Renée Dunan and the life of 19th century lesbians
Not much is known about French writer Renée Dunan, who wrote stories and books about lesbians in 19th century France. She was also known for being a feminist, anarchist, naturist, and pacifist.
Also at that time, Dunan was known as one of the many women who had come out in 19th century France, and had relationships with other women.
The many names of Renée Dunan
The story of Dunan is sadly little known: she was born in Avignon in 1892, that she came from a family of industrialists, and that she died in 1936.
In between, she lived a life as a writer, critic, and poet under many names: Marcelle La Pompe, M. de Steinthal, Jean Spaddy, Louise Dormienne, and Renée Camera.
Under these diverse pseudonyms, she wrote erotic and science fiction novels and stories. She also collaborated in the magazines like Crapouillot and Le Sourire.
She wrote up to fifty books, published between 1922 and 1934, or up to eight titles a year. She likewise wrote essays like “Nudism and Morality.”
Unlike other historical lesbian figures that had documented her life, Dunan didn’t leave any correspondence of her life. What’s known was that she had been educated by nuns and went on to become a journalist.
However, she was well-connected with the arts and literary groups and personalities of the time, like the Dada movement and André Breton, Philippe Soupault, and Louis Aragon.
Renée Dunan in the 19th century
Dunan was fortunate that she lived in late 19th century and early 20th century, when there was an increase of lesbian visibility in France.
At that time, fin de siecle society was in high gear in Paris with lesbians frequenting bars, restaurants, and cafes.
There were even tourist guides that gave descriptions of these places, like The Guide des Plaisirs à Paris (Pleasure guide to Paris).
Private salons like the one hosted by American expatriate Nathalie Barney, had lesbian and bisexual writers and artists present like Rdclyffe Hall, Djuna Barnes, Colette, and Romaine Brooks.
Other lesbian and bisexual women were entertainers or actresses, like Colette and her lover Mathilde de Morny performing lesbian scenes on cabaret stages.
Toulouse Lautrec likewise painted many of the lesbians that he had met. Many of them were visitors or workers at Moulin Rouge like Louise Weber, Jane Avril, May Milton, and the clown Cha-U-Kao.
Lesbian life in the 19th century
In the places where lesbian women thrived, author and researcher Nicole G. Albert said all were equal: ““Social boundaries were blurred.”
“Lesbians from very working-class backgrounds and women of wealthier backgrounds who had chosen a more marginal existence, would mingle,” Albert said.
Albert explained that the authorities were in denial with lesbianism and they preferred to turn a blind eye to lesbian meeting places.
However, she added that: “The courts condemned authors who wrote about lesbians and their physical relations because they feared the visibility it gave lesbians more than the so-called vice itself.”
Albert is well-known for publishing a book on that period, Lesbian Decadence: Representations in Art and Literature of Fin-de-Siècle France. This was a collection of late 19th century and early 20th century lesbian artwork.
Among her artwork is a cover of small book by Dunan, These Ladies of Lesbos (1928), on the history of sapphism through the ages, from Babylon, the Amazon women, the court of Louis XV, and Hollywood.
Sadly, more work needs to be done to ensure that lesbians will not be forgotten in history– or erased from memory.