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Women Lovers, or The Third Woman by Natalie Clifford Barney, ed. and trans. by Chelsea Ray

A sprightly, autobiographical 1926 novel of a Belle Époque lesbian love triangle, written in French by an American and appearing in English for the first time.

woman lovers

The works of Natalie Clifford Barney, an American who lived in Paris and wrote in French, are little known, and her 1926 autobiographical novel Amants féminins was published for the first time only in 2013. Woman Lovers, or The Third Woman is the first English translation.

A scholarly introduction by Melanie C. Hawthorne and a translator’s essay by Chelsea Ray place this work in the context of modernism and evolving gender definitions while detailing Barney’s biography. These introductory materials are revealing and absorbing in their own right, if a little dry in their academic tone. The novel, however, leaps energetically to life.

Barney’s protagonist N., who stands in for the author, believes in love among women as an ideal of pleasure and friendship. “Friendship is simply love without pleasure!” she declares. “Love is heavy for two to carry, and happiness is monotonous.” With a new lover, M., she establishes an “association” by which the two women will comfort those in romantic distress by sharing their affections. When she brings such a woman into her relationship with M., however, N. is unexpectedly left out, jealous and hurt.

Barney is perhaps best known for her aphorisms, and she uses such pithy fragments as well as screenplay-style dialogue, mock journal entries, a combination of first- and third-person perspectives and even drawings to tell her story. Woman Lovers, while brief, is thus a noteworthy and historically significant piece of experimental literature, queer theory and a captivating roman à clef all at once.


This review originally ran in the July 29, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 chestnuts.

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