Among the Bohemians

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time and Witchwind’s latest post on Left-wing men has inspired me to just go ahead. It is going to be a review stroke radfem analysis of the book Among the Bohemians, Experiments in Living 1900-1939 written by a woman called Virginia Nicholson, who is in fact Virginia Woolf’s niece. The book is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read.

She begins by introducing us to Bohemia what it stands for and what it evokes. Conjuring up the meaning of the word is quite powerful because it creates a sense of mystery. And who are mysterious if not women? The French word bohémien translates as Gypsy into English.

The Bohemian philosophy meant choosing poverty and death over a circumscribed life. The artist romanticized poverty, and living a sparse existence was seen as essential in order for the art to be authentic. Poverty sanctified their art, as did the despisal of riches:

“Many thoughtful and high-minded people were also struggling to come to terms with their instinctive aversion to the materialism and excess of the Victorian and Edwardian age, like the founding fathers of Fabianism and socialism whose tenets of redistribution led to the formation of the Labour Party. But this particular Bohemian attitude was an extreme position.”

Becoming a Bohemian felt like rebellion because it angered the older generation, and men who took the Bohemian route were regarded as being anti-establishment. Many women of the upper and middle classes gave up their lifestyles in order to follow the political ideals of the Bohemians, but the consequences for them were different than they were for men. I will discuss the implications for women below.

Radical feminists are well-acquainted the phenomenon of women interpreting political messages or certain spiritual philosophies in ways that differ from how the original message was intended. Check out FactCheckMe’s blog for further exploration of this. Women apply their own female reality to concepts coined by leaders and spokesmen of male-led  movements. They project their own values onto what men are saying, rather than taking the words on face value.

Taking what men say on face value would mean admitting that all political ideologies, from communism to capitalism to Islam, are based on using women’s reproductive capacities as an unpaid resource and exploiting women’s second class status. Theorists and politicians don’t explicitly say it but it is understood that women’s sexual and domestic servitude will be required for the ideology or theory to work in practice. The unspoken mean in every political scenario, from left to right is male dominance over women, and female compliance. Men have not conceived of any social structure to date that is sustainable without women’s invisible and unpaid labour. That is because all political scientists work within the patriarchal framework. And because women are so unwilling accept this basic truth about politics, and about how they are seen through the eyes of the people who have power over them, they go through a series of mental gymnastics in order to revise the speaker’s intent: “He can’t possibly have meant that. Surely he meant this” 

To give an example, I believe that women are drawn to communism and left-wing politics in general out of a desire to eliminate poverty and create a fairer distribution of wealth, whereas the intent of the men involved is to undermine the wealth and power of other, richer men, which are two very different motivations. It’s not that women are missing the point. They get the point. What they don’t get is the intent.The male intent in this example is the spreading out and sharing of the resources available, and by that, they also mean women. Women find the misogyny of the intent unfathomable, so they choose to believe that they too will benefit from the new and improved social order.

The Bohemians went further than espousing a fair distribution of wealth; they sought a complete renunciation of it. This must have appealed to women’s spiritual side as well as their sense of fairness.

Patriarchal religions have long used women’s innate spirituality against them in exactly the same way. By getting women to believe that coveting material wealth is a sin, men are able to convince women to marry second-rate men “for his personality” and get them to embrace sparse living and simple lifestyles. In religious circles her willingness to do this is a sign of virtue. Women are belittled for thinking wealth is important, and they are gas-lighted into denying the fact that their desire for money is actually a desire for safety and economic security, which is what they get in return for giving themselves to a man. At some point men must have realized that the simple patriarchal philosophy of offering money to a woman in exchange for her virginity, chastity, children and loyalty actually left a lot of men without wives, because no matter how wealthy men were as a class, many women still figured it wasn’t worth it. But if men can somehow convince women that living without wealth puts them on a higher plane than other less enlightened mortals, then men with modest incomes (or no incomes) are able to access women as wives. Men have long waxed lyrical about finding a ‘non-materialistic “good” woman’ and women have been brow-beaten into taking the bait.

What actually happened to upper and middle class women was that by renouncing wealth and giving up their connection to their families, they also gave up their good name, and their virtue: the two things that women were supposed to keep in order to prevent the worst atrocities from being committed against them. Consorting with libertines considerably lowered their value as property in the eyes of their fathers and polite society.This in turn made them even more dependent on the Bohemian men closest to them. These men took advantage of the fact that women who had forsaken it all for ideals literally had nowhere to go and could never return to society.

Many women were so broken by the time they became adults that choosing an autonomous Bohemian lifestyle on their own terms was not within the realms of possibility. For example, if a young woman of means and artistic temperament came across Bohemian concepts she might have thought they applied to her, that she too could sacrifice material trappings for the sake of her art and for a more fulfilled and meaningful life. But as we shall see these dreams, routes and alternative visions were not for women after all, not really. It’s not that women couldn’t opt into poverty. It’s that they couldn’t opt into Bohemia. But they still wanted to be there, so many of them did the next best thing: they supported their man.

This is precisely why women are still today regarded as being conservative, right-wing creatures at heart. They stay close to hearth and home. This process of breaking women into domesticity and heterosexuality is important if men are to be able to see themselves as free spirits and the true artists and creators of the world. If women came to adulthood with their spirits still whole, how many more women would choose romantic Bohemian poverty and a swift early death for the sake of their dreams?

But at the heart of the matter is the fact that no matter how dire a male artist’s poverty may be, he is rarely ever prostituted. His integrity always remains intact, and that is because he lives and dies with an inviolate sense of self. I’ve written about female death being romanticized in pornography here. Female death is played out very differently under patriarchy. In other words, if your worst fear is poverty, and you are prepared to embrace this for your art, then you’ve been dealt a good card. What women face is far worse. They face being kept alive as punishment for their transgressions. The real reason there aren’t more women huddling together in poverty on the streets and is because those women who might choose poverty are dragged off to mental institutions where they are kept alive for a long time. A woman without an owner who is found wandering in the forest under the stars will be picked up by the police. The police then hand her over to doctors. Women eventually die in these institutions and although they are technically not in poverty because they have enough food in their stomachs, the fact is they have been cheated of the romantic death of the artist. Declare that the woman is mad and get her taken away and you’ll never have to fear her art. Remember, the institutionalized woman is also living under a particular reign of terror, of the kind that the man who has opted for poverty does not face. Women with owners (father, husband, brother) are promptly returned to them. Virginia Nicholson gives us an example:

“One morning, half delirious from a night of revelry, still dressed in chiffon and spangles, Iris and Nancy took a dip in the Serpentine. Emerging bedraggled they found themselves confronted by policemen who charged them, having taken their names and addresses. That was the end of their freedom, but only temporarily, for they forged new latchkeys, broke out, and were soon back at the studio. Now with great daring they trespassed on such unladylike territories as foreign restaurants in Soho, public houses, or the cabmen’s shelters where you could get coffee and saveloys at three in the morning. They drank wine at the Café Royal or champagne at the Cavendish Hotel in Jermyn street, whose free-and-easy proprietress Rosa Lewis (‘Ma Lewis’ insisted on charging their consumption of Veuve Cliquot to some unknown plutocrat’s bill” (p.253)

The other place to deposit a woman who dares to become an artist without being in possession of sufficient material means is of course the brothel.

Male artistes were liable to regard women as common an communal property, rather than private property, in keeping with their left-leaning politics. In other words, most of them were johns and this added to their sense of revolutionary camaraderie. According to Henri Murger in 1840 women were people you paid to have around when you had some extra cash:

“Bohemia bristles with.. poverty and doubt…[Bohemians are] incessantly at war with necessity, they know how to practice abstinence with all the virtue of an anchorite, but if a slice of fortune falls into their hands you will see them at once mounted on the most ruinous fantasies, loving the youngest and prettiest, drinking the oldest and best, and never finding sufficient windows to throw their money out of. Then when their last crown is dead and buried, they begin to dine again at that table spread by chance, at which their place is always laid, and, preceded by a pack of tricks, go poaching on all the callings that have any connection with art, hunting from morn till night that wild beast called a five-franc piece.” (p.3)

Ironically, given their left-wing leanings, many Bohemian men also had wives. When you see that these artists were bringing their wives and children along for the ride you begin to grasp how far removed from their privileges women really were. But the romantic idealization and abstract concept of Bohemia was what kept the women faithful to the male artist. If they could not enter this place themselves, they would be close to it through him.

A defining characteristic of the Bohemian movement was sex-positivity. But women, at this point in time, could not yet be persuaded to have intercourse in the name of pleasure. However because they sought a higher connection with a person than marriage provided, and hungered for a type of meeting of souls, Bohemian men took advantage of this and it was on this basis that they got laid for free. Marriage was depicted as being not only conservative, but cynically pragmatic. Note that this is focusing on men’s reality again because men were able to be financially secure without marrying. However women were relinquishing the safety net of marriage for political reasons (i.e feminist reasons) and men had to come up with something else.

