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Jane Bowles: Two Serious Ladies

This was the only novel Jane Bowles completed and it had little success on publication. It is not too difficult to see why. The characters are not particularly sympathetic and their behaviour often seems erratic, not to say irrational. Indeed, there are several characters who have no qualms about approaching complete strangers in a fairly aggressive manner for no apparent reason. However, the book has become something of a feminist classic and, if you are prepared to accept that the characters may not behave in a rational and/or conventional manner, the book is certainly worth reading, not only because of is feminism but because it is different from the run of mill novel.

The two eponymous serious ladies are Christina Goering and Frieda Copperfield. Christina Goering is usually referred to and called simply Miss Goering while Frieda Copperfield is usually simply called Mrs Copperfield, Her husband calls her dear, if he calls her anything, while her Lesbian lover calls her simply Copperfield.

Christina Goering came from a wealthy family and had been brought up with her sister Sophie. She was not liked by other children, but this did not bother her. Sophie, however, was much liked. The one interaction with another child that we read about resulted in Christina trying to baptise the child in a nearby muddy stream. Naturally, this did not go particularly well. She was no better liked as an adult. However, as she had inherited a fine house and money, she did not really care.

One day, she receives a visit from Lucie Gamelon, who was the cousin of Christina’s governess. They seem to get on so Lucie turns up again the next day. (My cousin used to tell me how queer you were. I think, though, that you can make friends more quickly with queer people.) After a discussion, Miss Goering proposes that Miss Gamelon remains living with her as her companion and she readily agrees to the proposal.

Miss Goering is surprisingly enough invited to a party where she meets Mrs Copperfield. Mrs Copperfield is about to go off to Panama with her husband. She also meets Arnold, who propositions her, takes her to his home (where he lives with his parents) and tells her that he has fallen in love with her. Meanwhile, Arnold’s father also propositions Miss Goering, while his wife tells her that she is a harlot.

Mrs Copperfield and Miss Goering will not meet again till the end of the book, as we follow the story of each separately. Miss Goering leases her smart house in New York and moves to an island, possibly Staten Island. There she lives with Lucy Gamelon, Arnold and Arnold’s father.

Meanwhile, Mr and Mrs Copperfield have gone off to Panama. Mrs Copperfield is not happy about it. She does not like the heat, the mosquitoes or the fact that her husband won’t choose the only decent hotel in Colon to stay in. Indeed, she does not like Colon. A fellow passenger on the boat tells her Colon is full of nothing but half-breeds and monkeys. It is Mr Copperfield who decides what they should do and his wife is not happy with his choices. Then she meets Pacifica, a teenage prostitute, and falls for her. The two women go out together, go skinny-dipping and even help Mrs Quill, the landlady of the the hotel they are staying in. When Mr Copperfield sends her a letter outlining her faults, she is even more determined to stay with Pacifica.

The two serious ladies meet again at the end, by which time Mrs Copperfield has gone to pieces. I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years. I know I am as guilty as I can be, but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf, and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring, which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.

Clearly Bowles is showing the right of a woman to live her own life in her own way, even if this way is clearly neither conventional nor one likely to lead to great happiness. Both the ladies make what we might consider serious flaws of judgements but these flaws are their flaws done in their way. They make strange friends, strange decisions and seem to look for love in the wrong places. The book has had its fans and detractors since it was first published (not least Bowles’ own family, who did not like it). I think I will sit on the fence. I cannot say that I really enjoyed it but, at the same time, I recognise that it is a very original work.

Publishing history

First published 1943 by Alfred A. Knopf