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Jane Bowles (1917-1973) is perhaps one of America’s greatest yet least well-known gay writers.  That is somewhat understandable, in part, because her body of work is rather slim.  The expanded edition of her collected works, published five years after death, still numbered less than 500 pages.  Still, her 1943 novel Two Serious Ladies has been praised by other writers such as Alan Sillitoe and Tennessee Williams as one of the most significant works of modern American literature.  Rick Whitaker has argued recently that Two Serious Ladies is “among the central queer works of literary art” with its near perfect portrait “of what it’s like to be a sexual outsider with the belief … that there is significance—and a state of grace, so to speak—to be gleaned from the experience of being gay.”

Jane Bowles was born Jane Auer in 1917 in New York.  Among those that knew her best, she was unique; a true original, someone after you met her you would never forget.  At the age of 12, she wrote in a friend’s memento book: “You asked me to write in youre book | I scarcely know how to begin | For there’s nothing orriginal about me | But a little orriginal Sin.”  The theme of sin and the search for salvation she would later expound upon in much of her published and unpublished body of work.  Throughout her fiction, her novel, her short stories, and her play, Jane Bowles conveys, as noted by her biographer, “ a holding to daily life with great passion” mingled to some extent with struggle which speaks to the universal aspects and the lasting quality, the timelessness, of her art.

In 1937, Jane, a known lesbian among her circle of friends, met Paul Bowles.  Their relationship was a little rocky at the start, she referred to him as “my enemy,” but they soon grew fond of one another while on a trip to Mexico with a group of friends.  She insisted while falling in love with him, however, sex would not be a part of their relationship.  Because her mother had hired a French governess for her when she was 13 when her father died she was fluent in French and when Paul tried to get her into bed she simply told him: “Je ne suis pas en train de faire l’amour avec toi.”  Because he was taken with her and admired her immensely, he accepted this.  Rumours have persisted as well that Paul himself was gay or at least bisexual.  Many who knew them saw two artists who had a meeting of the minds of sorts, who were intellectual and artistic soul mates, who were passionately in love with one another but that their love simply did not contain a sexual component.  Over the next several months they talked about marriage and ultimately decided ‘why don’t we’ and so they were married in February 1938.

The newlyweds set off for Panama for their honeymoon and it was here that the seeds of Jane Bowles’ novel Two Serious Ladies were planted and began to blossom.  Her novel tells the story of Christina Goering, or Miss Goering as she is referred to throughout most of the novel.  Christina was not well-liked by other children and was deemed old-fashioned by the age of ten:

“Even then she wore the look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a single human being.”  

Jane would tell friends in her spirited way that ‘maybe I’m a religious leader.’  Then she would pause for a few moments and conclude ‘but of course I’m not.’  

Jane was deemed an oddball, a bit peculiar, yet witty and very charming.  She would say and do the most outrageous things which were part of the attraction to those who knew and loved her.  Some of this is reflected in the character of Miss Goering, who as a child was quite peculiar herself and was disturbed by thoughts that would not have occurred to her coevals; whenever another child took pity on her, as she was often left out of games by other children in her class, and tried to show her attention, Christina would “try her best to convert her new friend to the cult of whatever she believed in at the time.”

Christina’s younger sister Sophie, on the other hand was very popular with the other children.  Sophie brought her friend Mary frequently to the house; Christina was excluded, however from their outing in the woods in which they each filled a basket with flowers.

