June 2013

Lee Randall


An Interview with Diana Souhami

Conventions, who needs them? For Diana Souhami, conventions and expectations exist to be circumvented, toyed with, and flouted. The result is a compelling body of work consisting of everything from her recent straightforward biography of Edith Cavell, to a batch of books newly reissued that Souhami refers to as "dykes and islands" books. They are Coconut Chaos, about Pitcairn Island; Selkirk's Island, about the man who inspired Robinson Crusoe, that won the 2001 Whitbread Award for biography; Gluck, about painter Hannah Gluckstein; Greta and Cecil, about the bizarre affair between the society photographer and the reluctant movie star; Natalie and Romaine, which, even more than it's a portrait of the relationship between Romaine Brooks and Natalie Barney, is a snapshot of the lesbian scene in Paris during the first half of the twentieth century; and The Trials of Radclyffe Hall, about the scandal surround the publication of The Well of Loneliness. Souhami is also the author of Gertrude and Alice, and of Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughter, exploring the lives of King Edward VII's celebrated mistress and her daughter, Violet Trefusis. It won the Lambda Literary Award, as did The Trials of Radclyffe Hall.

Souhami, who grew up in London and then studied philosophy at Hull University, warns me not to quiz her on that: "I remember nothing. I did that, but I can't say that I was a good student." From there, she got a job in publishing, and then in the publications department of the BBC. At the same time, she published short stories, had plays put on at the Edinburgh Festival and in London's fringe theatres, and radio plays that the BBC broadcast. She also conceived an exhibition entitled A Woman's Place: The Changing Picture of Women in Britain, for the British Council, and wrote the accompanying book. In 1986 Jane Hawksley, of Pandora Press, a feminist imprint of Routledge & Kegan Paul, sent her a letter wondering if she had any other books in mind. Thus, Gluck was born. "So that was my lucky moment," Souhami said. "I went in and handed in my notice to the BBC. And since then I have always got a commission, which leaves me enough to be reasonably poor. Like all writers."

I loved the idea of "dykes and islands" books. How are the two connected?

Well, sometimes it can seem like being a lesbian is a bit like being marooned on a deserted island, outside society, with few resources. That's changed, but I think that sense of isolation, certainly historically, the characters, they endured it. And I have always liked the idea of remote islands for as long as I can remember. In my mind there is a connection between the outsiderness of being gay and being marooned on an island. I mean it in a quite humorous way. I don't mean it like sitting in a pub and rocking backward and forward in grief.

None of the reviews of your books talk about how funny they are.

It does help to joke about awful things.

Your style is quite refreshing and novelistic. How did you develop that approach?

I have this sort of adage, "If in doubt, out." I have a horror of banging on too much. Also, the fact that I was consciously writing about lesbians and knew that it was a subject that would make a lot of publishers throw their hands up in horror, a subject that they might not want. I think it's the most important thing about writing, this thing of striking the right tone -- sort of like flicking your finger against a glass to see if it rings true. I keep that in the front of my mind when I'm writing.

I never felt the facts were compromised, but at the same time I felt swept along by the story.

Yes. I do try to keep a sense of narrative, although in Coconut Chaos I try to subvert all that. That's the one on Pitcairn Island. I'm laughing, because it's kind of nice to take risks and upset a genre. I like tangential thinking.

You certainly subverted convention with Natalie and Romaine (originally published as Wild Girls, though your dream title was A Sapphic Idyll). Interleaved between the chapters are short "quasi-autobiographical snippets" that, as you have written, are there to "show allegiance to the subject matter of the book, but also to undercut Natalie's temple of friendship and privilege." Certain reviewers were displeased by these interruptions.

I got a lot of stick for that, yes.

One critic said, "It's the oldest story, the biographer who longs to make something up. It is the second oldest story, the historian for whom the past is not a foreign country." Which, I thought, missed the boat.

Yes, people can take against it, but I didn't want to disassociate myself from it. I wanted it to be known that I was as keen as they were, and also that I was of a different class from these women. If I were to do it again I'd choose different anecdotes, but I wouldn't leave it out. I also upset people by these footnotes, but I did want to, in some ways, subvert the traditional biography: one thing after another, and the worst thing is to leave out a reference. The footnotes can be quite dull, stacks of notes at the end just to prove that you did your homework. I usually take eighteen months to two years writing and researching.

Do you take a similar time to write fiction?

Coconut Chaos, I think it's been reissued as fiction. When it first went out it confounded the marketing men at the publishers, who didn't know where to put it, so it ended up under travel. I'd wanted it to be autobiography, I'd wanted it to be history, I'd wanted it to be biography and fiction. But you know how they want books to fit into a category?

They want to know where to put it at the store.

That's it exactly! It is very confining, why these things have to fit into categories.

