After Sappho | Selby Wynn Schwartz #BookReview

The first thing we did was change our names.

This post will look less like a book review and more like a list of feminist writers. But before we get to the list, a little about my journey with After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz.

I deliberately chose to start reading After Sappho knowing next to nothing about what I was in for. All I had gleaned from the back of the book and some of the news from the Booker longlist folk, was that After Sappho was a collection of vignettes about feminists writers through the ages.

In an interview over at The Galley Beggar Press SWS said, “Essentially, this is a book about the desire to write your life for yourself, preferably in good company.

The women who are my characters were already historically intrecciate [‘to inter-braid’], and I imagined other intricate ways of intertwining them….it’s clear that all of them wanted the right to determine which name they would be known by, who they would love, what they would wear – and the right to change these elements over time.

The stories begin in the late 1800’s in Italy, written in a fragmented form to pay homage to Sappho, not that she wrote her poems in fragments, but unfortunately for us, fragments are mostly what remain of her work. Fragments of papyrus as well as tantalising references made by other ancient authors to her work.

After Sappho is the kind of book that you will either love or being completely uninterested in.

I loved it, mostly for Sappho, but also for the incredible list of feminist trail-blazers that I had never heard of before. Obviously, some of the ‘big’ names are in there – Virginia Woolf, Colette, Gertrude Stein, Sarah Bernhardt – and some had a larger role to play in this story than others.

At this point, I should clarify that it was mostly European feminist writers through the ages, plus a few American/Canadian feminists who moved to Europe to be part of the scene. The picture is not complete, but as you will see from the list below, SWS has managed to include plenty for me to go on with!

Their stories are tantalising brief and often illusive. Hence the list. I want to have somewhere to refer back to for future reading. Read on by all means, but feel free to stop here!

The Women:

The Black Cap | Romaine Brooks | 1907 | Wikiart
  • Sappho – excerpts quoted are from Anne Carson’s 2002 translation, If not, winter: Fragments of Sappho (c. 630 – c. 570 BC) of which I have a copy on hand to refer to whenever a Fragment was mentioned. This was not necessary, as SWS wove the poem into the vignette one way or another, but I enjoyed preempting her 🙂
  • Cordula Poletti (Lina) – “a poet is someone who swims inexplicably away from the shore, only to arrive at an island of her own invention.” (27 August 1885 – 12 December 1971)
  • Rina Faccio (Nira, Reseda, Sibilla Aleramo) – Una donna (1906) “it was the story she told herself of herself” (14 August 1876 – 13 January 1960) Una donna was recently reviewed by Kim @Reading Matter.
  • Anna Kuliscioff – doctor “marriage was fundamentally a humiliation of women” (9 January 1857 – 27 December 1925)
  • Eleonora Duse (Nora) – actress (3 October 1858 – 21 April 1924)
  • Virginia Stephen (Woolf) – writer “Half of writing a novel is looking out of the window in gentle despair and idleness.” (25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941)
  • Florence Nightingale – essay Cassandra 1860 (12 May 1820 – 13 August 1910) 
  • Romaine Brooks – artist (The Amazon, The Black Cap) (May 1, 1874 – December 7, 1970)
  • Natalie Barney – poet (Letters to a Woman I Know – episitolary novel) (31 October 1876 – 2 February 1972)
  • Pauline Tarn (Renée Vivien, René ) poet – translator “there was no way for Renée to translate the impossibly delicate phrases without crushing them bruised in her hands.” (11 June 1877 – 18 November 1909)
  • Liane de Pougy – dancer – novel Idylle Saphique Sapphic Idyll – 1901 (2 July 1869 – 26 December 1950)
  • Aurel (How Women Became Writers)
  • Giacinta Pezzana (28 January 1841 – 4 November 1919 )
  • Matilde Serao – writer (7 March 1856 – 25 July 1927)
  • Mabel Dodge (26 February 1879 – 13 August 1962)
  • Gertrude Stein (3 February 1874 – 27 July 1946)
  • Eva Palmer (9 January 1874 – 4June 1952)
  • Sarah Bernhardt – actor (22 or 23 October 1844 – 26 March 1923) 
  • Louise Abbéma – painter  (30 October 1853 – 29 July 1927)
  • Colette – writer “Readers according to Colette were like lovers. The best were attentive, intelligent, exigent and promiscious.” (28 January 1873 – 3 August 1954)
  • Penelope Sikelianos Duncan (1882 – 1925)
  • Isadora Duncan – dancer (26 May 1877 or 27 May 1878 – 14 September 1927)
  • The ladies Wolcott-Perry
  • Eileen Gray – architect & designer (9 August 1878 – 31 October 1976) 
  • Louise Marie Damien (Damia) – dancer, singer (5 December 1889 – 30 January 1978)
  • Cassandra – a Trojan priestess dedicated to the god Apollo and fated by him to utter true prophecies but never to be believed.
  • Ida Rubenstein – dancer “Ida was like a falcon, like the wing of an aeroplane shrieking across the sky. She might dive through a cloud of flame unsinged.” (October 1883 – 20 September 1960)
  • Countess Gabriella Rasponi Spalletti – educator and philanthropist (1853–1931)
  • Eugenia Rasponi – social welfare worker – Lina Poletti’s partner for 40 years (18 September 1873–1958) 
  • Gladys de Havilland
  • Radclyffe Hall (John) – writer “To expect a lamp to be lit for you, in the view of Radclyffe Hall, was frankly to invite despair.” (12 August 1880 – 7 October 1943)
  • Vita Sackville-West (Julian) – writer (9 March 1892 – 2 June 1962)
  • Elisabeth de Gramont – writer – Natalie Barney’s life partner (23 April 1875 – 6 December 1954)
  • Jessie Gavin – relationship with Eileen Gray
  • Virginia Yardley
  • Renata Borgatti – classical musician (2 March 1894 – 8 March 1964)
  • Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge – scupltor – partner of Radclyff Hall (8 March 1887 – 24 September 1963)
  • Maud Allan – dancer (27 August 1873 – 7 October 1956)
  • Ada Smith (Bricktop) – jazz singer (14 August 1894 – 1 February 1984)
  • Josephine Baker – dancer, singer, actress (3 June 1906 – 12 April 1975)
  • Rachel Footman
  • Nancy Cunard – writer (10 March 1896 – 17 March 1965)
  • Berthe Cleyrergue – housekeeper, writer “Berthe was merely observing everything with her intelligent green eyes.”
  • Djuna Barnes – writer “Djuna was a smart girl, Berthe said, but with careless hands: an American.” (12 June 1892 – 18 June 1982)