“You must find something of your own to do,” Sophie would say to her.  But it was hard for Christina to think of anything to do by herself that she enjoyed.  She was in the habit of going through many mental struggles—generally of a religious nature—and she preferred to be with other people and organize games.  These games, as a rule, were very moral, and often involved God.  However, no one else enjoyed them and she was obliged to spend a great part of the day alone.  She tried going to the woods once or twice by herself and bring back flowers, in imitation of Mary and Sophie, but each time, fearing that she would not return with enough flowers to make a beautiful bouquet, she so encumbered herself with baskets that the walk seemed more of a hardship than a pleasure.
One day, however, Christina succeeds in getting to play with Mary by herself:
Christina asked her if she would not like to play a very special game with her.  “It’s called ‘I forgive you for all your sins,’” said Christina.  “You’ll have to take your dress off.”
“Is it fun?” Mary asked.
“It’s not for fun that we play it, but because it’s necessary to play it.”
And so Mary consents and removes her dress and then Christina throws a burlap sack over Mary’s head with two holes cut out for her eyes; she instructs Mary to repeat the following: ‘May the Lord forgive me for my sins.’  She then takes Mary out into the woods by a stream.
“Come to the water,” said Christina.  “I think that’s how we’ll wash away your sins.  You’ll have to stand in the mud.”
“Near the mud?”
“In the mud.  Does your sin taste bitter in your mouth?  It must.”
Christina then performs a ritual by covering Mary in mud and then washing off the mud with water from the stream as a way of purifying the young girl ‘filled with sin.’

The scenes from Christina’s childhood are abruptly cut off after a few short pages and we find her grown up living in the house she had inherited from her parents, both dead, and her sister Sophie moved away.  

“As a grown woman Miss Goering was no better liked than she had been as a child.  She was now living in her home outside New York, with her companion Miss Gamelon.”  

The exchanges between Miss Goering and Miss Gamelon are some of the novel’s most comical.  Over dinner one evening, for instance, Miss Goering asks her companion if she has a guardian angel.  Miss Gamelon replies: “Well, I have a dead aunt, maybe that’s what you mean; she might be watching over me.”  

But it is at a party that we are introduced to the other ‘serious’ lady of the title, Mrs. Copperfield.  The party is hosted by Anna, a mutual friend of both Miss Goering and the Copperfields.  Mrs. Copperfield confides to Miss Goering that she and her husband are soon set to leave for a trip to Panama, a trip she calls terrible and is very nervous about.  Miss Goering, though, ignores her and soon leaves the party with a rather large man named Arnold.  They take a taxi back to Arnold’s place, a home he shares with his mother and father.  

After Arnold and his mother go to bed, Miss Goering and Arnold’s father have a conversation.  He asks her if she’s an artist and she tells him: “No, I wanted to be a religious leader when I was young and now I just reside in my house and try not to be too unhappy.”  
He then tells her what she can expect in getting to know his son:

“You’ll discover soon enough that he’s a rather inferior person.  He has no conception of what it is to fight.  I shouldn’t think women would like that very much.  As a matter of fact, I don’t think Arnold has had many women in his life … I myself am used to fighting.  I’ve fought my neighbors all my life instead of sitting down and having tea with them like Arnold.  And my neighbors have fought me back like tigers too.  Now that’s not Arnold’s kind of thing.  My life’s ambition always has been to be a notch higher on the tree than my neighbors and I was willing to admit complete disgrace too when I ended up perching a notch lower than anybody else I knew.  I haven’t been out in a good many years.  Nobody comes to see me and I don’t go to see anybody.  Now, with Arnold and his friends nothing ever really begins or finishes.  They’re like fish in dirty water to me.  If life don’t please them one way and nobody likes them one place, then they go someplace else.  They aim to please and be pleased; that’s why it’s so easy to come and bop them on the head from behind, because they’ve never done any serious hating in their lives.”
“What a strange doctrine!” said Miss Goering.
While on her honeymoon, Jane Bowles began work on her novel.  At the time she meant Miss Goering as a sort of running joke aimed at one of the top leaders of the Nazis; at that time, Jane, Jewish herself, was unaware of the horrors that were being perpetrated and Paul Bowles years later told her biographer if she had known she would not have joked.  Two Serious Ladies is divided into three sections.  The first and final section deal mainly with Miss Goering’s comic quest for salvation.  

