Wednesday 26 October 2011

Two Serious Ladies - Jane Bowles

This is another fairly long review, but a few of you were kind enough the other day to tell me not to apologise for long reviews - so I shan't!  I certainly enjoyed writing it, and formulating my thoughts.

Eighteen months ago John Self very kindly offered me a copy of Two Serious Ladies (1943) by Jane Bowles, in its beautiful reprint by Sort Of Books (responsible for the recent Tove Jansson editions too, most of which are newly-commissioned translations.)  He thought it might be my sort of thing - and he was definitely right.  It just took a while for me to get around to reading it...  (By the by, Sort Of Books - I love you, I love your production standards and your choice of titles - but... only one lady on the cover of a book called Two Serious Ladies - really?)

I know John Self read the novel, but can't find a review of it on his blog, so perhaps it never got that far.  In fact, despite being a celebrated novel, there isn't a great deal of coverage of it in the blogging world - perhaps because it is essentially a very strange book.  You know I love me some strange, now and then, so I was more than happy with that - but it isn't one that I would recommend to everyone.  Bowles writes quite like Muriel Spark, but without the ironic authorial comment.  The unsettling dialogue never settles into the expected, the sparse narrative offers very little guidance, and the whole novel is deliciously disconcerting and unusual.  And yet it's still often very funny.  If you like beginning-middle-end and naturalised conversations between characters, then look away.  If you like Muriel Spark, Barbara Comyns, or even Ivy Compton-Burnett - then you could well be in for a treat.

The females of the title only meet twice, briefly, in Two Serious Ladies - towards the end of the first and third sections, of three.  The ladies in question are Christina Goering and Frieda Copperfield - always called, by the narrative, Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield; one of the novel's most subtle strangenesses.  Lorna Sage's excellent introduction reveals that there was once to have been a third serious lady, Senorita Cordoba, which might have made the unusual structure less striking - but would have thus robbed Bowles.

We first see Miss Goering as a child, attempting to inveigle a straightforward friend into an elaborate and invented religious ritual.  The reader might, not unnaturally, expect to follow Miss Goering throughout her life - but we quickly fast-forward to Miss Goering as a "grown woman" (age unspecified) and stay there.  She is unsociable, uncompromising, selfish and violently honest - yet not truly malicious.  Her character is so open and amorally direct that she reminded me of Katri from Tove Jansson's The True Deceiver.  Oddly, suddenly (so much in this novel is odd and sudden) Miss Goering invites Miss Gamelon, the cousin of her governess, to live with her.  They are never amiable companions, and although they depend upon one another to an extent, their relationship is never reliable and neither even attempts to understand the other.  It is a mystery why either would want to live with the other - but a mystery neither of them care to address.  Here is the sort of conversation they have:

"I don't like sports," said Miss Goering; "more than anything else, they give me a terrific feeling of sinning."

"On the contrary," said Miss Gamelon, "that's exactly what they never do."

"Don't be rude, Lucy dear," said Miss Goering.  "After all, I have paid sufficient attention to what happens inside of me and I know better than you about my own feelings."

"Sports," said Miss Gamelon, "can never give you a feeling of sinning, but what is more interesting is that you can never sit down for more than five minutes without introducing something weird into the conversation.  I certainly think you have made a study of it."

I know I shouldn't be attempting a piece of close reading, as that's not what you've come to read, but I think that excerpt would be fascinating to analyse.  One example - that word 'certainly' in the final sentence.  How many authors would have included that?  And what a transformative effect it has on the sentiment, and on the character speaking it - she becomes that much more combative, and idiomatic, and faux-dramatic.  She is speaking for effect, for drama, rather than with simply honesty.  Even if I'd only read these sentences, Miss Gamelon would stand fully-formed before me.

Nearly all the characters and their conversations are piercingly honest, unswervingly self-absorbed, and insistently irrelevant.  Rarely do they seem to have paid the remotest attention to what their interlocutor has replied.  If they have, it is solely as a means of flatly refuting it.  Forster's Howards End is renowned for the mantra 'only connect' - Two Serious Ladies proffers the opposite doctrine, especially where Miss Goering is concerned.  She does go out with a weak man called Arnold, whom she openly despises - although, again, without intending malice.  Jane Bowles excels at portraying awkward conversations and unhappy exchanges - if they lean too much towards the morosely disjointed to claim verisimilitude, then at least it makes a change to the neat patter of many novels.
"Since you live so far out of town," said Arnold, "why don't you spend the night at my house?  We have an extra bedroom."

"I probably shall," said Miss Goering, "although it is against my entire code, but then, I have never even begun to use my code, although I judge everything by it."  Miss Goering looked a little morose after having said this and they drove on in silence until they reached their destination.
Miss Goering bumps into her acquaintance Mrs. Copperfield at a party, and the narrative passes the baton on.  Mrs. Copperfield is about to embark on a trip to Panama with her husband.

This section of the novel is equally interesting, although I jotted down fewer notes while reading it... where Miss Goering is indifferent and jaded, Mrs. Copperfield has an ingenuous lust for experience.  She is not an intelligent woman, but is easily captivated, and dashes around Panama - befriending the inhabitants of a brothel along the way.  Here she has just met a flighty girl named Peggy, whose appearance in the novel is fleeting:
"Please," she [Peggy] said, "be friendly to me. I don't often see people I like. I never do the same thing twice, really I don't. I haven't asked anyone up to my room in the longest while because I'm not interested and because they get everything so dirty. I know you wouldn't get everything dirty because I can tell that you come from a nice class of people. I love people with a good education. I think it's wonderful."

