That life and fiction draw on each other is common knowledge. What is not as common is the story of this relationship: a fictional reconstruction of lives steeped in art, a story that establishes the role of community in sustaining and inspiring new generations of artists. After Sappho, the much-acclaimed novel from the Booker Prize long-list, is that story. Perhaps as a nod to the surviving fragments of the work of the ancient Greek writer Sappho, the novel consciously fragments itself. It clusters names, circumstances, crises, relationships, journeys, and finished and unfinished projects at a time when women fought their way out of silence and forged a public voice as thinkers and advocates of women’s rights.
The characters populating this book are writers and artists who, in distinct and overlapping ways, were invested in literature in general and in Sappho in particular. The net is cast wide across western Europe, starting with Italy, with the emergence of figures such as Cordula, who reinvented herself as Lina Poletti, and Rina Faccio, who became Sibilla Aleramo, “the famous writer and an infamous femminista”. The narrative voice, however, belongs to no specific character but to an innominate “we”: women identify as Sapphists, attending the salons hosted by known figures, observing and witnessing their collective gloom as well as their triumphs.
This “we” admits that above all, it was Sappho who inspired and guided their efforts: “We had begun so long ago with our poems after Sappho, carefully styled in fragments, our paintings and blushes all done in likeness.” In Europe, it was Sappho alone who left behind a breadcrumb trail to a place where women, their bodies and their loves, need not be defined by men. In this place, women were free to see each other for what they were: not always golden or happy or stable, not even with female lovers. In fact, they were often cast in deep grey shadows, as in the paintings of Romaine Brooks.
Spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the story introduces the reader to women who rejected factory and homestead and immersed themselves in classical poetry, plays, novels, pamphlets, paintings, dancing. The performers among them responded to contemporary works such as Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Oscar Wilde’s Salome, while others such as Colette, Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf wrote their own novels and plays.
Living in France, Italy, Greece or England, many of these women had privileges associated with a middle- or upper-class background. Apart from one named working-class character—Berthe Cleryrergue, a housekeeper who wrote a memoir about the years she spent working for Natalie Barney—most characters appear to be women of some means. They are able to host and attend salons in Paris or travel across the continent, to Lesbos or Capri. They refuse to slip easily into the robes of obedient wives and mothers, and if they cannot flee, they subvert the norms of heterosexual marriage.
Yet, this is not a novel about privilege though it does draw attention to the nature of privilege through the prism of gender. After all, what privilege does a businessman’s daughter have if her father simply hands her over to her rapist? What does privilege mean if you have no say in the workings of the nation, no matter how educated you are or how ignorant the men who rule against you?
Parts of the novel make for a painful read, for it is also about women broken on the wheel of patriarchy: given away in marriage to rapists; separated from their children if they flee; those who tried to escape through suicide; the constant threat of the mental asylum. This is, then, a fractured account of women striving for personhood. Some do it through an immersion in verbs and grammar. Some wear the chains of their lives rather literally, as did the stage actress Eleonora Dusa.
Women’s bodies, their preoccupations, and relationships have always been unfairly scrutinised and legislated. Selby Wynn Schwartz reminds us of laws that destroyed women, even those who were not poor or uneducated, drawing special attention to laws such as Article 544 of the Italian Penal Code, which “would lead you straight down to laudanum”. The turn of phrase is significant, for the law was “about the verb impadronirsi… to become the patron and possessor, the proprietor and the patriarch; to conquer, to overmaster, to take charge, to gain ownership; to act with the impunity of a father who, according to Article 544, may expunge the crime of the rape of his daughter by marrying her off to the man who has raped her, without a dowry.” This law was not repealed until 1981.
“The women refuse to slip easily into the robes of obedient wives and mothers and, if they cannot flee, they subvert the norms of heterosexual marriage.”
Legal reform has come painfully slow but as it came, states slowly started to recognise women as human beings. The amendment to Italy’s “Pisanelli code”, for example, came in 1877, whereby women were finally allowed to act as witnesses. Another law stipulated that “a married woman working as a merchant was not, in fact, a merchant” and it did not change until 1911 when “Italian politicians recognised the emergence of foemina mercatrix, a female merchant, as if she were a new species of beetle”.
In France, too, there were laws such as Articles 340 and 341, which forbade women from pressing paternity claims, thus forcing women to give up babies to foundling houses, only to be denounced as “unnatural whores with false hearts and painted faces”. Citizenship, however, was restricted on the basis of race rather than birth. Maternity, on the other hand, was tightly regulated and remains so to this day.
Right to love
Against such a background, novels like Una Donna (1906, by Sibilla Aleramo) were written. The legislation of women’s minds and bodies also played out in the form of a shocking court case where a woman was held guilty for being aware of the clitoris, and through a ban on novels like Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), which offers a context to “The New Censorship”, a letter to the editor signed by Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster.
Apart from the law, a certain kind of literature, too, was stacked up against women: men who made pronouncements about women’s bodies and their propensity for criminal behaviour, such as Dr T. Laycock’s “A Treatise on the Nervous Disorders of Women” from 1840, which noted that women grow more excitable in each others’ company.
Schwartz reveals this excitability as the discovery of solidarity, hope and love. As the narrative “we” explains, their relationships and artistic practices were far too enmeshed to be understood in isolation: “A life after all did not happen by itself, in discrete units.”
Such relationships, however, could only form in relative safety. Italy happened to be one such safe space in the 19th century where Sapphists were spared persecution because the law simply did not mention them. England considered criminalising female homosexuality but decided against it, if only to muffle all discussion of the very concept. In the crevices of such small freedom, these characters lived and made art. Their fates, however, were inevitably linked to the fates of nations. Tragedy followed the First World War, during which some of the characters drove ambulances and served as nurses, while others rejected the war itself. Then the fascists marched to Rome, leading to the interrogation of writers, searches at homes, and the persecution of homosexuals.
The words that make freedom imaginable cannot be split from the artists who risked their liberty for their principles. In 1914, the “we” of the novel wonders that publishers of books describing love were still being jailed: “We are still denying to women the rights to their own bodies? It is as if the new century has changed nothing.”
One may ask the same question in 2022. For contemporary readers, After Sappho is a reminder of how precarious women’s personhood has been, and remains. With abortion rights being rolled back in the US, with women’s right to choose their marital partners shrinking in India, with women still facing dowry harassment or being murdered for rejecting sexual attention, it is important to revisit this history and to remember that such battles can be long and with many a reversal, but they are also transformative and not necessarily lonely.
Annie Zaidi is a writer and filmmaker.
- After Sappho is the much-acclaimed novel from the Booker Prize long-list.
- The characters populating this book are writers and artists who were invested in literature in general and in the Greek writer Sappho in particular.
- The narrative voice belongs to no specific character but to an innominate “we, which admits that above all, it was Sappho who inspired and guided their efforts.
- The novel is also about women broken on the wheel of patriarchy.
- Selby Wynn Schwartz reminds us of laws that destroyed women.
- But women found solidarity, hope and love among themselves, thus reminding us that while the battle against patriarchy has been long, it isn’t lonely.