The middle section is set in Panama and portrays Mrs. Copperfield ditching her husband in order to find the pleasure and happiness she had always sought but was unable to realize with her husband yet finds at last with a woman, a young prostitute named Pacifica.  After spending the night together, Pacifica urges Mrs. Copperfield to come with her to the beach.  The scene that follows conveys Jane Bowles’ masterstroke as an artist, as a genius of a writer, for in this scene in which Pacifica teaches Mrs. Copperfield, who has never learned, how to swim, the baptism game Christina and Mary played as children is repeated only this time it is sensual and it is sexual:

“Now lie on your back.  I will hold you under your head,” said Pacifica.
Mrs. Copperfield looked around wildly, but she obeyed, and floated on her back with only the support of Pacifica’s open hand under her head to keep her from sinking.  She could see her own narrow feet floating on top of the water.  Pacifica started to swim, dragging Mrs. Copperfield along with her.  As she had only the use of one arm, her task was an arduous one and she was soon breathing like a bull.  The touch of her hand underneath the head of Mrs. Copperfield was very light—in fact, so light that Mrs. Copperfield feared that she would be left alone from one minute to the next.  She looked up.  The sky was packed with gray clouds.  She wanted to say something to Pacifica, but she did not dare to turn her head.
Pacifica swam a little farther inland.  Suddenly she stood up and placed both her hands firmly in the small of Mrs. Copperfield’s back.  Mrs. Copperfield felt happy and sick at once.  She turned her face and in so doing she brushed Pacifica’s heavy stomach with her cheek.  She held on hard to Pacifica’s thigh with the strength of sorrow and frustration in her hand.
“Don’t leave me,” she called out.
At this moment Mrs. Copperfield was strongly reminded of a dream that had recurred often during her life.  She was being chased up a short hill by a dog.  At the top of the hill here stood a few pine trees and a mannequin about eight feet high.  She approached the mannequin and discovered her to be fashioned out of flesh, but without life.  Her dress was of black velvet, and tapered to a very narrow width at the hem.  Mrs. Copperfield wrapped one of the mannequin’s arms tightly around her own waist.  She was startled by the thickness of the arm and very pleased.  The mannequin’s other arm she ben upward from the elbow with her free hand.  Then the mannequin began to sway backwards and forwards.  Mrs. Copperfield clung all the more tightly to the mannequin and together they fell off the top of the hill and continued rolling for quite a distance until they landed on a little walk, where they remained locked in each other’s arms.  Mrs. Copperfield loved this part of the dream best; and the fact that all way down the hill the mannequin acted as a buffer between herself and the broken bottles and little stones over which they fell gave her particular satisfaction.
Pacifica had resurrected the emotional content of her dream for a moment, which Mrs. Copperfield thought was certainly the reason for her own peculiar elation.
“Now,” said Pacifica, “if you don’t mind I will take one more swim by myself.”  But first she helped Mrs. Copperfield to her feet and led her back to the beach, where Mrs. Copperfield collapsed on the sand and hung her head like a wilted flower.  She was trembling and exhausted as one is after a love experience.  She looked up at Pacifica, who noticed that her eyes were more luminous and softer than she had ever seen them before.
“You should go in the water more,” said Pacifica; “you stay in the house too much.”
Two Serious Ladies is also about making decisions and the great effort that goes into making choices, no matter how trivial.  Jane Bowles was very indecisive herself; she once spent four hours in trying to decide whether or not to take chicken to a picnic.  Paul Bowles has stated that: “Jane’s worry was that a choice had to be made and every choice was a moral judgment and monumental, even fatal.  And that was so even if the choice was between string beans and peas.”  This aspect of herself perhaps had much to do with the writer’s block she would struggle with for the rest of her life.  The last twenty years or so of her life she would never complete and publish a work of fiction.  But Jane tried not to take herself too seriously.  She had a crippled knee which caused her to walk with a limp and she often referred to herself as “Crippie” and “Crippie, the Kike Dyke.”  The title of her novel is also a sort of a joke revealed during the final scene when Miss Goering runs into Mrs. Copperfield and Pacifica at a bar.