Knowing this, it could be said that women were the only true bohemians of the era because in renouncing marriage they were automatically renouncing material security. Perhaps the Bohemian movement was just another case of men copying women and pretending to have ideals of their own.

The following extract shows how men went about seducing women:

“When the author Grant Allen wrote his novel The Woman who Did (1895) it was a best-seller. Although its language and sentiment read somewhat mawkishly today, the heroine would find many latter-day sympathisers in her single-minded determination not to marry cynically.
The beautiful Herminia Grey wears simple pre-Raphaelite-style clothes and white roses in her hair, she is clearly all soul. To her rather more conventionally minded suitor Alan Merrick this virginal goddess is irresistible. Their conversation is on a higher plane, their hearts unite, and Alan asks Herminia to be his wife. But his plane is not as high as hers, for Herminia has made up her mind never to marry. Instead she proposes that they should be ‘Very dear, dear friends, with the only kind of friendship that nature makes possible between men and women.’

“I know what marriage is, from what vile slavery it has sprung; on what unseen horrors for my sister women it is reared and buttressed; by what unholy sacrifices it is sustained and made possible, I can’t be untrue to my most sacred beliefs.”

Alan takes some persuading, but at Herminia’s insistence eventually agrees to live unmarried for the sake of her principles. A dramatic confrontation ensues when Merrick senior, Alan’s wealthy father, finds out. Spluttering with revulsion at his son’s disgusting defiance of decency, he promptly disinherits him. Soon after, Herminia becomes pregnant. Rather shamefully, they go to Italy to have the baby in Perugia, and there Alan regrettably dies of typhoid contracted from bad drains. Herminia is left a penniless unmarried mother. She returns to England and, as a fallen woman no longer acceptable to society, is faced with a struggle for survival.
Although Herminia is a victim, ostracized and outlawed, by giving her unshakable convictions Allen claims moral pre-eminence for his heroine.”

This novel appears to be rife with patriarchal reversals and doublethink. Still today men convince women that their beauty overwhelms them and women are often so flattered that they do end up finding themselves handing out pity fucks to their admirers. “Game” is a clever and successful ploy.

Let us take a look at the fate of some of the wives and girlfriends.

Caitlin Thomas

“Poor Caitlin Thomas did her best to be penniless and proud of it in her artistic life with Dylan, but every so often her resolve broke down when she thought of how things might have been if Dylan had capitalized on his fame instead of squandering every penny on booze: ‘just think of the money: wads of lovely crackling cracklers to do with just as one pleases’ It’s a crie de coeur from one who has never had enough.・(p 26)

Anna Wickam

Anna Wickam, for example, was a talented singer who had the misfortune to marry a dominating man with no interest in her as an artist. After their marriage she gave up her musical career, had four sons, and played the role of model wife until it became suffocating. Eventually she began to write poetry in secret, but when her husband found out he was enraged and forbid her to write any more. A violent row broke out, Anna smashing her hand through a glass door, at which her husband had her certified insane. She was forced to spend two months in a mental asylum. Afterwards, she returned to her husband and children and continued clandestinely to write poetry. Thwarted as an artist, she vented much of her energy and passion on needlework. Betty May visited her and was bewildered to hear Anna declaiming about books and writers while furiously knitting. On another occasion Nina Hamnett arrived and was amazed to find every surface of the room festooned in garlands of boys・socks, full of holes, waiting to be mended: there must have been about one hundred. Anna was sitting in their midst, darning like a demon, confident that the entire job would take no more than three hours.” (p 218)

Cristabel Dennison

“The indignity and betrayal of domestic servitude were not reserved for the virtuosi of art and literature. In 1922 painter called Christabel Dennison found herself pregnant by her lover John Adams, a writer. Dependent on John, and locked into a masochistic and servile relationship with him, Christabel gave her baby away to a friend who brought up the child. Many years later the daughter, Jane Spottiswoode, discovered her mother’s diaries and embarked on a quest to find out about Christabel. The sad book that resulted, Christabel Who? (1998) reveals a picture of a woman’s life stunted and blighted by domestic pressures. Her artistic inspirations and daily domestic reality were fundamentally incompatible. But although it seems extreme Christabel’s relationship with John is a pitiable apology for a love affair–her everyday life is one that in its constituents was surely typical. How many forgotten women can have found themselves trapped by their decision to live unorthodox lives, as their more conventional sisters were in their suburban villas with servants? Christabel had no time to do her own work. She had no money, no space of her own, no leisure, and of course, no cook. A typical diary entry:


Me ‘Will you give me some money then, I have none?’

