(Above: Nerina in 1995, aged c87, right. With Sue1066, left, whose pic this is)
There are so many things you can learn, and be inspired by, when you look at an individual’s life in depth. Studying Nerina Shute’s life through her writings has given me so much to think about. This is just the beginning:
Bisexuality over a lifetime
For many people who aren’t bi – and even for some who are – bisexuality is something that is for young people. Only for young people. I suspect that’s because many of them connect bisexuality with having lots of partners and/or not being “settled down”.
Not much is known about the ways in which people remain bisexual over the course of their lives, how their sexuality changes (or doesn’t), and how these changes interact with the changes in society.
But for Nerina (as with other people of her generation, now dead, such as James Lees-Milne, who have published volumes of diaries) we can see that her bisexuality was important throughout her life. In her 90s, she was happy to tell an interviewer she was bisexual (see this post); in her 80s, in her autobiography Passionate Friendships, she wrote at some length about the (late 1980s) fraught relationship between bi women and lesbians. She simply didn’t understand why this tension existed:
“We are bisexual. We are ambisextrous, as Aimee Stuart would say. Lesbians accuse us of wanting the best of both worlds. Well why not?”
Bisexual life in London
As I’ve already written, bohemian Londoners of this time – whether intellectual Bloomsburyites, or actual and wannabe actresses, people who worked in nightclubs and many etceteras – tended not to choose one opposite-sex marital partner and stay with them, forsaking all other. The blog I referred to in the first of these posts, Cocktails with Elvira, describes many of the personalities involved, and the merry-go-round of relationships in which they were involved. Some of these characters tended to be gay, some tended to be straight, but many of them seemed to have partners or occasional lovers outside of this. What there were, though, were (physical) fights, intrigues and quarrels – something Nerina complains about in We Mixed Our Drinks. No doubt alcohol played a large part.
Playwright Aimee Stuart, friend of Nerina’s from 1926 until Aimee died, introduced Nerina to many of these women through her “at homes”, where sex was frequently discussed and being “ambisextrous” far from unusual. One of them was almost certainly the wonderfully named Sunday Wilshin, who acted in the film version of Stuart’s play Nine till Six. She really intrigues me, and there’s more about her here.
This is a still from The Gentle Sex from 1943, co-written by Aimee Stuart, Moie Charles (also a friend of Nerina's) and others. Apparently there is a free download of the film on that site too!
It also seems that there was a group of women who saw themselves as specifically bisexual, as distinct from lesbian. This was certainly how Nerina saw herself as a mature woman. When young, she was unhappy about her attractions to women, didn’t like the contempt heaped on lesbians, and couldn’t understand the fact that she needed both women and men.
She saw her love for men, and her love for women, as mutually complementary. A relationship with a woman would not threaten her relationship with a man, or vice versa. Her friend and sometime lover, Helen Mayo, thought so too. This is a pic of Helen, left, and Nerina, right, on holiday in Ireland, 1939.
And in Passionate Friendships, she quotes Helen, in a conversation from the late 1950s:
“’To deceive him with another man would be wrong, but not with a woman. There’s no harm in it,’ said Helen, ‘because the love between two women is totally different. It’s a form of friendship, a passionate friendship.’
“Of course I knew exactly what she meant. There is little or no similarity between the lusty love-making of a man or tender or motherly love-making between women. A male lover is unthinkable for a married woman in love with her husband. A female lover can be delightful.”
To Nerina’s husband Howard Marshall, though, a lover was a lover; their relationship ended because he considered she had been unfaithful. The fact that her lover was a woman was neither here nor there. In Passionate Friendships, she blames herself for hurting him so much, and thereby ending their marriage, when she still loved him.
Helen and Nerina’s view of sex between women seems to have some connection with the romantic friendships of the 19th century and earlier, as detailed by Lilian Fadermann in Surpassing the Love of Men. Fadermann, writing in the early 1980s, saw romantic friendships as NOT being sexual. I don’t see that we can know, definitively.
Helen Mayo and her partner (Dorothy Anderton) Andy Sharpe, friends of Nerina’s from 1939 until their deaths in the 1970s, are also interesting to consider. They were a dentist and obstetrician, respectively, so not obvious candidates for bohemianism. Instead, Nerina places them within a work-hard/play-hard, live life to the full framework. Andy had a fiancé who was killed in WW2, and Helen had other lovers too, as well as Nerina. They were extremely sociable and life-loving, with their large house in Portland Place the scene of many parties. This was mentioned in Andy Sharpe’s obituary in the BMJ, with no further comment or explanation.
Things I don’t know about Nerina
Although I wrote above about Nerina’s lifetime of bisexuality, in fact there is little publically available information about her life in old age. I found a couple more pictures of later-life Nerina via Google Images, and they intrigue me. They are from Sue1066’s flickr account. Who are you, Sue1066? You obviously knew Nerina (see the picture of the two of them at the top of the post) and perhaps have some connection to her family – given that some of the other pics are of Nerina’s mother’s childhood home and a memorial with her maiden name Pepper Staveley. I hope you don't mind me using your pic.
Obviously, there are lots more things I don’t know. And sadly for my bank balance, these are the sort of interests that lead jobbing writers to attempt biographies.
The most obvious are: what were the real identities of her lovers Charles – abortionist turned condensed-milk salesman; and Josephine – Catholic monocle-wearer, met at a lesbian party, greatly in love with Nerina, and her assistant at Max Factor in the late 1930s? Cocktails with Elvira contains a number of candidates for Josephine, although I don’t think any likely monocle-wearers are mentioned.
Maybe Nerina was deliberately laying false trails for any future nosey-parkers.