Les Femmes de la Rive Gauche

7th Oct 2014

Les Femmes de la Rive Gauche
When we think of the Parisian Left Bank in the 1920s, our minds immediately go to Hemingway, drinking Pernod with Scott Fitzgerald in Le Select, James Joyce with his neat moustache, or Andre Breton inventing surrealism at les Deux Magots.

The men have come to define the place and the period. But 1920s Paris also opened its arms to a host of talented and creative women. For, as Natalie Barney famously said, ‘Paris has always seemed to me the only city where you can live and express yourself as you please.’

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein was one of the most exciting and prolific writers of the 20th Century. But despite her huge output, Stein was largely ignored by publishers until 1933, when her ‘Autobiography of Alice B Toklas’ became a bestseller. Through her strange and experimental prose, Stein developed a style of ‘literary cubism’ – working with words how Picasso worked with paint.

Key quote: ‘Cubism is not about what you see, but about what you know to be there.’

Key works: The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, Tender Buttons, Three Lives, Making of the Americans, Geography and Plays, Everybody’s Autobiography.

Alice B Toklas

We can’t write about Stein without a mention for Alice. After Stein died in 1946, Toklas wrote her own memoirs, sharing with the reader her life with Gertrude – and the recipes that made her so famous throughout Paris.

Key works: Murder in the Kitchen

Djuna Barnes

After an abusive childhood during which she was illegally married off aged just 16, Djuna Barnes escaped to Paris to become one of the most important writers of the Modernist period.

Barnes is best known for her novel Nightwood, an intensely poetic book. It is at once ugly and beautiful, exploring the breakdown of Barnes’ own relationship with Thelma Wood, and the rise of fascism in Europe.

Key quote: ‘they were so “haunted” of each other that separation was impossible.’

Key works: Nightwood, Spillway, Ryder, The Antiphon, The Ladies Almanack

Janet Flanner

For over half a century Flanner chronicled the activities of the Parisian Left Bank in her world-renowned ‘Letters from Paris’ for the New Yorker. Covering everything from Josephine Baker’s debut, to the funeral of Isadora Duncan, and the Spanish Civil War, Flanner’s letters plunge the reader into the world of 1920s Paris.

Key quote: ‘For a Lost Generation we certainly knew where we were heading, and it was straight to France.’

Key works: Paris was Yesterday


Unlike many of the women in her circle, Colette was not independently wealthy. As a young woman she married Willy, a publisher who exploited his wife’s literary talent before she left him aged 30. Needing to support herself, she worked as a mime artist in the music hall – an experience that would inspire many of her novels. After leaving the stage, she continued to write – creating some of the most powerfully sensual books written in any language.

Key quote: ‘At one time she believed she saw in herself the features of a young woman. And again, in the features of a handsome young man. Yes, a young man, why not?’

Key works: The Claudine Novels, Cheri, The Pure and the Impure, The Vagabond

Natalie Barney

Salon hostess and ‘notorious lesbian’, Natalie Barney was an extraordinary character. Although a writer herself, Barney is mainly remembered for her commitment to promoting women’s work – setting up an ‘Academie des Femmes’ in opposition to the male-only Academie Francais.

Key quote: ‘It’s a question of nature. My queerness isn’t a vice, isn’t ‘deliberate’, and harms no one. What do I care, after all, if they vilify or judge me according to the prejudices?’

Key works: A Perilous Advantage


H.D was a poet and novelist who epitomised the imagist style. Reclusive, she spent much of her time in Switzerland with her lover Bryher, and daughter Perdita. H.D’s poetry and prose is intensely visual, packed with dense metaphor and description that confuses and excites. Her novel, HERmione, offers a stunning and frightening account of her own breakdown, and relationship with Pound.

Key quote: ‘All Greece hates/the still eyes in the white face,/the lustre as of olives/where she stands,/and the white hands.’

Key works: H.D. Selected Poems, edited by Louis L Martz, HERmione

Sylvia Beach

Like Natalie, Sylvia is best known for her celebration of other people’s writing. She was the proprietor of Shakespeare & Company, the world-famous bookshop on rue de l’Odeon that stocked the works of all the British and American writers. A few doors down, her lover Adrienne Monnier ran La Maison des Amis de Livres – stocking French writers. Famously, Beach was the first publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses – a venture that left her almost bankrupt.

Key quote: ‘You can never tell how a bookworm gets hold of a book. They simply make for this diet of theirs.’

Key works: Shakespeare & Company (her memoir, and her iconic shop itself)


Sian Norris’ first novel, Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue was published by Our Street in 2013. Her recently short story, The Boys on the Bus, is available on the Kindle.  Sian is currently working on a novel about Gertrude Stein and the women writers who made their home in 1920s Paris.


What’s your favourite piece of writing from 1920s Paris? Leave us a comment and let us know!


[Image credit: Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia Commons]


  • Sianushka says:

    If you want to know more about these 8 women and the many more exciting & inspiring creative women of the time, then further reading would be Women of the Left Bank by Shari Benstock, and Paris was a Woman – film & book. There’s also a series of posts on my blog focusing in on some of the women in this list. Sian xx

  • Kate Gardner says:

    Great list. I’m a big fan of Colette and I’ve loved writing by Barnes (Nightwood is gorgeous), Barney and Stein. Somehow I’d never heard of Flanner but she sounds right up my street.