Perhaps the most embarrassing consequence of reading Victorian Sappho - Yopie Prins's impressive account of how Victorian poets over the course of a century imagined, exploited and distorted the mysterious figure of Sappho - is being forced to confront one's own mental images of the long-dead Greek poet. My own most cherished notions of her, I find, are at once detailed, puerile and unbending - a strange hodge-podge of Baudelaire, Mary Barnard and Ronald Firbank, all coloured still by the prejudicial fancies of a flannel-shirted, late Seventies lesbian adolescence:
SAPPHO: short, dark in appearance, teensiest hint of a moustache - a cross between Mme Moller (high school French teacher) and a slightly defective but still gorgeous Audrey Hepburn. More femme than butch in style (favours flowing chitons, the odd bangle, funny sandals with lots of straps) but good too at outdoorsy things, such as pounding in tent pegs and spotting constellations. Sings and dances, always ready with a hymn to Aphrodite, but gets mopey at weddings (always the bridesmaid, never the groom!). Dynamite in bed, of course, and totally gay: that stuff about being in love with Phaon and jumping off a cliff just not true! Ovid all bollocks. Would have been in love with me, had I lived in ancient Greece. May in fact have been referring to me in Wretched Tatty Papyrus Fragment No. 211 (Lobel-Page):
Come [Terry?] . . .
cast off your [air-cushioned?] Nikes
the [?] nightingale [?] . . .
LRB 30 September 1999 | PDF Download