BOOK REVIEW: The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes

The theme of sexual awakening and desire has been explored since the dawn of literature; through the works of Nabokov, Flaubert, Shakespeare, Laclos, Sade, Sagan or Colette to name but a few (90% French, I notice, as I type. Maybe we are a sex-obsessed nation after all). 

When I found out that Djuna Barnes was writing under a different name on this very theme, the Lydia Steptoe Stories were not what I expected. I anticipated something more provocative, possibly darker, definitely smuttier, a reason to write under a different name in the 1920s. Like when French author Boris Vian chose Vernon Sullivan as his alter ego to write his much more tendentious and much less moral tales (‘I spit on your graves’, ‘To hell with the ugly’, both of which I recommend by the way). But they were nothing like this. 

Written in diary form, the Lydia Steptoe Stories depict the musings and sexual longings of three different characters. They were initially published by three different magazines. 

In the first story, ‘The Diary of a Dangerous Child’, a 14-year-old girl is planning on seducing her parents’ friend. Through her diary, the young woman is torn between which path to follow, weighing options in her first entry:

I am debating with myself whether I shall place myself in some good man’s hands and become a mother, or if I shall become wanton and go out in the world and make a place for myself.”

She finally settles, a couple of entries later, on becoming the youngest virago there was.

The plans for seduction are as basic as a 14-year-old would imagine, and involve a wide array of “love” symbols such as the stroke of midnight, a lake, riding horses at night. The reader will however find out that not all turns out as planned, but I will leave it at this, not wanting to spoil the twist. 

The second story is ‘The Diary of a Small Boy’ and the protagonist is 14 as well and young enough still to love his mother more than anything:

“She is small and dark and there is a hard softness about the place you put your head when you lean on her. She says “Dear” in a tone that makes you want to keep it away from everyone else.”

The reader follows him through a short journey of changes during which his cousin Elda, from unnecessary, becomes intriguing and enticing enough for him to follow her into the woods. 

But again the story won’t end as expected and though the tale is again filled with phallic symbols, it remains lust-free.

The third story, ‘Madame grows older: A Journal at the Dangerous Age’ depicts a dramatically older protagonist, “a woman of forty” who discovers her own mortality and feelings of lust towards her daughter’s fiancé:

”I am wrapped up in arnica and my head is done up in towels. Near at hand are the smelling salts, the Social Register and a guide to Monte Carlo. I am not myself […] I am a moral and physical menace to human nature. This is it: I am in love with Prendaville Jones!

There is no denying Djuna Barnes is very funny, and the ironic, sometimes caustic tone of her diaries illustrates the extent of her wit:

“I could not write in my diary yesterday […] I think this shows that I am going to be anaemic just as soon as I’m old enough to afford it.” 

“There are my mother’s two sisters, Clovine and Cressida. […] They are little and whispering and always make you nervous by the number of things they put their hands on. […] They sit for hours talking of ways to make bad men sorry.” 

I can’t help but wonder whether she actually mocks her characters and their dramatic doings, elevating them to caricatures? Djuna Barnes is known for her feminist views (at least in her earlier life) so it’s difficult to imagine she would be mocking those women herself – could she possibly be denouncing the men, depicting them under this questionable light? Or could this be a preview of the anti-feminist views she expressed in her later life? This intriguing little book is opened to quite a few interpretations. 

The Lydia Steptoe Stories is published by Faber & Faber for more information about their Faber Stories and 90th Anniversary click here.

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Djuna Barnes

Djuna Barnes was an American writer and artist best known for her novel Nightwood, a cult classic of lesbian fiction and an important work of modernist literature.

Reviewed by Barbara F. Jones

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