A closer look at new Sky Atlantic drama Little Birds…
When Anais Nin’s philandering musician father ran off with one of his rich students, leaving her devastated mother alone to bring up three children, the 11-year-old – forced to move from her native France to America – started composing a letter to entice her adored father back.
Although just a child, she wrote a distorted picture of the allure of the family’s new home in America – she would do anything to get him back and even at her tender age she had learned that manipulation and lies were the best way to get what she wanted from her father.
It failed to work but this letter was later to form the first chapter of a diary which became one of the most infamous pieces of literature ever written. The diaries, when they were finally released in their full unexpurgated glory, revealed dozens of affairs, bigamy, a life of lies, lesbianism, and, most shockingly of all, consensual incest with the man who had left her.
Nin, who died in 1977, has variously been called, ‘a monster of self-centeredness’, ‘a great bore’, ‘mercilessly pretentious’, a pioneer for female sexuality and, last year, by Meghan Markle, an inspiration, ‘to be braver’. It may be that she was all of these things.
Her reputation has risen and fallen like the tides. She was derided for most of her life as someone who had clung to the edges of the American literary world, forced to self-publish her books, only thanks to the riches of her banker husband who she cheated on mercilessly. But she finally found fame when an edited version of her diaries detailing just some of her affairs led to her becoming a feminist icon.
And when her full works of erotica, written in the 1940s for an unnamed male patron, were released in 1977 it became clear that there was something a little unedifying beneath this flag bearer of sexual revoltion. Not only did they celebrate the female sexuality that she was revered for, but they also included celebrations of paedophilia and rape.
And then her unedited diaries came out, detailing her many, many love affairs including a three-month relationship with her own father.
But slowly she has come back into fashion. Her words have become favourite memes – nuggets of insight shared on social media. ‘Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage/ We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are/ You cannot save people, you can only love them/ The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.’ Some might say that in our narcissistic age, where everyone likes to spill everything on Facebook or Instagram, she fits right in.
And now an erotically laced new drama for Sky Atlantic, inspired by her book Little Birds, will introduce her to a whole new generation. The series stars young British actress Juno Temple as troubled American heiress Lucy Savage who arrives in the bohemian melting pot of 1955 Tangier. Escaping from a controlling father and alcoholic mother, she has rapidly married the first man who danced nicely with her, penniless British aristocrat Lord Hugo Cavendish-Smythe played by Hugh Skinner.
But once she leaves the boat to marry Hugo in Tangier, where he lives, she finds her new husband is not what she thought. He is a gay man, who likes her but isn’t interested in her sexually. And so, she is forced to go elsewhere for her pleasure.
Readers of the book of short stories will be surprised to find how little of the book there is in the series of the same name. But, as the show’s writer Sophia Al Maria says, that is because there are still elements of Nin which are unfathomable, even in today’s permissive society. The book’s first story is about a paedophile who buy exotic little birds to attract school girls to his apartment.
‘Anais Nin had been really important to me as a teenager but then, rereading it as an adult, I was like, ‘This is really dicey. I don’t know how I feel about a lot of this stuff,’ she says. ‘Also, there isn’t really a plot.’ Instead the series focuses on one of Nin’s much quoted sayings: ‘And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.’
But the idea of a girl with daddy issues who marries the first man who will take her before she plunges headlong into a world of men who want to touch her? Rather than any of the stories she concocted, the girl in the series is, perhaps, a tamer version of Nin herself.
Born in 1903 in France to Spanish-Cuban pianist Joaquin Nin and French-Cuban singer Rosa Culmell, she was devastated when her parents split up when she was ten. With her mother and two younger brothers she had peripatetic upbringing, moving around France, then to Barcelona and finally New York. Aged 16 she left school and started working as a painter’s model, her beautiful dark and exotic looks made her an instant favourite. In Little Birds she gives an idealized/ sexualized account of all the painters and illustrators who would touch her and try and have sex with her until she finally lost her virginity to one of them.
Aged 20 she married Hugh Guiler, a banker and film maker, who was five years her senior and in some ways a substitute father but one who was kind and faithful. But he was inexperienced with women and wasn’t able to satisfy Nin. She quickly began to look elsewhere.
Her first love affair was with John Erskine in 1928, a celebrated writer and her husband’s mentor. They arranged a tryst but Erskine, feeling guilty about betraying his friend, rejected her in the final moment which sent her into a tailspin of self-doubt and depression.
The couple moved to Paris where Nin, profoundly interested in psychoanalysis, started seeing therapists Rene Allendy and Otto Rank, who her husband was then seeing in therapy. Both men became her lovers. They also encouraged her to write. Her first book, a slim criticism of the still controversial DH Lawrence, helped provide her entrée into literary society, as did her husband’s finances.
