Our monthly column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors. Here, the life of Eliot Bliss, a prolific lesbian writer from the British Caribbean who may have had a strong influence on the work of Jean Rhys.
I don’t want to go out into the world and earn my living. I don’t want to have to say goodbye to a quiet scholar’s life, to smooth, civilized hours around a Wedgwood teapot. I want to be able to watch the evening in the sky, to dream on some far hill, to make things slowly out of patterns that I have been finding for years. I don’t want to feel cramped, jostled, frightened, herded among thousands of people; to work among the noise of machines, the incessant clamor of traffic vibrating on the nerves. I don’t want to be terrorised into a set formula of life.
These are the thoughts of Louie Burnett, the heroine of Eliot Bliss’s enchanting and lyrical first novel, Saraband (1931). After an English convent school education, Louie has her independence thrust upon her: her army officer father is dead and her mother’s upper-class Anglo-Irish family, thanks to the Great War, is no longer rich. “Perhaps you’ll pick up some nice young man, my dear,” says an uncle. But marriage isn’t on the cards. It is clear, though unspoken, that Louie is a lesbian. The female friends who move in and out of her life are irresistibly, lovingly drawn, so real they leap off the page. There’s boarding school classmate Zara, with her brilliantined ebony hair and reassuring fearlessness; aspiring actress Jonquil, a “tall boyish girl with a certain lackadaisical look about her”; artist Mark, neé Marcelle, who “gave one an extraordinary sense of vividness.” The most significant relationship Louie forms, however, is with her beautiful Parisian cousin, Tim, a talented violinist who, the reader intuits via the subtlest of hints, is also gay. Their relatives suspect a romance, but Louie’s affinity with Tim, whom she considers “marvellous and holy,” is deeper and more steadfast for being platonic.
Like all of Bliss’s work, Saraband is autobiographical, a faithful portrait of the author as a young woman. It was certainly true that Bliss refused to be “terrorized into a set formula of life,” sometimes to her own detriment. As an Eton-cropped twenty-two year old in twenties London, she rechristened herself Eliot (her given name was Eileen) after both T. S. and George. Semiestranged from her family, she also left Catholicism and, at least among friends, was open about her sexuality. She had dalliances with women including the modernist poet Anna Wickham (from whom emanated, Bliss wrote, a “tremendous electric force”), moved in the storied lesbian literary circle of Natalie Clifford Barney, and eventually settled down with the artist Patricia Allan-Burns, who remained her partner for more than fifty years. Throughout her life, Bliss wrote prolifically—novels, poetry, plays—despite almost constant financial insecurity, recurrent depression and illness, and scant success. The elderly Bliss told her literary executor, the publisher Alexandra Pringle, that her second novel, Luminous Isle (1934), had failed in part because poverty kept her from socializing. “I refused invitations because I had no clothes, and you ought to go about when you have a book out.” Read More