John ‘No I will not’

Me ‘Then I shall have to borrow’

John picked up that new unopened two-pound jar of marmalade and threw it across the table. I dodged and it hit the mantelpiece and crashed on to the floor. I whispered fatuously, ‘Oh Honey, you mustn’t throw the marmalade about.’ He jumped up and seized me by the throat saying, ‘I’ll kill you.’ He hurt me. I was frightened and started to shiver. He stopped and I ran out of the kitchen into my room and locked the door. When he’d gone I went back to the kitchen and saw the mess of broken marmalade under my chair. I wonder if he just wanted to frighten me or if he really meant to kill me… I cleaned up the mess of marmalade and glass. Washed up, made a pudding, stewed some figs and tidied all the house. It seemed impossible to go…

And so it goes on. We see John burning the toast, Christabel bemoaning her cramped kitchen–‘never anywhere to put anything down,’ Christabel scrubbing potatoes and scraping uneaten food off plates and into dustbins, Christabel deciding to leave John, but making him a rice pudding first, then coming back again. We see John slumped in his armchair waiting for Christabel to get supper, or make his toast, we see her slaving over a dinner party to entertain his friends–‘a wretched day…It isn’t civilized to have to spend the whole day getting a meal ready…I have been tormented with the fatigue of meals since I was twelve years old. Few and far between are intervals of happiness–one rare morning John kisses her in bed, ‘the first time in over a year;’ another day the beauty of early celadines stirs the artist in her. More often she records, ‘I feel as if I can never be happy again. As if I’ve lost the key. I spend my life by the gas fire, getting meals at the same time every day with no lightening of the heaviness of my heart.

n 1925 Christabel Dennison fell ill; at the age of forty-one, worn out, death released her from the treadmill. A few black and white illustrations, including a haunting self-portrait which her daughter reproduces in her book, hint at the sensitive artist she might have been. Christabel paid a heavy price for refusing to be a slave to convention. The essence of her predicament is still relevant, still unresolved. One can only guess at the numbers of submerged women who, like her, were defeated by domesticity.・(p. 193)

Ida John (Nettleship)

Ida with her husband Augustus and his mistress, Dorelia.



“In 1907, in a scene straight out of Puccini, Augustus John’s young wife, Ida, lay dying of puerperal fever in the boulevard Arago after the birth of their fifth child, Henry. Augustus’s mistress Dorelia was looking after the other children not far away. There was a tremendous thunderstorm as Augustus sat by Ida’s bedside, and towards the end she was feverish but out of pain. As the day broke over the rain-washed city of Paris, Ida was sufficiently conscious to drink a toast with her husband, ‘To Love!” The end was close now. As the hours passed she subsided again into delirium, unconsciousness, then death. As soon as it was over Augustus ran out of the hospital in a fever of excitement. ‘I  was almost high on relief, I could have embraced any passer-by. I had escaped the dominion of death at last and was free. The city was immensely beautiful; I felt almost as if he was hallucinating: unbelievable, fantastic—like a Chinese painting..” Then with a sense of triumph the bereaved husband proceeded to go out and celebrate; Augustus spent the next three days drunk. Perhaps it was the only possible reaction for someone who so powerfully wanted life for the living, who wanted to believe more than anything in art and beauty, and refused to be vanquished by death’s inevitability. He knew he had worn Ida out with his infidelities, she was drained an weakened by repeated pregnancies, deprivation and emotional exhaustion, but faced by her death, and his complicity in it, Augustus set out to live life to the full. (p.66)

I fell a little bit in love with Ida’s mother as I read about the way she went about asserting her deceased daughter’s mother-rights. She refused to take the death of her daughter lightly, and she deliberately became a permanent thorn in Augustus John’s side. She usurped his paternal rights over the children in the name of her daughter. Unfortunately, Virginia Nicholson portrays it as being a clash between middle class priggishness and Bohemian freedoms, but the truth is it was a simple case of Women against Men. You can see by Ida’s mother’s alacrity in imposing herself in his life that she knows Augustus is a murderer, responsible for Ida’s death, not least because if there had not been a mistress to feed and clothe Ida would have been able to demand better sanitary and dietary conditions, and might not have died:

