‘Decadent Interiors, Queer Exteriors: Renée Vivien’s Construction of a Fin de Siècle Sexual Self’

Eleanor Keane (Twitter: @Eleanor_Keane1) graduated from Goldsmiths (University of London) in 2019 with an MA in Literary Studies. Her MA dissertation explored sexuality, consumption, and the image of the decadent ‘she-wolf’ within the work of the fin-de-siècle writers Renée Vivien (1877-1909) and Rachilde (1860-1953). In September 2020 she will commence a PhD in English at Goldsmiths, where her PhD thesis will examine fin de siècle fairy tales as examples of queer decadent narratives. Eleanor completed an MSc in Library Science (City University 2010-2011) and a BA in English (Goldsmiths 2007-2009). She is a member of the British Association of Decadence Studies (BADS) and the British Association of Victorian Studies (BAVS).

1. ‘May Our Drawn Curtains Shield Us From The World’: The decadent interior and the lesbian salon

The decadent literary preoccupation with highly aesthetic, sensual and artificial interior spaces- such as apartments, boudoirs, studios and hot houses- remains the subject of sustained scholarly interest, with recent significant studies by Jessica Gossling1, Matt Cook2 and Simon Avery and Katherine M. Graham3 exploring the spatial and sexual symbolism of several textual decadent interiors. Notable examples of such spaces include Des Esseintes’ country house in Joris-Karl Huysmans’ novel À Rebours (1884), which Des Esseintes fills with Symbolist art, perfumes and jewels, and Basil Hallward’s rose-scented, silk-curtained studio in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). For the refined Hallward and the enervated Des Esseintes, both spaces become hyper-sensory refuges from urban life. This article extends the concept of the decadent interior as a ‘refuge’ by examining how decadent interiors- both real and imagined- enabled queer expression for the lesbian literary figures Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972) and in particular Renée Vivien (1877-1909), who became a key member of Barney’s salon.

Diana Souhami describes Barney’s salon as a sophisticated Sapphic interior with ‘red damask walls’ and ‘a domed ceiling painted with nymphs…At the windows were lawn curtains embroidered with May Our Drawn Curtains Shield Us From the World.’ 4 Barney’s salon-with its sensual colours, painted nymphs and embroidery-was designed to invoke the female gaze, and challenge typical fin de siècle literary portrayals of the lesbian social space as an alternate brothel. By establishing her salon within Paris, Barney further utilized the reputation of Paris as- in Matt Cook’s words-‘the place where Oriental eroticism, aestheticism and the decadent impulse for sensual exploration were seen to intersect.’5 Yet the embroidered phrase on Barney’s curtains is a poignant reminder that for many of the salon’s lesbian attendees, Barney’s salon remained a refuge from public condemnation, pathologization and the reductive portrayals of lesbianism in popular decadent novels. In the face of widespread rejection and ridicule, such spaces became crucial for lesbian intellectuals seeking social connection and acceptance.

The tension between the salon and the alienating outside world was a concern for the poet and author Pauline Mary Tarn, who wrote under the pen name of Renée Vivien and began a relationship with Barney after settling in Paris. Within her own apartment Vivien constructed a decadent interior that seemed to merge the femininity of Barney’s salon with the excessive artificiality of Des Esseintes’ country house and fin de siècle Orientalism- a space which the artist Romaine Brooks described as a ‘dark heavily-curtained room…[with] life-sized Oriental figures…phosphorescent Buddhas in folds of black draperies,’ and ‘ancient Damascus ware.’6

In creating an extravagant interior that showcased her love of travel, Japonisme and Orientalism, Vivien presented a distinctly ‘othered’ and ‘queered’ space that perpetuated the fin de siècle conflation of Eastern culture with sensual indulgence and taboo desires. This conflation is most prominent within Vivien’s prose collection Netsuké (1904), which was written collaboratively with a later lover, Hélène de Zuylen de Nyelvelt. Within Netsuké, lesbian desire is expressed within ornate Orientalist set-pieces of ‘pink jade ornaments… fragile…screens and paper partitions,’7 ‘lacquer boxes…fans [and] silk cushions’8 and ‘unreal pagodas’.9 These hyper-materialistic interior spaces parallel the equally fragile, aesthetic heroines of Netsuké, with one woman described by her female lover as ‘splendid as golden Guanyin [temple]’,10 and others equated with- and even named after11– ornamental dolls similar to the ones Vivien displayed within her apartment.

Whilst Vivien’s appropriation of Eastern culture and her over-aestheticization of the female body remains problematic, by situating expressions of lesbian desire within an artificial Eastern fantasia, Vivien ensured her articulation of same-sex intimacy was removed from Western moral castigation and pathologization. The construction of ‘othered’ poetic and personal spaces similarly enabled her to aestheticize her own ‘otherness’- as a lesbian, a female writer, and an expatriate-and mitigate the image of the biologically aberrant lesbian propagated in medico-sexological treatises, and the threat of heteronormativity itself.

