July: The Lavender Gin Sling

July is a hot month, so a long, cool drink seems in order for this season. Etymologically, the cocktail name "sling" is thought to derive from the German "schlingen" (to gulp), so a drink that is basically the cocktail equivalent of a "Big Gulp" seems perfect for the dog days of summer.

How to make a Lavender Gin Sling

Step 1:  Place 3-4 ice cubes in a sling glass.

Step 2:  In a cocktail shaker, mix 1.5 ounces of Citadelle French gin with 1 ounce of Monin lavender syrup. 

Step 3:  Pour the mixture over the ice.

Step 4:  Top up with club soda.

Step 5:  Garnish with a wheel of fresh lemon.

The basic gin sling is an American cocktail that dates back to around 1800 and consists of gin and water, sweetened and flavored. This version is flavored with lavender. On the one hand, lavender carries slightly old-fashioned connotations, of elderly Victorian ladies and traditional gentility. And you could argue that Renée Vivien was a Victorian: she was presented as a debutante to Queen Victoria, after all. But she also had another coming out when she realized that she preferred women, making her part of the "lavender menace." Lavender can thus also have a more unsettling, even revolutionary, connotation.

 

A sling, too, can be revolutionary. Not only is it a weapon (think David and Goliath), in 17th-century France, it was the name of a famous rebellion: La Fronde. So at the end of the nineteenth century, when French women wanted to signal that they were rebelling, they founded a newspaper that was by and for women, and they called it La Fronde. And you could argue that it was in the pages of La Fronde that Renée Vivien (as opposed to Pauline Tarn) was born, because this is where the name Renée Vivien first appears, on January 17, 1903.

 

Up to this point, Pauline Tarn's public, authorial persona had been known simply as "R. Vivien," with no first name (hence gender) specified. Under this name, Tarn had begun publishing books of poetry, starting with Etudes et Préludes ("Studies and Preludes") in 1901. But beginning with the collection Evocations in 1903 (and the poems in it that first appeared in La Fronde), she would "out" herself: a woman poet writing poems about (among other things) loving women.

 

This is the very first poem she is known to have published in La Fronde (still under the name R. Vivien). It appeared on January 8, 1903. The version that subsequently appeared in Evocations is lightly modified.

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"L'Aurore triste" by Renée Vivien (1903)

French

 

L'Aurore triste

L'Aurore a la pâleur verdâtre d'une morte,

Elle semble une frêle et tremblante Alkestis

Qui, les yeux vacillants vient frapper à la porte

Où l'amour l'accueillait en souriant jadis.

 

Elle a quitté les flots qui roulent des étoiles,

Les jardins nébuleux où dort Perséphoné,

Ceinte de pavots blancs et vierge sous les voiles,

Et le doux crépuscule au sourire fané.

 

Elle a quitté l'Hadès et l'éternel automne,

Le reflet des roseaux et l'ombre des iris

Sur l'onde dans reflux qui jamais ne frissonne.

L'aube semble une frêle et trembante Alkestis.

 

Longtemps elle s'attarde au seuil de la demeure

Dont hier elle fut la parure et l'espoir,

Et contemple le monde immuable qui pleure

Avec des yeux nouveaux qui s'attristent de voir.

 

English translation

The Sad Dawn

 

Dawn has the greenish paleness of a dead woman.

She seems a frail and trembling Alkestis

Who, with vacillating eyes comes knocking on the door

Where smiling love used to receive her.

 

She has left the waves of stars that roll,

The nebulous gardens where Persephone sleeps,

With a belt of white poppies and a virgin beneath the veils,

And the gentle twilight with a faded smile.

 

She has left Hades and the eternal autumn,

The reflection of the reeds and the shadow of the iris

On the wave in reflux that never shivers.

Dawn seems a frail and trembling Alkestis.

 

She hesitates for a long time on the threshhold of the abode

Of which just yesterday she was the ornament and the hope,

And contemplates the immovable world that weeps

With new eyes made sad by seeing.

A few things to think about in this poem (by Melanie Hawthorne)

The poem is about a mythological figure, the queen Alkestis, who appears here as the personification of Dawn (the capitalized 'Aurore'). 

 

Alkestis is not a very familiar figure any more, but she was more well known in Vivien's day. The classical scholar Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928), a public intellectual who gave popular lectures (the Mary Beard of her day?) dressed up for a photograph as Alkestis in 1887  (you can see a reproduction of it in Francesca Wade's recent book Square Haunting). Pauline Tarn was only ten years old then, but perhaps she had occasion to catch some of Harrison's talks later, during the adolescent years she spent in London. In any case, Tarn/Vivien was part of a generation of women who turned to Greece for inspiration. (On this topic, see Artemis Leontis's biography of Eva Palmer, and Yopie Prins's Ladies' Greek. ) Women were trying to show, among other things, that they could study difficult things like the classics (just as their brothers did), and that they appreciated civilization, and deserved independence and the vote.

 

A notable figure of classical literature, Alkestis gave her life to save that of her husband, but in return she made him promise not to remarry after her death. But through a series of interventions and tricks by gods and heroes such as Hercules, the details of which Vivien omits as irrelevant for her purposes here, Alkestis is saved. This poem focuses on the moment she returns home at dawn the next morning from the dead (the realm of Hades), only to find what looks like her husband already throwing a party. So much for promises! 

 

The poem consists of four stanzas. In the first one, a green and pale Dawn looks like a dead person (une morte), as indeed she has been until recently. This frail and trembling Alkestis comes knocking at the door where she was once welcome. The second and third stanzas of the poem talk about what Alkestis has just left behind--the crepuscular, autumnal realm of Persephone and Hades. The final stanza gets to the crux of the matter. This spectral female figure comes to the door of a house where she used to be welcome (where love received her with a smile), where indeed she once was the "la parure et l'espoir" (the ornament and the hope) of the household, only to see the world through new eyes. The reason for the sadness is that her husband appears to have already moved on with his life (he is throwing what appears to be a celebratory party) while she is--literally--out in the cold. From the outside looking in, Alkestis concludes that her husband couldn't wait to remarry, that he has already forgotten her, that he has broken his promise. 

 

Vivien adapts the story of Alkestis to write a "break-up" poem. One returns to a place that holds happy memories, only to find that one is no longer welcome. One is shut out, forgotten. And the loss of one's lover is made worse by the fact that one's ex does not seem to suffer one bit from the breakup; on the contrary, that person is already finding happiness elsewhere. Promises of fidelity have been broken, but also vows of the "I'll never forget you" genre. Seen in this light, it's hard not to read the poem as a comment on Vivien's recently ended relationship with Natalie Barney. While Vivien/Alkestis still carries a torch, Barney hasn't wasted any time, and is already busy with her next love interest. Vivien has already been replaced.

 

In terms of style, the poem features elements that are representative of Vivien's poetic work. In addition to the classical references, of special note is the way Vivien privileges the twilight (that is to say, dawn and dusk, the in-between times); her invocation of flowers including "pavots blancs" (white poppies, poppies being of course the source of opium and thus associated with both forgetfulness and drug-induced reveries), "roseaux" or reeds, and the iris; and finally, the emphasis on virginity (meaning, for Vivien and her circle, "untouched by man") that stands for purity and female independence.

 

More about Vivien's contributions to La Fronde can be found in my article "Renée Vivien, frondeuse: A Woman Taking Pleasure in Behaving Badly" in Plaisirs de femmes: Women, Pleasure and Transgression in French Literature and Culture edited by Maggie Allison, Elliot Evans and Carrie Tarr (Oxford, UK: Peter Lang, 2019) 187-201.