Which must be especially galling, since a theme in all your books is rebellion, and the refusal to be the person others expect one to be. That's not just true of your subjects, but of yourself and your approach to the work.

I do think that the subject can dictate what it seems right to do with it. Also, as I'm sure you know, books change as you go along. An original idea develops in tangential ways. But I don't regret messing around and putting in those little anecdotes and footnotes that bored people. I did actually take some mischievous glee in that, I have to admit.

In a speech you reminded listeners that The Well of Loneliness was banned on the basis that the subject matter was "inadmissible in fiction." If Hall was writing now, surely it would be banned on basis of being unreadable?

I think it was Virginia Woolf who said of it that it was so boring, any obscenity could be lurking in the pages because you couldn't keep awake reading it. Radclyffe Hall's life was pretty dramatic and the fact of banning such an anodyne book... The sexiest thing in it is, "And that night they were not divided."

I have never understood what's upsetting about lesbianism.

The coming-out stories that young people have, even now, about the grief that it causes people... Really, why should something benign cause such trauma? I don't really know. I think so many things come into it. This idea of the family, which is so bandied about by politicians still, and how children need two parents, a mother and a father -- when they clearly don't. They need someone who loves them, any old mother or father is no more use to them than anything else. So that concept, of family. And there's the church, isn't there, which has got itself in a dreadful fix about it all. When one gets beyond even thinking about, that's when things will really be all right. But I don't think it'll happen too soon.

Is being true to oneself different for women?

I do think about that issue. Gay men have probably gotten further down the line with sorting it out. I suppose because women have been forced to be so invisible in so many areas of their life. I mean The Well of Loneliness is an example of that: that silence was best. Nobody must read this. You mustn't say it. There's this history of don't mention it, but that's true of so much of women's lives.

Things move forward, but they certainly don't arrive in equalities, not really. One of the joys of cities like New York, where you are from, and London, is that it isn't an issue. These are cities that don't belong to anyone, and there's an irrelevance about political structures, too, because people have made their own. But I think you can still go out into the English countryside and feel the same pressures as you probably felt in the 1900s.

Why were things so much more progressive on the continent? At one time, Berlin had the highest lesbian population in the Western world, and the Paris of Natalie and Romaine is full of gay women.

I think what happened in Paris was that largely expatriate American and British women went there and created their own lives and social structures. Whereas here, the establishment was so oppressive. Reading the papers of the trial of Radclyffe Hall, you know, it was the Home Secretary, the Public Prosecutor -- the whole lot of them, all united to put a lid on social change. There was an atmosphere of repression. Another interesting thing is that Modernism probably wouldn't have happened without lesbians in Paris. Without Natalie Barney, without Gertrude Stein, without Bryher (Winifred Ellerman). It was quite extraordinary, their contribution to this change from the Victorian past to Modernism, to the real shock of the new. It wouldn't have happened without them.

Does the biographer have to take a viewpoint, or should she try at all times to be objective?

I am not prescriptive. I like an underpinning concept that's different in each of the books. In Gertrude and Alice it was the fact that it was this happy marriage between two women. In Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughter it was hypocrisy. Mrs. Keppel was the darling of Edwardian society and her daughter was shoved off to Paris because she fell in love with Vita Sackville-West.

Greta and Cecil?

I was doing something a bit different there. It was this strange thing of the gaze, and uncertain gender and of being the image and being looked at. She was the perfect face and he wanted in some way to become her. That thing of wavering gender and identity interested me. He was horrible in many ways, but quite strange and compelling. And I think he really did believe that she would marry him! That is delusional. I mean he dresses like her, but he doesn't pass, does he? That's interesting in itself, why a man should want to be Greta Garbo. I don't pretend I understand it, but the image is quite something, don't you think, a man in a nice frock? It never quite works.

Gertrude Stein regularly insisted she was a genius. Do you agree?

Yes, but I also like her for saying it takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around for so long doing nothing. I think she could debunk herself, she could joke. She was at the cutting edge of change and Modernism, it's just that what she wrote was more or less unreadable.

So her genius was expressed less through her work than through her life?

Well, in a way it was, it's just that nobody read it, or could read it. And still nobody reads it -- but everybody knows about her in the background of literature, which is quite interesting.

So what is genius?

Someone who breaks the mold. I think she did do that. She asked questions like why should there be chapters? She'd have three chapter nines followed by a chapter fifty-six. It turned things on its head. You can be impatient with why things always have to be the same format and what books have to be like. I am interested in those questions, and I think the opportunity for experiment gets less and less. Publishers have got the wind up about how they keep going.

It's not helped by all the bad writers hiding behind the label "experimental fiction."

Experiment for the sake of it... I wish there were more experimentation, in film, an in music, as well as books. But it doesn't make money.