Poetry forms:

  • kletic poem ‘a calling, both a hymn and a plea’

A poet is always living in kletic times, whatever her century. She is calling out, she is waiting. She lies down in the shade of the future and drowses among its roots.

  • optative “The optative is a mood, almost a feeling….If only, if only, would that it were so, the optative pleads
  • idylls “It is a place in the country where everything is just as we have always imagined it….a little picture, or a way of looking at something until it is perfect.
  • parralax “is a phenomenon of viewing the same thing from different angles.


SWS’s Favourite Writers/Books:

  • Virginia Woolf
  • Anne Carson (especially The Albertine Workout, ‘Cassandra Float Can’ from Float, and the Anna Xenia poems)
  • Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk,
  • Assia Djebar’s Women of Algiers in Their Apartments
  • Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House
  • Luis Sagasti’s Fireflies
  • Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond
  • Igiaba Scego’s La linea del colore
  • Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport
  • Danielle Dutton’s Attempts at a Life
  • Valeria Luiselli’s Sidewalks
  • Jean Frémon’s Calme-toi, Lison
  • The Neapolitan quartet by Elena Ferrante
  • Natalia Ginzburg

Favourite Quote:

Then Cassandra said, It is not true that nothing happened to sappho excpet her own life. Have you forgotten that a poet lies down in the shade of the future? She is calling out, she is waiting. Our lives are the lines missing from the fragments. There is the hope of becoming in all our forms and genres. The future of Sappho shall be us.

Title: After Sappho
Author: Selby Wynn Schwartz
ISBN: 9781922458612
Imprint: Text Publishing
Published: 19 July 2022
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 277
Dates Read: 31 August 2022 - 24 September 2022
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

10 thoughts on “After Sappho | Selby Wynn Schwartz #BookReview

    1. George Sand had died before most of these women were born, so she didn’t fit into the time period SWS was looking at. And if she writes an Australian edition of After Sappho, I will make another list!


  1. Thanks, Brona. It’s so useful to be able to able to see the list of writers covered in SWS’s books, especially as I hadn’t realised it was quite as long as this! Lovely to see Valeria Luiselli’s Sidewalks getting a mention too as it’s such a beautiful book. I read it 7 or 8 years ago, but it still pops into my head now and again as books sometimes do.


  2. What an interesting book it seems to be. I love the quotes you have highlighted and think I have to order the book right away. I have not heard of most of the ladies, but it is always good with new acquaintances.


  3. Pingback: 2022 | The Books

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