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Barnes, Djuna) Swinburne, Algernon.

Selections from the Poetical Works of Algernon C. Swinburne.


Djuna Barnes To Her Mother:
A Bitter-Sweet Presentation
(Barnes, Djuna). Swinburne, Algernon C. Selections from the Poetical Works of Algernon C. Swinburne…New York: A.L. Burt, n.d.
8vo.; frontispiece photograph of Swinburne; original tissue guard; hinges tender; red cloth, stamped in gilt; a well-worn copy. In a specially made cloth slipcase.
An extraordinary presentation copy inscribed by a very young Djuna Barnes to her mother, on the front pastedown: Djuna C. Barnes/July 30, 1909/With Love To Mother/November 3, 1909.
A crossing of conventional political, sexual, and artistic boundaries marks both Djuna Barnes's life and her work. Born into a rich and eccentric New York family, Barnes (1892-1982) was educated at home by her father and grandmother. After beginning professional life as a journalist in New York, she soon crossed into poetry, fiction writing, and eventually drama. Barnes's life as an open lesbian and feminist in New York City and in 1920s Paris contributed to her notoriety, as did her striking good looks and her numerous affairs with famous-or perhaps infamous-women. Barnes's early experimental work, with its shrewd political observation of gender mores and manners, anticipates both the stylistic daring of her later works (notably Nightwood, her 1936 novel hailed by T.S. Eliot) and the exploration of female sexuality that is found throughout her oeuvre as well as in her own life and loves.
Barnes was much closer to her ecentric, artistic, iconoclastic father than she was to her mother, Elizabeth Chappell, with whom she had (at best) an ambiguous relationship. Chappell was conservative, rigid, and rules-minded - just the opposite of her radical, loose, and rule-breaking daughter, who exploited her character (almost always in a negative light) in much of her fiction. Barnes dedicated The Book of Repulsive Women (an interesting, perhaps insulting, choice) with this ambivalent dedication:
Who was more or less like All
Mothers, but she was mine, and
so-She excelled
(Djuna: The Life and Times of Djuna Barnes, by Andrew Fields, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, [1983], p. 186)
Not exactly a rave review of her parenting skills. Other mentions of or allusions to Barnes's mother include The Antiphon, in which the Djuna stand-in character, Miranda, feels that she is "the scapegoat, the recipient of all her mother's frustrated fury. In the discarded versions of the play the mother has admitted to weeping when she saw that she had given birth to a daughter. Miranda senses that she is the unloved one and is fated to spend her entire life wondering what her crime is" (ibid., 189). Elsewhere, Field describes the relationship between mother and daughter in the very autobiographical Antiphon as one in which "mother and daughter share an admixture of love and resentment for each other…" (ibid., 191). And yet elsewhere in the play the mother blurts out her greatest fear: "-May God protect me! I wonder what you'll write when I'm dead and gone" (quoted in Fields, p. 35).
Barnes' and her mother's mutual suspicion was perhaps jusitified: Djuna was a self-described wild woman who forged headfirst into the twentieth century, scandalizing all with her behavior and with her writing-which was, like her, unconventional and an amalgamation of gothic, Elizabethan, grotesque, bawdy, humorous styles that constituted her version of modernism. Elizabeth, Djuna's mother, was virtuous, unassuming, traditional, prudish, and disapproving of writing as a career-much less of Djuna's frank and mostly thinly veiled autobiographical attempts in which she regularly aired all the family laundry (and then some).
In real life, as in fiction, poetry, and drama, Djuna and her mother engaged in an ongoing war of the words: in a periodicals article about the Hippodrome Circus in 1915 Djuna commented that "As they [the animals] came off to descend to the stables below I turned my head away. I'm glad my mother does not know as much about me as those elephants…" (quoted in Field, p. 31). And later in Barnes' career, after the publication of Nightwood, Elizabeth, who dabbled in amateur and unpublished poetry, would comment to Marion Bouche that she herself was a better writer than Djuna - a comment that got back to Djuna and caused her a great deal of fury. Finally, when she was in her forties, a broke Djuna went to live with her mother and siblings. Elizabeth was by then a Christian Scientist and spent most of her time trying to "lecture Djuna on her bad habits and read her selections from Mrs. Eddy…Djuna said [later] that her [elderly] mother was 'the world's strongest weak woman.'" After a few weeks of playing house both mother and daughter realized this was not going to work, that "they often found each other's company unbearable…and [finally] her mother turned her out" (Field, p. 192).
Suffice it to say that Djuna Barnes' relationship with her mother was, from the time of Djuna's birth until her mother's death, a complicated one. In fact, one might deduce that even teenage Djuna's choice of this particular volume as a gift for her mother might have been designed to start an argument - Swinburne was the author most famously embraced by fin-de-siecle hedonists and decadents for his artistic and contextual challenges to the polite world of Victorian English society, a fact of which both rebellious Djuna and her staid mother would surely have been aware.
A remarkable Barnsian presentation, in fine condition.

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