             

Mrs. Copperfield … suggested that they all go elsewhere to get some food.
    “I can’t,” said Miss Goering, lowering her eyes.  “I have an appointment with a gentleman.”  She would have liked to talk to Pacifica a little longer.  In some ways Pacifica reminded her of Miss Gamelon although certainly Pacifica was a much nicer person and more attractive physically.  At this moment she noticed that Ben and his friends were putting on their coats and getting ready to leave.  She hesitated only a second and then hurriedly said good-by to Pacifica and Mrs. Copperfield.  She was just drawing her wrap over her shoulders when, to her surprise, she saw the four men walk very rapidly towards the door, right past her table.  Ben made no sign to her.
    “He must be coming back,” she thought, but she decided to go into the hall.  They were not in the hall, so she opened the door and stood on the stoop.  From there she saw them all get into Ben’s black car.  Ben was the last one to get in, and just as he stepped on the running board, he turned his head around and saw Miss Goering.
    “Hey,” he said, “I forgot about you.  I’ve got to go big distances on some important business.  I don’t know when I’ll be back.  Good-by.”
    He slammed the door behind him and they drove off.  Miss Goering began to descend the stone steps.  The long staircase seemed short to her, like a dream that is remembered long after it has been dreamed.
    She stood on the street and waited to be overcome with joy and relief.  But soon she was aware of a new sadness within herself.  Hope, she felt, had discarded a childish form forever.
    “Certainly I am nearer to becoming a saint,” reflected Miss Goering, “but is it possible that a part of me hidden from my sight is piling sin upon sin as fast as Mrs. Copperfield?”  This latter possibility Miss Goering thought to be of considerable interest but of no great importance.
Near the end of the 1940s, Jane and Paul moved to Morocco.  They would return on occasion to the United States.  Jane, in fact, left Tangier for New York and remained for two years, from 1952-1954, to work on revisions and attend rehearsals of her play In the Summer House which ran for a few weeks on Broadway and starred Judith Anderson and Jean Stapleton.  While the reviews were often mixed, one reviewer, the esteemed Brooks Atkinson, noted the following about Jane Bowles: “From the literary point of view it is distinguished: it introduces us to a perceptive writer who composes drama in a poetic style.”  After Tennessee Williams had read the script he observed: “It is not only the most original play I have ever read, I think it also the oddest and funniest and one of the most touching … It is one of those very rare plays which are not tested by the theatre but by which the theatre is tested.”  On the 12th of February in 1954, the final curtain was called for In the Summer House; by that time, the play Jane Bowles had begun working on nearly a decade earlier had attracted a small yet devoted following and they all clamoured to see the play one last time.  Before Jane headed back to Morocco, she gave an interview to Vogue in which she said: “There’s no point in writing a play for your five hundred goony friends.  You have to reach more people.”  Of course, the press blew up this comment out of proportion, much to her horror, which is why she hated giving interviews because they’re usually rushed affairs and one doesn’t have to time to elaborate or give context to one’s thoughts and statements.

Jane struggled with taking things too seriously and then also making jokes and trying not to take things too seriously.  Miss Goering’s quip at the end of Two Serious Ladies ‘of considerable interest but of no great importance’ was an example of that.  She also had an active and playful imagination; she and Paul had a private game in which he pretended to be a parrot named Bupple Hergesheimer and Jane would play the part of the aunt, Teresa Brawn.  One time, when Paul and W. H. Auden were arguing about the proper way to understand Kafka, Jane took Auden’s side of the argument and said to Paul: “Oh Bupple get back in your cage.” Throughout the years in her letters to Paul she often addressed them with “Dearest Bupple” and signed “Teresa.”  When she showed him the manuscript of her novel he was quite impressed but horrified at the same time of the messy state it was in and he deplored her awful spelling and punctuation; her reply: “If there’s a publisher, he’ll take care of those things.  They don’t publish a book because it has perfect spelling, Gloompot.”

