Queens of Bohemia and Other Miss-fits – Darren Coffield – Book Review

Queens Of Bohemia

“Queens of Bohemia and Other Miss-fits” is an affectionate and illuminating rescue of many remarkable women from virtual obscurity. The author takes personalities that time has unfairly dismissed and brings a fresh perspective to their stories. These women, often relegated to the role of bit-part actors by many cultural historians, occupied and usually ruled Bohemia’s vibrant, challenging territory. In this place, friendship could mean more than family and diversity was accepted and celebrated. Bohemia offered these women an escape from the oppressive uniformity of a wider patriarchal society.

The book’s unique selling point is its reliance on first-hand accounts from the women and those who knew them. Often unheard in the correct context, these voices are brought to life through a technique known as ‘oral history’. Using previously unpublished memoirs and interviews alongside a montage of quotes and fragments from published biographies, the author creates a soundscape of voices that makes readers feel like they are in a room listening to these women talk. This approach offers a genuine flavour of what it was like to be part of their Bohemia, a world that was both exotic and occasionally wracked with dampness and despair.

The narrative begins in 1920s London, when women’s rights surged after the long battle for suffrage, and nightclubs emerged as spaces where single women could socialise unchaperoned. This era, characterised by the dance craze and the gender-bending ‘Flapper’, inspired the creation of the Gargoyle club, a nocturnal hunting ground for Femmes Fatales.

The book introduces readers to the rulers of London’s Bohemia: the ‘Queen of Clubs’, Kate Meyrick; the taboo-breaking ‘Tiger Woman’, Betty May; the original ‘Chelsea Girl’, Viva King; the artist Nina Hamnett; the ‘Euston Road Venus’, Sonia Orwell; and Isabel Rawsthorne, an artist, spy, pornographer, model, and muse. These women, and many others, are vividly brought to life through their own words and those who knew them.

Using previously unpublished memoirs and interviews, “Queens of Bohemia” constructs a rich soundscape of voices that gives readers a taste of the exotic yet often despairing world these women inhabited. The book offers a unique insight into a generation of women whose ideals of duty and self-sacrifice had been debunked by the horrors of war. Their morality resided in being true to themselves as they took their struggle for freedom into the wider world and learned to value their individuality.

Essentially, “Queens of Bohemia and Other Miss-fits” is compelling and thought-provoking. It provides an invaluable look into the lives of women who defied the conventions of their time, carving out a space for themselves in a world that often sought to marginalise them. This book rescues these remarkable women from obscurity and celebrates their contributions to a vibrant and diverse cultural landscape. PCR Artlyst

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