“Ida’s formidable middle-class mother, Ada Nettleship, immediately offered to take in her three eldest grandchildren. At this point it was not in Augustus’s power to refuse, but he made it clear that he intended to get his children back. Soon the boys were the victims in a tug-of-war between Augustus, who wished them to return to Dorelia’s care, and their conventional grandmother. By Summer 1907 Augustus managed to reassemble his family at Equihen, a village near Boulogne, but Mrs Nettleship firmly insisted on coming too. There, she was horrified by what she saw as Dorelia’s incompetence: the children were dressed like gypsies, their bedrooms were full of uncontrolled frogs and grasshoppers, and on one occasion they only escaped drowning en masse because they were rescued by a local fisherman. Then all the children caught eye infections. This was the last straw. Mrs Nettleship scooped up three of her grandsons and transported them back to Wigmore street to be cured, shampooed and fumigated. Augustus was dismayed at the thought of their beautiful locks being shorn and their lovely tattered, colourful clothes being replaced with constricting shoes and tight collars; he ranted at the thought of them being turned into “little early Victorian bourgeois prigs.” But Mrs Nettleship was no less appalled at the prospect of her daughter’s children being reared by their father’s mistress, and got up like ragamuffins. The denouement came with a heated chase around London Zoo, where Augustus finally succeeded in cornering two of his boys behind the pelican house and carrying them off as hostages. Despite Mrs. Nettleship’s protests, all but Henry were eventually brought up by Dorelia”

In other words, the children didn’t want to go with their father but he had them carried off by force. Augustus had nine recognized children by five different women and historian Max Beerbohm estimates that he had ninety nine illegitimate children in all. Claiming Ida’s children for himself was more about causing Mrs Nettleship pain than about any love he might have felt towards his progeny, in my humble opinion. Stealing the children from their maternal grandmother while she was with them at the zoo on a day trip was particularly cruel, and shows that even the lowliest man has power over a woman of means. The fact that Augustus was horrified that Mrs Nettleship had cut the boys’ hair shows how women are made to fit the role of conservative right-wing enemy because they are seen to be the overseers of propriety, order and etiquette.

Augustus John was something of a fashion and lifestyle icon. Given the way he treated his wife, the fact he was regarded as Bohemian superstar shows how contemptuous left wing men were of women, and of wives in particular, and how they covered up this misogyny in a veneer of reverse class- ism. Wives (and their mothers) represented a confined and constrained lifestyle. As Dworkin points out in Right Wing Women, one thing that wives expect to get from the deal they strike with men is a certain amount of social restraint on the part of their husbands. Society backs the wives when they demand that their husbands refrain from certain behaviors because men understand how precarious patriarchy is.  Marriage still has to be sold to women, which is why men are forced to make a few concessions, or at least give the impression that they are. Left-wing men despise the values that wives represent for this very reason.

“In 1917 a band of over thirty Slade girls in various stages of undress draped themselves across the stage of the Chelsea Palace theatre and performed a history of artistic Chelsea as a benefit for the soldiers in France. It ended with a rousing finale in praise of everyone’s Home Front hero, Augustus
John! John!
How he’s got on!
He owes it, he knows it, to me!
Brass earrings I wear,
And I don’t do my hair,
And my feet are as bare as can be・(p.154)

Augustus John’s mistress Dorelia McNeill also became known as a leader of fashion.

“Dorelia’s clothes were quintessentially artistic, and hugely influential, producing an unmistakable ‘look’. All the girls in Chelsea wanted to look like Dodo. Carrington, Reine Ormode, Sine McKinnon, Christine Kuhlenthal, Viva King, Edith Sitwell, the John harem were all copying her full skirts and gypsy colours.・(p.157)

Dorelia designed and made all her own clothes herself, as well as the children’s clothes:

For Dorelia and her sister Edie much of their creativity was expressed in the clothes they sewed themselves, whose flowing lines were designed to their own pattern, and whose seams were brightly saddle-stitched on the outside in contrasting colored silks–orange on blue, emerald on crimson. They made all the children’s clothes too. The boys wore pink smocks and brown corduroy knickerbockers…and the little girls wore miniature versions of the women’s dresses…

Therefore we see that some women living on the fringes of Bohemia attempted to express themselves through fashion. Short cropped hair in women was seen as a sign of emancipation. Women began to wear trousers for the first time. Nicholson tells us that “Iris Tree cut off her golden plait while travelling on a train and left it on the seat.” Still today clothes and hair are supremely political.