In the poem ‘Words to A Lover’ (1905) Vivien explores the conflict between this threat and the ‘monastic intimacy’12 of a decadent queer interior filled with ‘lamps with veiled amber transparence’13 ‘old bronze…stoneware’ 14 and a ‘carpet, more polished than sand.’15 Within this space, the introspective poetic voice focuses on a yearning for ‘beautiful yesterdays’16 rather than the reality of approaching an ‘age where a woman abandons herself/To a man whom her weakness has searched out.’17 Here, Vivien’s decadent spatial dynamic attempts to nullify these fears of weakness through artificiality and nostalgia- two key elements of both decadence and aestheticism that further facilitated Vivien’s experimentations with androgyny. As the artist Romaine Brooks noted, Vivien’s apartment became the setting for elaborate dinner parties where Vivien dressed ‘in Louis XVI male costume.’18 As I will now discuss, this enabled Vivien to manipulate the decadent space- both literary and literal- into a subversive performative platform for her own queer self-fashioning.

2. Princes, courtiers and (fe)male dandies: Renée Vivien’s queer self-fashioning

Vivien’s provocative self-fashioning as both Louis XVI and an eighteenth century dandy (Fig.1) asserts the value of clothes in destabilizing gender and sexual norms, whilst props such as Vivien’s flamboyantly aesthetic stylized cane and hat (Fig. 1) underscore her commitment to aestheticism. Yet as Talia Schaffer notes, by invoking the aestheticism of the previous century, Vivien separates herself from nineteenth century ‘male aesthetes…primarily interested in expanding masculine behavioral and sexual possibilities,’19 and instead subverts the eighteenth century preference for male delicacy and ‘deliciously flirtatious, virginal girlhood’ 20 into a queer alternative to heteronormativity.

renee vivien

Fig. 1. Renée Vivien in male attire c.1900(Courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 96-153, Alice Pike Barney Papers, Image # SIA2015-006918)

In presenting herself as a (fe)male dandy, Vivien cultivates a persona able to appropriate the sexual autonomy available to the nineteenth century heterosexual male, whilst grounding it within a nostalgia for the eighteenth-century that liberates it from fin de siècle pathologization. Vivien’s Louis XVI costume is a similarly subversive queer avatar, suggestive of the proto-decadent excesses of the pre-Revolution French court, the homosexuality of Phillipe, Duke of Orléans, the favoured courtiers- or mignons-of Henri II, and the sexual ambiguity within many courtly love narratives. By daring to identify as Louis XVI, Vivien suggests that there is a historical precedent for homosexual identification outside of reductive nineteenth-century sexology.

Vivien’s interest in aesthetic androgyny extended to her written work, as seen most strikingly in her prose piece ‘Prince Charming’ (1905), in which a woman cross-dresses as her androgynous brother in order to marry a female friend. If one is to follow Judith Butler’s concept of gender as both repeated ‘performance’ and ‘play’,’21 and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s definition of queerness itself as ‘performative acts of experimental self-perception,’22 Vivien’s parody of aesthetic masculinity within ‘Prince Charming’ and her own self-fashioning as a dandy (Fig. 1) suggests sexuality as a malleable series of staged identities, rather than a fixed binary. Through the creative fantasia of her written work and the transformative potential of the private photography studio’s props and costumes, Vivien reclaims creative control of a lesbian body otherwise erased or denied expression within Victorian medico-sexual discourse.

Vivien’s enthusiastic participation in fin de siècle feminine dress codes, as seen in her repeated choice of elaborate gowns, hats and Lalique jewellery (Fig. 2), equally helped her to fashion a sexually dissident self. As with her androgynous costumes, Vivien’s feminine dress sense confronted the cultural stereotype of the masculinized lesbian and invited queer intimacy through the tactility and visual appeal of her gowns and jewellery- as demonstrated by the exchange of costume jewellery as love tokens between Vivien and Barney. Such jewellery often aestheticized the female body, emphasizing both women’s desire to appropriate Victorian heteroerotic culture-which often compared women to sumptuous jewels and fabrics- to express their own homoerotic attraction, as well as their problematic position within a culture which reduced female bodies to aesthetic commodities.


Fig 2. Pendant by René Lalique, c. 1901. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accession number: 1991.164. Gift of Clare Le Corbeiller, 1991. Public Domain Image.



