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Posts Tagged ‘Jane Bowles’

Two Serious Ladies has sat on my shelves unread for some time, so I was delighted when having suggested it to my book group, they picked it for our July read. An American modern classic, I quite understand why some people are bemused by this modernist novel – it perhaps takes some thinking about. All in all, I really enjoyed it, Bowles’ straightforward narrative voice is very engaging and rather mischievous. Jane Bowles was a woman who appears able to have lived the life she wanted – and in this novel she celebrates female freedom in the stories of the eccentric Frieda Copperfield and Christina Goering.

The novel follows the decline into debauchery of two very different women. Frieda Copperfield and Christina Goering are social acquaintances, part of the same circle they meet at parties and such like, though in the novel they only come together twice, once near to the beginning of the novel, and again right at the end.

The novel opens with Christine Goering as a child – a child as unpopular as she will be as an adult. Disturbingly, the child Christina plays a rather odd game with another child, a friend of her sister’s – which the reader is certain will lead at any moment to the other child’s drowning – it doesn’t. The point of this incident no doubt is to highlight the oddness in Miss Goering and her inability to form normal friendships.

“I wanted to be a religious leader when I was young and now I just reside in my house and try not to be too unhappy. I have a friend living with me, which makes it easier.”

As an adult Miss Goering is living in New York with her companion Miss Gamelon – a recent addition to household. She is very wealthy, and she is in a sense trapped by that wealth and her place in society. At a party given by their mutual friend Anna – Miss Goering meets another acquaintance, Mrs Copperfield – who tells Christina she will be going away with her husband. These are the two serious ladies of the title – they are both quite staid though in different ways, one of them trapped by her money the other by a conventional marriage.

Mrs Copperfield accompanies her husband to Panama – where they stay close the red light district of Colón. Here Mrs Copperfield (as she is almost always referred to – reminding us perhaps of her supposed serious lady status) makes an unexpected bid for freedom, taking up with the ladies of the Hotel de las Palmas, a bar and hotel owned by the wonderfully bizarre Mrs Quill. Mrs Copperfield becomes greatly enamoured of the young Panamanian prostitute Pacifica, who she will later take back with her to the states. While still in the country, Mrs Copperfield moves into the Hotel de las Palmas – abandoning her husband to the cheap hotel he chose but she rejected, and his much anticipated trip into the jungle.  

Mrs Copperfield’s adventures in Panama are colourful, liberating, and hilarious. Of the two stories within this novel, this was the one I engaged with the most. Certainly, there is something joyful in the feeling that finally, Mrs Copperfield is a happy woman.

“True enough,” said Mrs. Copperfield, bringing her fist down on the table and looking very mean. “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.”

Meanwhile, Miss Christine Goering makes her own peculiar bid for liberation. She decides that she will live on just a fraction of her income and buys a small and not very nice house on Staten Island – where she, her companion Miss Gamelon and her friend Arnold set up home together. The three are not entirely comfortable together – and the odd arrangement is far from ideal. Soon, Miss Goering is making secret trips across to the mainland by ferry, where she starts to haunt quayside bars, meeting men and becoming what can only be described as a high class call girl.

“‘Having a nice time?’ the girl asked Miss Goering in a husky voice.

‘Well’ said Miss Goering, ‘It wasn’t exactly in order to have a good time that I came out. I have more or less forced myself to, simply because I despise going out in the night-time alone and prefer not to leave my own house. However, it has come to such a point that I am forcing myself to make these little excursions.’”

In this 1940s novel, sex is only ever really implied – and it doesn’t seem to be something these two women desire for themselves, especially, maybe not even enjoy that much – but it represents a freedom, an independence from their previous existences.   

As I write this review it is Monday afternoon, and I am a couple of hours away from my book group zoom meeting – and I am really looking forward to our discussion. What will we all think? I am anticipating that we may not all feel exactly the same about the book, that’s fine – we can’t all feel the same about books, and I am secure in my great liking for this book – and especially the character of Mrs Copperfield who I rather adored. It’s a book I like even more as I think about it afterwards, if I didn’t have quite so many books waiting I could almost sit straight down and re-read it immediately.

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