Food was also political. Middle class women of the day like Ida John would not have been taught how to cook in preparation for marriage because they would have expected to employ a servant. Cooking was far more time consuming a century ago, and required more knowledge of food. The pressure to conceive of and create decent meals would have taken up all a wife’s time, especially in a foreign country. It seems that it wasn’t lack of money that prevented Ida from hiring a cook, but Bohemian ideals. By looking at who was in the kitchen we can see how those new ideals turn out to be the same old patriarchal ideals after all. Perhaps if Augustus John had spent money on employing a cook rather than a mistress Ida would have not died the early death she did:

“Ida Johns delight in cooking was short-lived, as domesticity closed in on her. She felt that she had been made for better things, but that children and washing and meals and shopping had come to dominate her daily life. Occasionally, ‘the curtain seemed to lift for me a little’ and she glimpsed something of the idealist she once was. ‘The other days I simply fight to keep where I am,  can understand the saints and martyrs and great men suffering everything for their idea of truth・・Ida’s sufferings at that time seemed too humdrum to be identified with martyrdom; but only two years later she was dead in childbirth, her resources stretched and weakened beyond their limits.” (p.191)

Men’s expectations of what a meal is supposed to be are far greater than women’s. Just having a man around means you have to put an inordinate amount of thought into the evening meal, whereas if there is no man in the picture, food takes up less time and energy:

“The dilemma lay in having to give thought to meals, having to purchase provisions, when what one really wanted to be doing was composing poetry or painting. What was the difference between pork and veal? How many potatoes were in a pound? Julia Strachey had no idea. Dorelia had to find out the hard way that the giblets are supposed to be removed from a chicken, not roasted inside it. How long does one cook a cutlet for, and how hot should the gas be? Naomi Mitchison burned cutlets whenever she attempted to cook them. ・(p. 180)

“The Campbells spent a chilly weekend at a damp cottage that Katherine [Mansfield] and Middleton Murry were renting near Chesham. Their contribution to the catering was a rather dubious leg of mutton, and it was this that was their downfall. Beatrice managed to cook the leg for dinner in the primitive cottage kitchen and, though not very nice, it was edible. The meal over, these two middle-class women, brought up to expect kitchen operations to be invisibly dealt with by armies of competent domestics, struggled with its aftermath:

“The grease from the leg of mutton, completely defeated us in the washing-up operations. We had very little hot water and no washing-powder, and the grease was in thick layers over everything. Even the outlet to the sink was blocked with it, and it was quite impossible to get it off the knives and forks. I tried to make a joke out of our predicament but Katherine was beyond jokes; she started to weep ceaselessly and hopelessly.”

Katherine Mansfield’s life story presents greater tragedies than sinks blocked with mutton fat, but as Beatrice Campbell instinctively realized, the distress that this occasion prompted went somehow deeper than the occasion itself merited. ‘I want lights, music, people!’ she cried out, and Beatrice remembered this crie de coeur as being the more desperate in being uttered with her wrists submerged in blobs of congealed grease. (p. 183)

Women like Dorelia McNeill and Caitlin Thomas appeared to have coped better with domesticity than other women. I’m not sure how or why. We get the impression that Dorelia saw food as well as clothes as a creative outlet:

There was a copious amount of honey from the bees which Dorelia kept, and the dairy provided butter and cream–a cream so rich it tasted of caramel. She loved to cook pheasant in wine or trout with cream and saffron–‘impossible to go wrong with such expensive ingredients’ marvelled Kathleen Hale. The family and their guests feasted on sorrel soup, huge casseroles flavored with garlic, cooked in olive oil, washed down with rough red wine. The ‘disagreeably flavored bulb’ was lavished on salads, which were prepared and served with fantastic rituals, the leaves being finally tossed by her bare hands…” (p. 170)

It is ironic that all these women were submerged by domesticity because the truth was that mess and clutter and even squalor were seen as part and parcel of the Bohemian lifestyle. It seems that this was a privilege only men could get away with. Or single women. Some single women enjoyed living in Bohemia precisely because they were too poor to eat properly. Kathleen Hale was one woman who found the lack of mealtimes to be liberating. Nicolette Macnamara and her friend Nancy Sharp were renowned for living in squalor. However, as soon as a woman became paired with a man, she was expected to be the one to tidy up.

Then again, having servants drove Virginia Woolf to distraction. She breathed a sigh of relief when her cook left. It was the same for her sister, Vanessa Bell. Managing servants was a full time job that always fell to the woman of the house. Moreover, female artists who did employ servants and cooks were painfully aware of the class division which enabled them to paint or write. Many women did not notice that they were members of the sex class themselves, because men never expressed guilt or remorse about oppressing them. Then as today, men were always keen to remind women of their economic privileges over other women without acknowledging that patriarchy had organized women, and female time, so that even the most privileged women were not free.