Fig 3. Renée  Vivien in dress and veil c.1901(Courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 96-153, Alice Pike Barney Papers, Image # SIA2015-006912)



A photograph of Vivien wearing a gown and striking half-veil (Fig.3) demonstrates the sartorial impact of such attire. Yet Fig. 3 also underscores how Vivien used costume to challenge the dominance of the male gaze, as the veil’s semi-sheer fabric allows her to be looked at, but simultaneously ensures she can look out, therefore channelling the power of the female gaze.

3. Conclusion

Sadly, a harmful mix of anorexia, alcoholism and drug addiction hastened a decline in Vivien’s mental and physical health, with her increasingly disturbed emotional state reflected in both her interior space and external self-fashioning. Towards the end of her life, Vivien nailed the windows of her apartment shut, and replaced her androgynous costumes with the costumes of early English martyred queens such as Lady Jane Grey and Anne Boleyn- with Vivien even dressing as Lady Jane Grey for a fancy dress ball, but later collapsing from lack of food. Despite increasing consternation for her wellbeing from friends and previous lovers- including Natalie Clifford Barney- Vivien died aged just thirty-two. Yet despite Vivien’s tragically early demise, her transgressive use of costumes and interior design can still help broaden our modern understanding of the contribution queer female aesthetes made to both aestheticism and decadence, and how such figures implemented the trends, tropes and fashions of aestheticism and decadence to forge subversive sexual identities.


  1. Gossling, J. (2017) ‘Things worldly and things spiritual’: Huysmans’s À reboursand the House at Fontenay’ in Desmarais, J. and Condé, (eds.) Decadence and the Senses, Cambridge: Legenda
  2. M. (2003) London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885-1914, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  3. Avery, S. and Graham, K. M. (eds.), (2016) Sex, time and place: queer histories of London c.1850 to the present, London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic
  4. Souhami, D. (2005) Wild Girls: The Love Life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, London: Phoenix, 70
  5. M. (2003) London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885-1914, op.cit. p.99
  6. Souhami, D. (2005) Wild Girls: The Love Life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, cit. p.51
  7. Vivien, R. and de Zuylen de Nyevelt, H. (2019), ‘Let Us Go All the Way to the Sea’ [1904] trans. B. Stableford in Faustina and Other Stories, Snuggly Books pp.336-337
  8. Vivien, R. and de Zuylen de Nyevelt, H. (2019), ‘The Stranger in the Mirror’ [1904] trans. B. Stableford in Faustina and Other Stories,cit p.341
  9. Vivien, R. and de Zuylen de Nyevelt, H. (2019), ‘Let Us Go All the Way to the Sea’ [1904] trans. B. Stableford in Faustina and Other Stories, cit. p.336
  10. Vivien, R. and de Zuylen de Nyevelt, H. (2019), ‘Let Us Go All the Way to the Sea’ [1904] trans. B. Stableford in Faustina and Other Stories, cit. p.335
  11. Vivien, R. and de Zuylen de Nyevelt, H. (2019), ‘Let Us Go All the Way to the Sea’ [1904] trans. B. Stableford in Faustina and Other Stories, cit. p.338
  12. Vivien, R. (1977), ‘Words to a Lover’ [1905] trans. C. Kroger, in The Muse of Violets: Poems by Renée Vivien, M. Porter and C. Kroger, U.S.A: Naiad Press, p.68 line 6
  13. line 7
  14. line 8
  15. line 9
  16. line 11
  17. lines 13-14
  18. Romaine Brooks, quoted in Rubin, G. (2011) Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader. Durham & London: Duke University Press, p.104
  19. Schaffer, T. (2000) The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England. Charlottesville and London: University Press Virginia. p.99
  20. Butler, J. ‘Imitation and Gender Insubordination’ in Fuss, D. (ed) Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, New York: Routledge, 1991 p.18
  21. Kosofsky Sedgwick, E. Tendencies, Duke University Press, 1993, p.9



Figure 1. Photograph of Renée Vivien in male attire c.1900. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC. Accession 96-153, Alice Pike Barney Papers, Image # SIA2015-006918. Available at https://siarchives.si.edu/collections/siris_arc_229236 [accessed 16/07/2020]

Figure 2. Pendant by René Lalique, c.1901. Gold, platinum, enamel, opal, pearl, diamonds. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accession number: 1991.164. Gift of Clare Le Corbeiller, 1991. Public Domain Image. Available at  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pendant_MET_DT6688.jpg [accessed 16/07/2020]

Figure 3. Renée Vivien in dress and veil c.1901. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC. Accession 96-153, Alice Pike Barney Papers, Image # SIA2015-006912. Available at https://siarchives.si.edu/collections/siris_arc_229236 [accessed 16/07/2020]


The author wishes to thank Professor Jane Desmarais (Goldsmiths), Dr Jessica Gossling (Goldsmiths) and the Smithsonian Institute Archives (Washington, DC).