It's Time to Start Taking Jane Bowles Seriously

Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies

Ecco, HarperCollins, 240pp, $14.99, ISBN 9780062283122

reviewed by Anna Coatman

This February, HarperCollins US published a new edition of Jane Bowles’ 1943 novel Two Serious Ladies. If you’ve never read the book before, I hope this news might prompt you to do so - but please don’t judge it by its cover. The design features an illustration of two young women in 1940s dresses. It’s nice, in its way: pretty, a bit kooky, cute. The thing is, Two Serious Ladies isn’t.

The two ladies on the cover (described as being ‘like an ad for Daria’ by the women’s literature journal which takes its name from Bowles’ novel) bear little resemblance to the real (anti) heroines of the book. They are meant to be Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield: a sadomasochistic spinster (named after the Nazi military leader) and an unhappily married woman, whose ‘sole object in life [is] to be happy’. Bowles’ characters are as unconventional as their illustrated versions are conservative. Though Claire Messud’s introduction for the new edition helps elucidate the novel, the packaging doesn’t.

Jane Bowles isn’t the only woman writer to have been re-branded in such a way. Around the same time last year Faber released a 50th anniversary edition of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar – and a similarly ‘period’ 1950s commercial illustration of a woman applying makeup in a compact mirror was commissioned for the cover. The choice sent a wave of outrage rippling through the literary world, as one critic after another attacked the apparent attempt to market Plath’s seminal work as ‘chick lit’. The retro-styled reprint of Two Serious Ladies has caused no such splash.

This is a little sad, but not hugely surprising. Whereas Plath’s reputation has blossomed over the years, Bowles remains almost as obscure as she ever was. This is partly because Two Serious Ladies was the only novel she ever completed, and partly because few readers have ever known quite what to make of it.

Jane was born in New York City in 1917, into a wealthy Jewish family. She married the composer and soon-to-become writer Paul Bowles in 1938, and the couple spent the rest of their life together outside America - in Mexico, Sri Lanka and Morocco (where a gaggle of Beat writers followed them). Throughout the marriage, Jane had relationships with women and Paul had relationships with men.

During their travels, Paul added reams of celebrated short stories, six novels, three volumes of poetry, numerous translations and travel pieces and an autobiography (many of which Penguin have since reprinted as ‘Classics’ with moody, understated, elegant covers) to his substantial body of musical compositions. Jane, on the other hand, only managed to complete a novel, a play and a handful of short stories by the time she died at just 56. While Paul Bowles still has a firm foothold in the canon of US literature, Jane Bowles remains relatively obscure.

Two Serious Ladies was derided as ‘incomprehensible’ by reviewers when it was first published and Bowles herself said it was ‘not a novel’ a few years later, and it has drifted in and out of print ever since. Though Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, John Ashbery and Ali Smith have all passionately championed it - the book has been overlooked as a charming oddity at best, and a charmless failure at worst.

The plot (as far as there is one) follows Mrs. Copperfield, who is forced to go on holiday against her will and ends up seeking refuge from her overbearing husband in a hotel in Panama with the alcoholic owner, Miss Quill, and a prostitute named Pacifica. Miss Goering, meanwhile, attempts to seek ‘salvation’ via suffering by moving (with her co-habiting companion Miss Gamelon) from her big, comfortable house to ‘a more tawdry place’ on an island, over which the fumes from nearby factories waft. From here, she makes ‘little excursions’ (i.e. embarks upon sordid sexual liaisons with strangers). One lady fears the unknown, the other seeks it; but they each find that the more they try to live one way, the more they end up living the other.

No parallels are ever explicitly drawn between the odd pair of protagonists who, despite ‘occasionally [having] tea with each other’, lead entirely separate lives. The narrative traces Mrs. Copperfield’s story and then Miss Goering’s, and begins and ends with the apparently inconsequential convergence of the two. Yet the structure of the novel connects them and encourages the reader to try and find meaning in the connection - though on the surface it seems that there is none to be found.

At the book’s conclusion (or non-conclusion) Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield are reunited in a bar - and promptly fall out with one another. Mrs. Copperfield tells Miss Goering: ‘I feel that you have changed anyway and lost your charm.’ By the same measure, Miss Goering is ‘completely disgusted’ with Mrs. Copperfield, and tells her that she has ‘gone to pieces’. Miss Goering tries to explain what has happened over the course of the novel as follows:

‘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.

Although Miss Goering suspects that she may be as sinful as Mrs. Copperfield, she does not care. At the moment when the reader expects a resolution to come, Bowles does not provide one. Who is right and who is wrong may be ‘of considerable interest’, but it is also ‘of no great importance’.

In her fiction, arguments like this remain unresolved because Bowles never steps in to pick a winner. Instead they run, endlessly, on. And matters are made even more perplexing by the fact that Bowles rarely gives an insight into any of her characters’ thoughts, feelings or motivations – leaving us to glean what we can from dialogue and frequently bizarre behaviour alone (much like watching a play).

As a consequence, reading Two Serious Ladies for the first time can be like waking up in an unknown country and trying to find your way home with no map (or smart phone) and a broken (moral) compass. Bowles’ stubborn refusal to give any clear directions has led many readers to dismiss her as a mere eccentric (her reputation as being Paul’s ‘mad’ wife doesn’t help matters on this front). Yet on a second reading, it’s possible to see that the novel is actually deceptively experimental, recalling, for example, Gertrude Stein’s 1909 novel Three Lives - a modernist book that is also, essentially, the staging of a divided self. We could also see it as a kind of precursor to Shelia Heti’s 2010 not-a-novel in its attempt to wrangle with a question similar to ‘How Should a Person Be?’

Though ostensibly whimsical in terms of plot, Two Serious Ladies grapples with existential questions of sin and salvation in a godless world and reveals the uneasy, gendered power structures that underlay family life, 1940s US society and cross-cultural encounters. The novel deals with themes such as domestic abuse, anxiety, sexual violence, sex tourism, orientalism and jingoism – as well as female friendship, compassion and self-liberation.

Like the woman who created it, Jane Bowles’ writing refuses to sit still in a single category. Which, I suppose, could make it difficult for a publisher to know how to ‘sell’ it. Bowles wrote a novel that’s like a play and a play that’s like a novel; psychological works that refuse to look inside people’s heads and travel writing that refuses to look out of the window; work that in some ways follows on from modernism, but in others looks forward to postmodernism; writing that is queer and feminist; writing that is bitterly tragic. Writing that also, miraculously, manages to be brilliantly, blackly funny.

When Miss Gamelon describes Miss Goering as being unable to go five minutes ‘without introducing something weird into the conversation’ she could also be describing her own creator. But it is this weirdness that makes Jane Bowles so wonderful; and it’s more than matched by her wisdom. It’s about time we started taking the lady more seriously.
Anna Coatman is a writer and book editor based in London.