Poet Renée Vivien was born on June 11, 1877 In London, England. She was a British poet who wrote in the French language. During her brief life, Vivien was an extremely prolific poet who came to be known as the "Muse of the Violets,” derived from her love of the flower. Virtually all her verse is veiled autobiography; most of it has never been translated into English. Her principal published books of verse are Cendres et Poussières (1902), La Vénus des aveugles (1903), A l'heure des mains jointes (1906), Flambeaux éteints (1907), Sillages (1908), Poèmes en Prose (1909), Dans un coin de violettes (1909), and Haillons (1910).
She was born into a wealthy British family and she grew up in both Paris and London. Upon inheriting her father's fortune at 21, she immigrated permanently to France. In Paris, Vivien's dress and lifestyle were as notorious among the bohemian set as was her verse. She lived lavishly, as an open lesbian, and carried on a well-known affair with American heiress and writer Natalie Clifford Barney.
By 1901 the tempestuous and often jealous relationship with Natalie Barney had already collapsed. Vivien found Barney's infidelities too stressful. In 1902 Vivien became involved with the immensely wealthy Baroness Helene van Zuylen. Though a lesbian, Zuylen was married and the mother of two sons. Zuylen provided much-needed emotional support and stability for Vivien. Zuylen's social position did not allow for a public relationship, but she and Vivien often traveled together and continued a discreet affair for a number of years.
In 1907 Zuylen abruptly left Vivien for another woman, which quickly fueled gossip within the lesbian coterie of Paris. Deeply shocked and humiliated, Vivien was terribly affected by these and other losses and this accelerated a psychological downward spiral. She turned increasingly to drugs, alcohol, and sadomasochistic fantasies. Mysterious sexual escapades would leave her without rest for days. She would entertain guests with champagne dinner parties, only to abandon them when summoned by a demanding lover. Plunged into a suicidal depression, she refused to take proper nourishment, a factor that would eventually contribute to her death.
Above all, Vivien romanticized death. While visiting London in 1908, deeply despondent and ruinously in debt, she tried to kill herself by drinking an excess of laudanum. The suicide failed, but while in England, she contracted pleurisy; later, upon her return to Paris, she grew considerably weaker. She had also started to refuse to eat and by the time of her death, she weighed about 70 lbs. Multiple neuritis caused paralysis of her limbs. By the summer of 1909, she walked with a cane. Vivien died in Paris on the morning of November 18, 1909 at the age of 32; the cause of death was reported at the time as "lung congestion", but likely resulted from pneumonia. She was interred at Passy Cemetery in Paris, France.
Michael Thomas Barry is the author of Literary Legends of the British Isles. The book can be purchased from Amazon through the following links: