

It is available for download from private libraries and dealers and is fascinating not so much for any special insights offered by Constance, but as a window into the mind of someone whose personal belief system was entirely at odds with the social group she was born into.

Similarity Match: 80%
Her family connections saved her from the consequences of being avant garde so she never achieved true Bohemian status. But she tried…oh, how she tried!

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If You Like Gertrude Stein, You Will Like…

These writers had the will to rebel and led complex emotional lives but eventually had to choose between domesticity or destruction.

Vita Sackville-West

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This is a writer who achieved early acclaim from the artistic establishment but is now mainly remembered for other things. The Honourable Victoria Mary Sackville-West (aka Lady Nichols) won prizes for her imaginative literature but her talents were soon overshadowed by her relationships.  

She had several well-documented lesbian affairs, and lived in a ménage a trois before returning to Lord Nichols.  With her husband, she created the famous garden of Sissinghurst, while her affair with Virginia Woolf provided inspiration for the androgynous protagonist in Woolf’s historical novel ‘Orlando’. These stories are now her memorials.

This is a pity, because her novels are actually lively and innovative and full of well-realised characters. Unlike many upper-class Bohemians, she stayed out of politics and used her reflections on current affairs to fuel her creative-writing.

Recommended Book: ‘All Passion Spent’ (1931)

This is a book which must have been inspired by the quiet years of domesticity which Lord Nichols shared with the reformed and repentant Vita.

Lord Slane has always overshadowed his wife and when he dies, Lady Slane’s children assume she will simply drift from one of their homes to the other, until she finally joins Lord Slane in the family crypt.

Instead, she rents a house in artistic Hampstead, where she returns to her pre-marriage dreams of being an artist and fills her home with colourful and questionable friends.

A charming, playful and touching exploration of growing older and how age can bring freedom rather than stagnation.

Possibly the most talented of these authors, she managed her complex domestic arrangements with the same determined dignity as Stein, but sacrificed her artistic reputation.

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Virginia Woolf

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One of those Modernist writers who you will either worship or want to slap; Woolf suffered bouts of mental illness all her life but even while pitying her, it is hard not to feel that she would have been healthier if she had been born into a background which gave her a reason to get up in the morning and think about something outside her own head.  

Even her circle of friends, the Bloomsbury Group, encouraged her self-absorption. She had real talent and some fascinating concepts but her disdain for writing for readers instead of constantly exploring her own consciousness, and her inability to think of any life outside a circle of privilege, made her writing appear elitist and inaccessible.

At the age of fifty-nine, she committed suicide by filling her pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse near the home she shared with her husband.  Her last note began: “My dear, I feel certain that I am going mad again…”

Recommended Book: ‘To The Lighthouse’ (1927)

Set during World War I, the Ramsay family enjoys their holiday at their second home on the Isle of Skye while pondering the concepts of existence, loss and change. 

During the course of the war, there are three deaths: one from old age, one in combat, and one in childbirth. The characters react to these. There is little to no dialogue or action, and hardly any interaction between characters. The ‘story’ is the internal monologue referencing childhood memories and adult conflicts.

‘To the Lighthouse’ is beloved by the literary elite in a way Stein never achieved, but showing the snobbish, negative side of Bohemia instead of Stein’s bright brusqueness.

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Heaven Knows, Anything Goes

These writers like Gertrude Stein held beliefs which clashed with their backgrounds and they lived lives which contradicted everything they should have held dear.

All of them were born into financial security and the privileges they assumed to be normal should be a barrier to their relevance.  But their bold vision of a world in which creative people don’t so much defy convention as deny convention exists, still stands as the perfect example of ‘la vie Boheme’.

Do you think writers should live outside the box? Please leave your comments.

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