Renée Vivien

Renée Vivien (née Pauline Mary Tarn; 11 June 1877 – 18 November 1909) was a British French-speaking writer.

Born in London to a wealthy British father and an American mother, Vivien lived in France for most of her life (and wrote in French, a language she found more romantic than English). She attended a boarding-school for girls in Paris until 1886, when her father died, which prompted her return to London. When she came of age, in 1899, and inherited her father’s money, she returned to France and started to adopt the pen name Renée Vivien.

In Paris, Vivien lived openly as a lesbian, in a notorious bohemian lifestyle. She dressed in 18th century male attire, her writing was filled with allusions to Sappho and lavender, and she had several love affairs with women. Vivien’s first love was her closest childhood friend, Violet Shillito, but her most notorious affair was with the American heiress and writer Natalie Clifford Barney, in 1900.

In 1901, two traumatic events triggered Vivien’s depression and alcohol abuse: that year, Shillito died of typhoid fever, and Vivien and Barney broke up due to the latter’s infidelity. In 1902, Vivien started an affair with Baroness Hélène van Zuylen (who was married). The two often travelled together, and Vivien considered herself married to van Zuylen. Around 1903, Vivien and Barney got back together and travelled to Lesbos to start a sapphic artist colony, but it came to nothing, and Vivien returned to Paris (and to van Zuylen). Meanwhile, Vivien also kept a passionate correspondence with Kérimé Turkhan Pasha, the wife of a Turkish diplomat.

Vivien’s first collection of poetry, Études et préludes, was published in 1901. She came to be known as the “Muse of the Violets” and “Sapho 1900”, and wrote novels, short stories, more than twelve poetry collections, as well as her own translation of Sappho’s verses.  Under the pen name Paule Riversdale, Vivien also published poetry and prose in collaboration with Hélène van Zuylen.

In 1907, Vivien suffered another huge blow, when Zuylen left her for another woman. Shortly after, in 1908, Kérimé also ended their affair. Increasingly depressed, Vivien refused to eat, and turned to alcohol and drugs. She also suffered from chronic gastritis, probably caused by chloral hydrate and alcohol abuse.

That same year, in 1908, she tried to kill herself by taking laudanum (lying on a couch and holding a bunch of violets over her heart). She survived, but then contracted pleurisy, which aggravated her condition. A mix of anorexia, alcoholism and drug addiction hastened her decline, and multiple neuritis caused paralysis of her limbs. By 1909, she had to walk with a cane.

Vivien died of lung congestion (probably pneumonia, aggravated by her condition), on November 18, 1909. She was 32 years old. Colette, who had been her neighbour in Paris from 1906 to 1908, wrote a fictionalised account of Renée Vivien in Le Pur et l’Impur: Ces plaisirs (1932. The Pure and the Impure, tr. Herma Briffault). Colette considered The Pure and the Impure her best book, “the nearest I shall ever come to writing an autobiography.”


In English

  • Lilith’s Legacy: Prose Poems and Short Stories (2018, tr. Brian Stableford)
  • A Crown of Violets (2015, tr. Samantha Pious)
  • The Muse of the Violets: Poems by Renée Vivien (1982, tr. Margaret Porter and Catherine Kroger)
  • A Woman Appeared to me (1974, tr. Jeannette Foster)
  • At the Sweet Hour of Hand in Hand (1979, tr. Sandia Belgrade; ed. Bonnie Poucel)
  • The Woman of the Wolf and Other Stories (1983, tr. Karla Jay and Yvonne M. Klein. Reissued in 2020, by Gallic Books)
  • Faustina and Other Stories (2019, tr. Brian Stableford)

In French

  • Études et Préludes (1901)
  • Cendres et Poussières (1902)
  • Évocations (1903)
  • Sapho (1903)
  • Du Vert au Violet (1903)
  • Une Femme m’apparut (1904)
  • La Dame à la louve (1904)
  • Les Kitharèdes (1904)
  • La Vénus des Aveugles (1904)
  • À l’Heure des Mains jointes (1906)
  • Flambeaux éteints (1907)
  • Le Christ, Aphrodite et M. Pépin (1907)
  • Chansons pour mon Ombre (1907, as Pauline M. Tarn)
  • Plusieurs Proses ironiques et satiriques (1907)
  • L’Album de Sylvestre (1908)
  • Sillages (1908)
  • Poèmes (1909)
  • Anne Boleyn (1909)
  • Poèmes en Prose (1909)
  • Dans un Coin de Violettes (1910)
  • Le Vent des vaisseaux (1910)
  • Hallions (1910)
  • Œuvres poétiques, 1901-1903 (2007)

About her and her work

  • Adventures of the Mind, by Natalie Clifford Barney (1929)
  • The Pure and the Impure, by Colette (1932)
  • Tes Blessures sont plus douces que leurs Caresses: Vie de Renée Vivien, by Jean-Paul Goujon(1986)
  • Renée Vivien, by André Germain (1917)
  • The Amazon and the Page: Natalie Clifford Barney and Renee Vivien, by Karla Jay (1988)
  • Sappho 1900: Renée Vivien, by Paul Lorenz (1977)
  • Sul ritmo saffico. La vita e le opere di Renée Vivien, by Teresa Campi (1983)
  • Renée Vivien à Mytilene, by Jean-Paul Goujon (1978)
  • The Passion According to Renée Vivien, by Maria-Mercè Marçal (2020, tr. Helena Buffery and Kathleen McNerney)
  • Le XXe siècle des femmes, by Florence Montreynaud (1999)
  • Vie littéraire à la Belle Epoque, by Géraldi Leroy and Julie Bertrand Sabiani (2001)
  • Femmes poètes du XIXè siècle, by Christine Planté (1998)
  • L’imaginaire du féminin dans l’oeuvre de Renée Vivien: De mémoires en Mémoire, by Marie-Ange Bartholomot Bessou (2004)
  • Trois grâces de la Belle Epoque, by Claude Dufresne (2003)
  • Renée Vivien, le corps exsangue, by Marie Perrin (2003)
  • Sapho, les fictions du désir, by Joan De Jean (1994)
  • Femmes poètes de la Belle Époque: heurs et malheurs d’un héritage, ed. Wendy Prin-Conti (2019)
  • Renée Vivien. Lettres inédites à Jean Charles-Brun (1900-1909), ed. Nelly Sanchez (2020)
  • A Perilous Advantage: The Best of Natalie Clifford Barney, ed. Anna Livia (1992)
  • Frauengeschichten: Berühmte Frauen und ihre Freundinnen, ed. Joey Horsley and Luise F. Pusch (2010)
  • Lesbian Decadence: Representations in Art and Literature of Fin-de-Siècle France, by Nicole G. Albert (2016)

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