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Depictions of Lesbian Satire by an Unadmitted Ally

Djuna Barnes’ illustrations for Ladies Almanack have much to reveal about her sympathies towards the women she mocked.

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Depictions of Lesbian Satire by an Unadmitted Ally
Daphne Mylonas

Daphne Mylonas

Date
May 13, 2024
Read
5 Minutes

“Written and Illustrated by A Lady of Fashion” reads the first page of Djuna Barnes’ roman à clef, Ladies Almanack. The text’s full title, Ladies Almanack: showing their Signs and their Tides; their Moons and their Changes; the Seasons as it is with them; their Eclipses and Equinoxes; as well as a full Record of diurnal and nocturnal Distempers captures the writer’s gentle satire of literary lesbians, among which she belonged even though she always rejected the label. As an American expat in Paris in the 1920s, she became associated with writer Natalie Clifford Barney and her decadent salon of writers and artists, many female and many queer, including art collector Peggy Guggenheim, dancer Isadora Duncan, and socialite Dolly Wilde, niece of Oscar Wilde. At the time, Barnes was also in a relationship with sculptor Thelma Wood. She wrote Ladies Almanack in 1928 as a parody of Barney’s circle. The publication’s content defied the time’s decency laws, which is why it was written under the pseudonym A Lady of Fashion, one that has become imbued with new significance as we now see Barnes as a feminist icon, a historical rebel, and a writer of much greater talent than her audience thought during her lifetime.  

Djuna Barnes illustrated Ladies Almanack herself. She had a talent for illustration which she had cultivated while studying art at the Pratt Institute and Art Students League of New York and had taken advantage of while working as a journalist in New York City before moving to Paris. She accompanied the writing in her satirical calendar with images meant to resemble the woodblock prints of early almanacs. These are images depicting the passage of time as experienced through the female body; Barnes transforms the labors of the months, the rural activities performed over a twelve-part cycle in Medieval and early-Renaissance art, into a series of starkly untraditional images that confirm and intensify her satire and lesbian allusions.

Modern editions of Ladies Almanack do not feature Barnes’ illustrations, leaving readers without an imagery that simultaneously intensifies and adds nuance to her argument, and without a clear source of amusement, one that the modern instinct to treat artifacts of the past with great earnestness might convince us that we no longer require. As we now look deeper into these images, we can see how they may reveal something new about Barnes and her continuously reinterpreted oeuvre.

Djuna Barnes, Hand-colored copy of Ladies Almanack, 1928 (Image: University of Maryland Library Archives)

The 1928 edition of Ladies Almanack featured a cover drawn and colored by Barnes. Four women appear to ride submissively behind a bolder and more heroic male rider, their four heads coquettishly tilted to the side as they notice their uniformed companion’s raised sword. The women, who carry a banner reading the title Ladies Almanack, are reduced to a unit of Ladies with alternatingly colored horses, dresses, and hats. They appear silly, infatuated, and dependent, perhaps artificially so as they are queer feminists who truly do not need men. Yet it must not be ignored that they are reduced, or reduce themselves, to this status because they have to: women are seen as followers that are part of a unit of womankind instead of individuals with agency. These women ride inside a blue-toned cloud because they occupy an unreal space in this society, one that will become surreal when one sees the scandalous illustrations hidden behind this cover.

Professor Lindsay Starck of Augsburg University argued in a 2019 issue of the John Hopkins University Press’s Modern Fiction Studies that Barnes’ female images, which reinterpret the human in nature as a story of lesbian origin, were intentional subversions of early twentieth-century sexologists’ claims that homosexuals were unaligned with the rhythms of nature. While the deeper motivations behind Barnes’ illustrations may be to use satire as part of a larger project to subvert notions of femininity in her traditional society, the surface of her images is ridiculous and caustic. Barnes then seems to be a critic of both tradition and rebellion against tradition (in the form of open queerness). She occupies a unique position as an ally to women against men and an ally to the literary elite against the world that opposes the avant-garde, and, conversely, a critic of the literary lesbians’ flaws and frivolity as someone who never accepted herself as one of them. She is severe and amusing, but also subtly sensitive, perhaps even silently supportive, in the 22 illustrations that accompany her text. 

Djuna Barnes, Illustrations from Ladies Almanack, 1928 (Image: Biblioctopus)

In the style of an almanac, Ladies Almanack is divided into the months of the year. Barnes approaches the medieval idea of the labors of the months with great irony as she transforms traditional scenes into images of humorous sexuality—or what some in her audience would call vulgarity. February, the month known in medieval times for sitting by the fire, is represented by a contrastingly active image of female flight, one that subverts the female notion of submissive domesticity. Barnes here unveils a sensitivity towards women that is lacking in the text that accompanies this image: she calls the figure an “old girl, out of fashion, bugles at the bosom, and theredown a much thumbed mystery and a maze.” The title February Fell anticipates the mockery that will follow in Barnes’ writing as the girl whose hair is braided by stars and whose foot touches the moon is revealed to be unmajestic enough to fall from the sky.

The March illustration is overtly scandalous as it depicts a pondering woman touching a female companion’s buttocks, which are shamelessly revealed to the viewer as the second figure turns away and lets her skirt be lifted by the wind of Windy March. The image approaches lesbianism and the female body with unmistakable mockery, one that intensifies the ironic description of the interaction between Lady Buck-and-Balk and Tilly-Tweed-in-Blood in the following text. (Barnes based her caricatures on real women; for example, she famously reimagined writers Janet Flanner and Solita Solano as Nip and Tuck in her almanac.) Barnes provides a source of visual amusement to her readers while simultaneously revealing a certain humanity about her characters, one that cannot be perceived until she gives them faces and bodies. As a woman, a friend to the lesbian intellectuals of Paris, and arguably as one of them, she perhaps cannot help but show a certain affection for her characters. Her mockery appears more amusing than harmful when she gives these female figures sweet faces, rosy cheeks, and bright outfits, and removes them from her society by isolating them on an empty field. The medieval notion of March as the time for pruning trees is again subverted as these women, believed by many to be unnatural, are placed in the context of growing nature. 

Through her imagery, Barnes also manages to undermine the idea of woodblock prints as historically somber, alluding to dark themes of medieval Catholicism. Barnes’ drawings are silly, frivolous, and colorful. Just as she places her writing in the context of the traditional almanac, she places her illustrations in the context of traditional prints so that her starkly untraditional message may then seem all the more powerful. While this is unadmitted or unnoticed, Barnes’ Ladies Almanack is a work of complex and intricate subversion. Along with Barnes’ most known piece of writing, Nightwood, published in 1936 and thought to be the first explicitly lesbian American novel, Ladies Almanack is part of a greater project aimed at lesbian acknowledgment, one that is at times as ambiguous as Barnes’ own identity. 

(Cover Image: Djuna Barnes, 1920s, via claudinehemingway.com)

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