“Kathleen Mansfield was appalled to find herself a skivvy to John Middleton Murry. It didn’t fit with her idea of herself at all and, desperate with frustration and desire to get on with her writing, she berated him for his selfishness:

I hate hate hate doing these things that you accept just as all men accept of their women. ‘I walk about with a mind full of ghosts of saucepans and primus stoves and ‘will there be enough to go round?’ and you calling (whatever I am doing) ‘Tig, isn’t there going to be tea? It’s five o’clock’ as though I were a dilatory housemaid.
I loathe myself today. I detest this woman who ‘superintends’ you and rushes about, slamming doors and slopping water all untidy with her blouse out and her nails grimed.

All the fault of money, I suppose…(p.215)

By encouraging women to compare their lives to those of more unfortunate women men deliberately cast attention away from themselves. Because what would happen if women realized that men were the real source of their misery after all, not lack of money? And what would happen if women stopped being content to “live as women” and decided it was preferable to live “as human beings”.

This post is already too long but there are some female Bohemian characters who did manage to enter Bohemia just for the ride, seeing it as a better deal than any other path. They were casting their lot with the unknown in the hopes that life would be slightly more bearable, and to have a bit of an adventure before they died. The characters made memorable by Virginia Nicholson’s exquisite writing, existed on their own terms in Bohemia, rather than as help-meets to men.

Nina Hamnett

“It was the compassionate Viva King who set up an appeal to rescue her old friend Nina Hamnett from utter destitution.
Nina Hamnett had spent a lifetime only just keeping her head above the water, or perhaps, in her case, whisky. A splendidly buoyant and sociable character, she appears in innumerable memoirs of the period; she was the Ur-Bohemian, uncrowned ‘Queen of Bohemia’ first lady of Fitzrovia. In 1911 she rebelled against her middle-class background, and scraping by on the fifty pounds advance on a legacy from her uncle, plus two shillings and sixpence a week donated by some kindly aunts, she launched into the London art world with a vengeance. Her exuberance and spontaneity won her a wide circle of friends at Cafe Royal, including Augustus John, Walter Sickert, Roger Fry and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and she soon conquered Paris, where she became an habitué of the left bank café, a friend of Modigliani, Picasso and Cocteau. She was an admired painter, but her real gift was for living life to the full. By the thirties Nina, a fixture in the Fitzroy Tavern, was virtually a tourist attraction in her own right. Yet she was always penniless. There are endless stories of her getting stranded in Paris unable to pay for her hotel, sitting in bars waiting for acquaintances to turn up to pay her mounting drink bill–though she often would have preferred a square meal…

But as her youthful resilience waned, the issue of her poverty began to get more serious. ..

The sad tale of Nina Hamnett’s descent over thirty years from talented, sexy art student to squalid, promiscuous lush reads like a Bohemian Rake’s Progress. Her personal nadir was a stinking flat in Howland street, infested with lice, littered with rat turds, with Nina and some anonymous sailor drunkenly taking their pleasures on a creaking mattress. (206)

Nina Hamnett

Katherine Mansfield

“Too many passionate, creative spirits were sent spinning off course through their own reckless appetite for experience. Katherine Mansfield was only thirty-five, with everything still to live for, when she lost her battle with illness. The threat of encroaching death (from undiagnosed gonorrhea or TB) lent a passionate desperation to her longing for everything that health had to offer・p.282)

Katherine Mansfield

Mary Butts

“For Mary Butts too, death came sooner than it should have. After her extravagant youth, drug addiction and broken marriages she found stability for a while in a remote Cornish cottage, where she wrote, cooked, gardened and took up rug-making, ‘a nerve-soothing but creative pastime.’ When a friend asked her how she saw life after death, she replied gaily, “Oh, we’ll go on talking and laughing and walking together. We’ll meet our friends and go to some heavenly pub. And we’ll all be ‘copains’ ” But her fractured youth had taken its toll. Mary’s drug use had aggravated her stomach, and she died of perforated ulcers at the age of forty-seven.・(p. 282)

Mary Butts

Viva Booth

“Viva Booth’s marriage to the homosexual Willie King gave the ‘Queen of Bohemia’ as Osbert Sitwell called her, a secure financial base to entertain her huge circle of artist friends. The Kings moved to South Kensington and bought a Rolls-Royce, and Viva indulged her passion for collecting rare antiques. But above all Viva retained throughout her life her inexhaustible appetite for people. She gamely took a lover half her age, and rallied around old friends like Nina Hamnett and Nancy Cunard who had fallen on hard times. She continued to be as powerful a magnet for eccentrics, misfits and Bohemians as ever she had been in her rackety youth.” (p. 284)

