Thursday, 29 July 2010

A very quirky take on personal liberation

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

Two Serious Ladies, Jane Bowles's one novel, first published in 1943, is nothing if not quirky.

Christina Goering is a well-to-do spinster of independent means. From an odd childhood, where she was obsessed with religious ideas of sin and salvation, she has grown to a lonely middle age – until she asks a new acquaintance, Miss Gamelon, to come and live with her.

They're joined, shortly afterwards, by Arnold – and even, fleetingly, by his father – before Miss Goering moves them all from her large, respectable home, to a shabbier one on a small island near New York.

Frieda Copperfield is another respectable, middle-class woman. Married to a man she adores but is stifled by, we meet her properly as they approach Panama on a holiday. Insisting he would be bored by staying in a good hotel (which would also cost money they didn't need to spend) her husband has selected a rather seedier place.

But as it turns out, Mrs Coperfield finds the seedier world very much to her liking, when she meets and falls in love with a prostitute, Pacifica, and decides to stay with her at a brothel.

Lauded by the likes of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote as a woefully under-appreciated talent, Bowles's tale is a little dated – but that's an illustration of how far women have come in the time since she wrote it.

What remains extraordinary is the degree to which Bowles portrays the respective liberations of her two main characters in sexual terms. Whilst there are no explicit descriptions of sex, the book is shot through with it, and both women – like their creator – are clearly bisexual.

For Bowles, it seems that sexual exploration is vital in terms of throwing off the limitations of convention; in other words, that what is viewed in a society as conventional sexual behaviour is a major aspect of controlling people in general.

I discovered Two Serious Ladies after reading a brief review of a re-release in the Guardian's weekend arts section – it was a spot that started a run on book purchases. Quirky, with a certain kind of camp and, in places, bitchily funny, it is certainly a fascinating read.

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