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Dola de Jong: De thuiswacht (The Tree and the Vine)
This book was first published in Dutch in 1954 and then translated into English (by Ilona Kinzer) and published by John Calder in 1961 and republished by the Feminist Press in 1996. It has now (2020) been retranslated (by Kristen Gehrman) and republished by Transit Books.
Our narrator is called Bea. She met Erica in 1938 at the house of a mutual friend. They hit it off at once and, within a month, were sharing a flat together. They each had their own room, not least because Bea liked her eight hours, while Erica’s sleeping patterns were somewhat erratic. Both were working as trainee journalists and not paid much.
Erica was very handy so when they moved in she was able to scavenge and repair furniture, though she has no bed. She seemed to be happy to sleep on the floor but Bea eventually bought her a bed. However, looking back, I have no idea how I accepted her often peculiar behaviour with so little resistance.
Erica is erratic, unpredictable and irrational while Bea is (fairly) conventional. Erica was not someone who did other people favours to get them to like her. She had no problem making enemies. Her enemies include her mother, her father (who may not be her biological father) and her step-father. She has no sense of money. If she has it, she spends it. If she does not, she does not worry but just carries on.
The first major conflict between the two women occurs when Bea has a boyfriend, Bas. In my life, men have always been like shadows waiting in the wings. There was never room for them on stage because Erica held the spotlight.. Things seem to be going well with Bas. However, it soon becomes clear that Erica and Bas do not like each other and sooner or later, Bea will have to choose between the two. The crunch comes when they are planning to go on holiday that summer. Both Bas and Erica are expecting her to with them but not with the other. It ends with a fist fight between Bas and Erica and Bas is never seen again. My dear child, your affection for Bea is based on unhealthy emotions, Bas tells her.
The holiday does not go well. Erica takes up with an American woman, Judy, and Bea is left out. Bea returns to Amsterdam on her own.
This novel is famous for being a lesbian novel when, on the whole, respectable Dutch women did not write lesbian novels. However, while we have seen hints of it – Bas’ unhealthy emotions comments – nothing much else has been seen. About half way through the book, this changes as Erica essentially comes out, revealing that Judy and others were not just good friends, and involving Bea as well.
This is the way I am!” she screamed. “This is the way I am!” She turned toward me, her face wet with tears and contorted into an expression of equal parts pain and triumph. “And it’s the way you are too. Yes, you, Bea. Admit it! Just admit it!”
However, Bea is convinced that it is not the way she was so how can she remain close to Erica ( I could no longer live without her) but remain essentially heterosexual?
De Jong was Jewish, which is why she fled the Netherlands and ended up in the United States. Bea is not. However, Erica’s father is or, rather, Erica’s alleged father is, though it seems her biological father is not the man she was brought up thinking he was her father. De Jong had managed to flee the Netherlands before the German invasion. Both Bea and Erica are faced with the issue,as the impending German invasion draws closer. Do they flee? If so, how do they pay for it? And where will they go?
I suspect, were it not for the publicity about the lesbianism, this book would be far less well-known. However, do not let that put you off or encourage you (depending on your views on the topic). What makes it interesting, is the relationship between the two women. Erica is erratic, colourful, restless and unpredictable. Neither Bea nor we know what she is going to do next. She certainly does not always act in her own best interest. Indeed, she often acts very much against her own best interest. Bea is far more staid, predictable and conventional but, as sometimes happens with people of that nature, she is very much attracted to the unpredictable and erratic behaviour of Erica. It may give her sleepless nights and long periods of not knowing what Erica is doing or, indeed, where she is but she feels that that is a price worth paying.
The issue of her sexuality is key. Bea has no qualms mentioning her (very few) sexual relationships with men and the heartbreak they caused her when they ended. She rejects any sexual relationship with Erica but there clearly are sexual undertones in the relationship, even though much of it might seems like the closeness of two sisters.
This is far from being the first lesbian novel as this list shows but it did have an impact and that it is now being released in English (in a new translation) for the third time shows that it clearly is still worth reading.
First published in 1954 by J.M. Meulenhoff
First English publication by John Calder in 1961
Translated by Ilona Kinzer (original, 1961, and Feminist Press edition, 1996), Kristen Gehrman (Transit Books edition, 2020)