"I have so much on my mind," said Mrs. Copperfield. "Generally I haven't."
How are these ladies serious?  Lorna Sage suggests that Bowles uses the word to mean 'risking the possibility that you were meaninglessly weird'.   I think perhaps it is these ladies' choice not to laugh at life, but determinedly to live it, and see what happens.  But, truth be told, Jane Bowles doesn't seem to have a grand theme to Two Serious Ladies.  Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield are not part of a philosophical quest; there is no sense of purpose or conclusion.  Questions are not answered; they are scarcely posed.  In many ways the novel doesn't follow any progression at all - the ladies merely experience a great deal, whether grasping at it enthusiastically or raising an ambivalent eyebrow at life.  Bowles' astonishing talent is creating a dynamic that, if not unique, is highly unusual - strange, surreal, and yet grounded to the mundane.  Her ear for dialogue is astonishing - dialogue which is almost never realistic, but always striking.

And Two Serious Ladies is a brilliant novel.  As I said, it would not suit many readers - but anybody who chose writing style over plot in my recent post on the topic would be quite likely to appreciate this book.  It is a huge shame that Bowles only wrote one novel.  The one she has created ought to be enough to assure her a sort of immortality - Bowles is one novelist we should be taking seriously.

Others who got Stuck into it:

"There’s something interestingly off in the way the characters in this book make choices; they are all inscrutable." - With Hidden Noise

"At its heart, it is a book about people who feel quite often unrooted and alone, even in their own parlor, surrounded by friends." - Margaret, The Art of Reading

"It's essentially an absurd tale and not one I really got into." - Verity, Verity's Virago Venture


  1. Sounds fascinating! I'd love to read it.

  2. I found this one a real struggle. Her manipulation of language was amazing in places, but oh everyone was so miserable! (My review)

  3. Those snips of dialogue are crazy! They make me want to read it, but I'm not sure I could stand a whole book filled with characters like that...I recently gave Waugh another chance w Handful of Dust and loathed it. Have you read him? If so, can they compare?

    1. Whereas Two Serious Ladies exists in an absurd world with no real morals, A Handful of Dust was written by Waugh precisely to show how horrid our world would be without morals. The off-handedly selfish and callous way the main character is treated by his wife (yet there is real heartrending trajedy in their son's death) and, of course, how coldly ruthless the old man is when he takes the protagonist captive are precisely depicted that way to disturb us. I found the ending so disturbing that many years later I decided to go to the library and read about Waugh himself. To my surprise and deep relief I learned that he became a Catholic and this book highlights his faith in an unpreachy way so people will still enjoy it. The plot, I thought, felt classic and yet I had never read anything like that plot before.

      I love a quote I found in one of the books on E. Waugh: "Man without God is less than man."

    2. Thank you for that interesting comment, Anon - I haven't read that particular Waugh yet. Isn't it interesting how two of the novelists who reveal the nastiness of human nature - Muriel Spark and Waugh - were, or became, Catholics with real personal faith? Perhaps not that surprising - realising the limits of human nature, perhaps?

  4. Harriet - I was thinking of you all the way through it! You're welcome to borrow it. I couldn't quite decide if you'd love it or not - it's not as good as The Slaves of Solitude, but it's pretty darn good.

    bibliolathas - thanks for the link, I was really interested by your review.

    Eva - good question. I've read three Waughs (Put Out More Flags; Decline and Fall; The Loved One) and I loved the third, and couldn't quite get on with the other two - because everyone was so selfish and mean. The characters in Two Serious Ladies are certainly self-absorbed, but they aren't mean or malicious. They're almost amoral, most of the time - very abrupt and strident, but not with the cruelty of Waugh's characters.

  5. This has been in my TBR for ages, I think I might like it. Is it really where 'Only connect' comes from, and hence the TV show ?

  6. Annabel - Do give it a go! 'Only connect' comes from Howards End - I was suggesting that 'only disconnect' would be an apt mantra for this novel. :)

  7. Oh what a great review of it! And I had never seen a picture of Jane Bowles before, heh, she looks just as she should be.

    Virago did publish her collected short stories as well, 'Everything is Nice', not sure if it's still in print though.

  8. This sounds like a bonkers but rather brilliant quirky novel. I wouldnt have heard of it if it wasn't for you Simon, so thank you. I can't say I am dashing to get it right now, but it is one I will have on my radar for future reference and keep my eyes peeled out for in the library etc.

  9. Helen - thanks so much! Doesn't Jane Bowles look exactly as you'd imagine her? Thanks for the tip about her short stories - I'll have to investigate...

    Simon S - I do try and find the unusual reads! But I have John Self to thank for this. Hope you manage to stumble across this!

  10. "Two Serious Ladies" is quite simply one of the greatest books ever written. I place it right alongside Proust's "A La Recherche du Temps Perdu," Robert Musil's "The Man Without Qualities," Irving Rosenthal's "Sheeper," and William Gaddis' "The Recognitions." It was a constant source of inspiration to the New York Poets, especially Frank O'Hara and John Ashbury. This is a nice review but it fals to take into account the lesbian subtext of the narrative -- so pronouned in many places that it's scarcely "sub" at all. Jane Bowles and Patricia Highsmith were the lesbian High Priestesses of Greenwich Village in the Good/Bad Old Days. They both had affair with Judy Holliday. And they both Got Out of Dodge for foreign climes. Jane's Bi-Polarity brought wouldshoud have been an extensive career to a premature end. Only a play ("In the Summer House") and a group of short stories came in "Two Serious ladies" wake. Alas.


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