Francis Partridge

“Francis Partridge was a hundred years old on 17 March 2000. In her old age poor eyesight made reading difficult, but her mind was still acute. She could still remember being taken on a suffragettes’ demonstration when she was nine, carrying a banner saying ‘Votes for Women.’ She could recall Bedales, Cambridge, her dancing days in the twenties, the happy and sad times at Ham Spray. ‘I sometimes think I have survived this long for no other reason than to be a kind of archive,’ she mused.” (285)

Vanessa Bell

“But life’s tragedies caught up with some of these idealists. Vanessa Bell’s vitality and sense of fun were to take a blow from which they never recovered. She was fifty-eight when her son Julian was killed in the Spanish Civil War, aged twenty-nine. After that she became unsociable, reclusive even, escaping abroad when she could, finding respite only there or at Charleston with Duncan and her family. She painted the garden, and her grandchildren, and flowers. Her biographer concludes that, despite an apparent serenity, she was ‘walled up in her own feelings, isolated by her reserve and left profoundly alone.’ (p. 287)

Iris Tree

“Iris Tree was the most truly Bohemian person I have ever known” was Daphne Fielding’s verdict on her close friend. After her break-up with the handsome Austrian aristocrat who was her second husband, Iris found herself adrift with very little money. She travelled in Italy, Greece and Spain, and friends supported her. A small role playing herself in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita gave her enough money to survive for a while. One rainy day in the fifties, Daphne bumped into her in a Venetian trattoria

Suddenly she made her appearance, wearing a Galloway skirt of scarlet flannel, a black tabard and, for want of a better word to describe her headgear, a ‘runcible hat’ which appeared to be made of thick translucent indiarubber jelly set in a hat-shaped mould. At her heels, a black familiar, was Aguri [her Belgian sheepdog]. Both of them were dripping wet.

In this memoir of Iris, Daphne Fielding dwells of her friend’s idealism, her insatiable desire for experiment and the starry-eyed romanticism which, even on her deathbed, never left her. Iris’s last words (she died in 1968) were, ‘It’s here, it’s here, Shining. Love. Love. Love.”

‘  Iris Tree

Betty May

“One can only hope that Betty’s adventurous spirit sustained her through the hardship and dependency that seemed to have dogged her into old age. Her beauty faded and time took its inevitable toll on her energies. There was a third marriage. She reappears briefly in the nineteen thirties as Betty Sedgwick, living in Hampstea, and a fourth, for she made it through World War Two, and surfaced again as Betty May Bailey. But the trail was going cold; she withdrew. Arthur Calder-Marshall tried, and failed, to find her. The friends of her youth died or lost touch. All but one: Bunny Garnett never forgot his early flame, the fascinating model for Claire in Dope Darling. He remained true to the best spirit of Bohemia and helped her when she fell on hard times. Reduced to a modest council house in Kent in the 1970s, Betty eked out her last years living on handouts from the state, a small stipend from her one-time lover, and memories.・(p. 290)

Kathleen Hale

“One morning, six months before her death at the age of a hundred and two, I met Kathleen Hale, the author and illustrator of some of my favourite children’s books, about Orlando the Marmalade Cat. Her memoir A Slender Reputation (1994) had proved a rich resource in researching this book. I found Kathleen living in a small basement room in an old people’s home on the outskirts of Bristol. The walls of her room were adorned with her own drawings, lino cuts and metal compositions. Though rather deaf, she was vigorous and somewhat formidable. Her springy iron-grey hair was cropped short, and she wore a blue caftan top and a silver necklace. She talked about the past, but also about the present, and her relationship with the other ‘greyheads’ in the home, who to her surprise had turned out to be fascinating individuals. Halfway through our interview she mischievously produced an illicit bottle of gin which we drank from plastic cups. Encouraged, I said that despite the extreme hardships of her early life, I was under the impression she enjoyed it;
“Ah yes, it was absolutely wonderful, and not hard all the time by any means, and the difficult parts like having to stay indoors because you couldn’t face going past a bun shop, well, that was all part of it, all part of the general plan I had of how to live. But oh, my dear, it was freedom, it really was, it was bliss.・(p.30)

The feeling you get after reading the book is that women have never really stopped trying to be free, and I like to think that despite the obstacles at least some women were able to find a small slice of freedom in Bohemia.

Now if only they’d decided to go to Amazonia instead…

To be continued.