Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bi lives: Nerina Shute/3


(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 fiancĂ© 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.


Stella Omega said...

Nerina was disengenious when she wondered why "having the best of both worlds" was frowned upon by lesbians.

Lesbians are not talking about having male and female lovers when they say this-- they are talking about enjoying the loving of women, and benefiting from the social status of hetero relationships with men.

In a word-- Duh. Although I would never argue the point with an 80 year old woman.

Nerina may have felt a contextual difference in her beddings, between male and female partners, but as she found out, not everyone experiences the sexual energy exchange in the same way. Her husband didn't, and I doubt that many women, even of her acquaintance, did either. The sexulaity of women is not that simple.

Sue George said...

Disingenuous... I'm not sure it was that exactly. In the part of her book where she talks about this, she sounds hurt and disappointed. It sounded more genuinely naive to me, because I didn't understand why she didn't get their objections.

Regarding the contextual difference etc, it is far less usual to hear this now. But when I was younger (say in the 1970s), more bi people (men and women) used to say they felt a need for both male and female lovers contemporaneously. I think this HAS changed. I think there used to be much more of a feeling that men and women were profoundly different in their sexual feelings, behaviours, "essences" etc but I don't have any actual research that shows that. I think these are quite subtle changes in society that nevertheless do exist. Those are some of the reasons why I think histories of sexuality are so fascinating.

And I don't care how old someone is, if they can write a book and have it published, their ideas can be argued with! I think Nerina was 84 when Passionate Friendships came out. She lived for another 12 years after that.

Rebecca Jones said...

Thanks for this series of posts, really interesting.

Have you read 'British Women Writers 1914-1945: Professional Work and Friendship by Catherine Clay (2006) Ashgate, London? It's so much about the kind of things you're talking about here, that I looked Nerina up in the index, sure that she must feature. She doesn't, but you might find it interesting for comparison. (If you do want to look at it and have any trouble getting a copy, you'd be welcome to borrow mine).

Sue George said...

Thanks Rebecca. I will look for that book sharpish! The British Library will have a copy, and it sounds like just the sort of book I wish I'd written...

Sue George said...

That's a brilliant book, Rebecca. It seems very clear from reading it that those more highbrow/serious/feminist writers mentioned in it were having similar emotional and sexual conflicts to those of Nerina and her friends.
Plenty of scope for lots more research by someone!

maurice said...

Nice to see these pieces on Nerina.
I agree with you about the importance of histories. I think it's very risky to generalise across the generations. I may be quite wrong, but I don't think Nerina (and certainly not Elvira) thought about their male partners in terms of social status at all.I'm still trying to identify the sub-culture Nerina moved in and add a few names but I'm having real trouble finding material about Aimee Stuart etc.

Sue George said...

Hello Maurice (who writes the great Cocktails with Elvira blog I refer to in these Nerina posts), good to see you commenting!

Seeing male partners/husbands in this social status way is a late 20th century feminist view, but "making a good marriage" certainly wasn't. However, I am sure that neither Nerina nor Elvira saw their husbands/boyfriends in this manner. If anything, their choice of husbands and boyfriends (Elvira especially) shows them making very "bad marriages" indeed!

Yes, I agree that it is very hard to find out more about that subculture. In fact, I found your blog by Googling Aimee Stuart. I thought someone must have posted something about her in the two years since I finished my MA. And you did! But no one else.

It should theoretically be possible to discover where her papers are. I have the details of Nerina's literary executor, but haven't pursued it as yet.

Anonymous said...

Nerina Shute was the first cousin of my maternal grandfather. She told me she was leaving all her possessions (photos, papers etc too I imagine)to the family of Phyllis Haylor, her partner of the sixties and seventies so I presume this is what happened. Her final partner is a rather retiring woman and probably would not like to be contacted but I am still in touch with her. Sue1066

Sue George said...

Sue1066, I'm so happy that you commented! I wondered if you might at some point.

I had tried (around 2008, when I was doing my masters') to get in touch with Nerina's last partner through an intermediary but nothing came of it. I haven't pursued her literary executor either (and thank you so much for letting me know about who she was) due to time and money factors. I do still hope to pursue my interest in Nerina at some point. I find her a really fascinating person, both as a writer and a character. I hope it doesn't sound too odd that I describe her like that, given that she is someone you knew and were related to.

Do you have any idea as to why "Passionate Friendships" seemingly had no publicity at all when it came out? In 1992 I was searching desperately for any kind of book where anyone discussed bisexuality and I'm sure I would have seen it. And do you know if there is any footage online or anywhere of Phyllis Haylor in her ballroom dancing days?

I have so many questions to which someone (obviously not you necessarily!) must know the answer.

If you ever felt like getting in touch with me outside of this blog, I'd be so very happy to hear from you!
Sue (

Anonymous said...

I don’t know if or why Passionate Friendships wasn’t well promoted. Nerina had lots of copies at her place when I stayed with her in Putney in 1995 and I think I saw them in bookshops then too. I googled Phyllis but mainly it was about the books on dancing. I think there is also some video of her dancing. On the 19th page I found the following from the London Gazette 2-3-1982 for some possible contacts.
HAYLOR, Phyllis Grace Hutton Wood Cottage, Whiteleaf, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, Dancing Teacher. 22nd October 1981.
Young Jones Hair & Co., 2 Suffolk Lane, Cannon Street, London EC4R OAU, Solicitors.
Personal representatives: James Wylie Patterson, Bruce Sheridan Christer, Judith Mary Hutton Yeates and Elizabeth Nerina Marshall.

Sue George said...

Hello Sue. Yes I saw those books about ballroom dancing. I wonder if (for instance) the British Pathe archive/the National Film Archive has any films of Phyllis in her competition days? Obviously I could try to find out but it all takes time!
Regarding Passionate Friendships, as I know myself having a book published is one thing. Getting information about it to people who'd love to read it is quite another. (Of course it is very different since the internet.) It may well have been in bookshops but I didn't know it would be of interest to me. I hadn't heard of Nerina till around 2000 when I found out about (and then read) We Mixed Our Drinks in a footnote in a history book on the interwar period.

Lacey small said...

Hey sue. My name is Lacey I am a 16 year old bisexual and I really respect what your blog is about I have a lot of respect for you please keep posting

Much respect


what has become of Cocktails with Elvira and Maurice? an abrupt cessation, why? i'm working on Olivia Wyndham in Harlem

Sue George said...

Yes, I know. I have heard nothing from Maurice since that last post in 2012. Google yields no further information about him. Sad.

I'd be very interested to know more about your Olivia Wyndham project.