In 1931 Nin met Henry Miller who was living in a semi poverty as a teacher. She decided he was an undiscovered genius and he was also the first man who initiated Nin to sex as she hoped it would be; raw and passionate. ‘It is like a forest fire to be with him,’ she wrote. With her husband’s fortune she helped bankroll his work while he agreed to mentor her.
There was just one complication; Miller’s wife June. But when Nin met her, she fell in love with June too writing of her: “I love her for what she has dared to be, for her hardness, her cruelty, her egoism, her perverseness, her demoniac destructiveness. She would crush me to ashes without hesitation. She is a personality created to the limit. I worship her courage to hurt, and I am willing to be sacrificed to it. She will add the sum of me to her. She will be June plus all that I contain.’
Their ménage a trois was immortalized in a 1990 film called Henry & June, starring Uma Thurman, which was given a certificate by censors normally reserved for hard core porn.
But even her love affair with this married couple wasn’t enough. Miller, who wrote the novel Tropic of Cancer with her funding, was addicted to his work and Nin, despite all she had done for him, felt abandoned once again.
In 1933, after an absence of 20 years, Nin’s father re-emerged. Having learned his daughter had turned into a beautiful and clever young woman, he invited her to join him on a holiday to Spain. Their relationship quickly turned sexual.
As she described in her diary, under the heading Father Story, at first, he seemed ‘cold and formal’ but she was ‘dazzled’ by his intellect and charisma, considering him to be the ‘complete synthesis’ of all the men she had loved. In turn he proclaimed her, ‘the woman of my life’.
After their first night as lovers she described herself ‘poisoned by this union’ with a ‘sense of guilt’ that ‘weighs down on my joy’. But the affair continued for three months with her celebrating: ‘I had the man I loved with my mind; I had him in my arms, in my body.’. When this section of her diaries was finally released, after her death, readers were shocked by her lack of remorse and introspection about this breaking of one of the final taboos.
During the war she moved back to America with her husband and joined a small band of writers creating erotic fiction for wealthy benefactors for money. In the preface for Little Birds she described how: ‘I became what I shall call the Madame of an unusual house of literary prostitution…Most of the erotica was written on empty stomachs. The more hunger, the greater the desires, like those of men in prison, wild and haunting. So, we had here a perfect world in which to grow the flower of eroticism.’
In 1942 she had a passionate romance with homosexual writer Gore Vidal who was 20 years her junior. He states he became ‘ensorcelled’ by her while she was impressed with his ‘manliness and poise’. Even though he knew he was gay he begged her to marry him saying, ‘I built a house for us.’ When she rejected him, he got his revenge when he concocted a character called Maria in his novel The City and the Pillar about a homosexual character who falls for an older, exotic woman who had an affair with another man to make him jealous.
Furious at the caricature, she wrote: ‘I want to protect you, the human being, from the consequences of this incapacity to love.’
She was 44 when she finally found the man who would, in some ways, fulfill her. Rupert Pole, a handsome actor 16 years her junior, caught her attention when they met in a lift in 1947. Like many of her lovers, she kept him with her husband’s money. But she told him she was a divorcee and they married, bigamously in 1955. She reasoned this was the only way she could embody all her potential; as a lover and a wife.
Nin spent her time living between her two husbands, neither of whom knew she was married to another, devising a complex index card system of half lies and pseudonyms so she could work out who she had told what to. Her handbag contained two chequebooks – one was for Anais Guiler in New York – and the other was for Anais Pole in Los Angeles. She even had differently named bottles of prescription pills.
But that all had to change once she finally found the literary fame she had always craved. In 1966 she put out a much-edited version of the diaries she had begun writing when she was 11. They ran to 35,000 pages. Although there was much she had left out – including the affair with her father and her bigamy – her sexual freedom fed into the 1960s women’s emancipation movement while her poetic writing found a home.
Soon she was being feted as an icon and toured America, worshipped by young women who believed she had provided the first real account of how a woman could thrive in the male dominated world of literature. At the same time, she quietly annulled her marriage to Pole, although she continued to live with him, so that she could continue receiving money from her first husband.
In 1977, shortly before she died of ovarian cancer, she released one of her two volumes of erotica, Delta of Venus. She knew it would impact how she was seen, damaging her reputation, but also wanted to leave a lasting legacy of wealth for both her husbands. It became an instant bestseller.
Two years later Little Birds was released. In 1986 Pole then released Nin’s unedited diaries including the full story of her incest, and the way she was perceived completely changed. She was variously portrayed as a spoiled adulteress who used her cuckolded husband’s money to keep her husbands, a liar, a pornographer and a madwoman who had a consensual affair with her own father.
Now, once again, her impact on history is being reassessed. Feminist icon she may be but there was a darker side to her years of excess which should, perhaps, be recognised too.
- Little Birds is now available on Sky Atlantic