Out in the World is the title of a novel Jane Bowles had worked on but never completed.  Two fragments, however, were published as short stories ("Andrew" and "Emmy Moore's Journal") after her death in 1973 in Spain after she had suffered for nearly two decades from a series of strokes and seizures that slowly impaired her vision and her speech; she was also a heavy drinker and consumed large amounts of gin daily and experimented with majoun and kif in Morocco, both psychedelic forms of hashish.  Rumours continue to this day that one of the Moroccan women she had an affair with, Cherifa, may have poisoned her but her biographer seems convinced that that is just part of the mystique that has always surrounded Jane Bowles.  Out in the World was planned to tell the interwoven tales of two characters, Andrew, a young man struggling with his homosexuality who falls in love with a soldier, and Emmy Moore, who is trying to escape from her husband.

"Andrew" opens with his mother crying after he has told her that he would like to go away: "a disgrace for which he felt responsible, since it was usually because of him that she cried."  

Andrew had always had a sense that he was different from other boys but on some days he felt just like anyone else:

But he had to work hard to get such days, because of his inner conviction that his own going away was like no other going away in the world, a certainty he found it impossible to dislodge.  He was right, of course, but from a very early age his life had been devoted to his struggle to rid himself of his feeling of uniqueness.  With the years he was becoming more expert at travesty, so that now his mother's crying was more destructive.  Watching her cry now, he was more convinced than ever that he was not like other boys who wanted to go away.  The truth bit into him harder, for seeing her he could not believe even faintly that he shared his sin with other young men.  He and his mother were isolated, sharing the same disgrace, and because of this sharing, separated from one another.  His life was truly miserable compared to the lives of other boys, and he knew it.
In the Army, Andrew strikes up a friendship with a fellow soldier, Tommy.  Because Jane Bowles was unable to finish the work, this section only alludes to the beginning of a budding relationship between the two young men.  One is struck though by how complete Jane wrote about Andrew and the inner turmoil he faced in just a couple of pages.

In "Emmy Moore's Journal," Jane Bowles wrote one of her most autobiographical pieces in that she begins the tale with Emmy who leaves her husband, Paul, for the Hotel Henry to 'get away.'  Jane and Paul often maintained separate residences and except when travelling whether for pleasure or for their respective careers were usually in some form of contact.

My first interesting contact was the salesman in the Blue Bonnet Room.  I had heard about this eccentric through my in-laws, the Moores, before I ever came up here.  My husband's cousin Laurence Moore told me about him when he heard I was coming.  He said: "Take a walk through Grey and Bottle's Department Store, and you'll see a man with a lean read face and reddish hair selling materials by the bolt.  that man has an income and is related to Hewitt Molain.  He doesn't need to work.  He was in my fraternity.  The he disappeared.  The next I heard of him he was working there at Grey and Bottle's.  I stopped by and said hello to him.  For a nut he seemed like a very decent chap.  You might even have a drink with him.  I think he's quite up to general conversation."

I did not mention Laurence Moore to the society salesman because I though it might irritate him.  I lied and pretended to have been her for months, when actually this is still only my second week at the Hotel Henry.  I want everyone to think I have been here a long time.  Surely it is not to impress them.  Is there anything impressive about a lengthy stay at the Hotel Henry?  Any sane person would be alarmed that I should even ask such a question.  I ask it because deep in my heart I do think a lengthy stay at the Hotel Henry is impressive.  Very easy to see that I would, and even sane of me to think it impressive, but not sane of me to expect anyone else to think so, particularly a stranger.  Perhaps I simply like to hear myself telling it.  I hope so.  I shall write some more tomorrow, but now I must go out.  I am going to buy a supply of cocoa.  When I'm not drunk I like to have a cup of cocoa before going to sleep.  My husband likes it too.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Nov 19, 2013 at 03:07 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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