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Posts Tagged ‘Jane Bowles’

Angela Carter’s Book of Wayward Girls and Wicked Women was first published by Virago in 1986, but I bought this newer version after Christmas with my book vouchers. A collection of subversive tales by and about women, extoling the virtues of disruptiveness, discontent, and bad manners. The collection of course is edited by Angela Carter and contains one story by her, and she wrote the introduction. In looking at the various women and girls who these stories are about Angela Carter in that introduction tells us:

“Most of the variously characterized girls and women who inhabit these stories, however, would seem much, much worse if men had created them. They would be predatory, drunken hags; confidence tricksters’ monstrously precocious children; liars and cheats; promiscuous heartbreakers. As it is, they are all presented as if they were perfectly normal. On the whole, women writers are kind to women.”

Eighteen stories by a variety of women authors, written in different styles from across the world, there are always those you like more than others, but in this collection, there was only one I really didn’t get on with. In these stories we meet debutantes, lesbians, con artists, witches, and prostitutes. Writers include Elizabeth Jolley, Grace Paley, Katherine Mansfield, Bessie Head, Colette and Jane Bowles. I can’t possibly discuss each story, but I aim to give a flavour of a few.

The collection opens with Elizabeth Jolley’s The Last Crop – about a woman in Australia who must sell her father’s farm. She doesn’t want to sell but she has to – her father had for many years longed to live in the house on the land he owned, but hadn’t been able to. A buyer is found, a kindly, honest man – who understands the sadness behind the necessity of selling. So, when the woman comes up with a plan to hold on to the farm, a while longer, the kindly buyer walks right into her trap.

In Rocky Gámez’s piece from The Gloria Stories and Jane Bowles’ A Guatemalan Idyll we encounter rich storytelling and vibrant, voracious characters. All Gloria wants to be, is a man, and she sets about becoming one, living her life as a man and finding a woman to love. Gloria insists to her lifelong friend, that now, she too will be able to father a child. In Bowles’ story an American traveller finds himself at the Pension Espinoza, surrounded by sensual, voracious women, who take great interest in him. It’s a gorgeously atmospheric story. Bessie Head takes us to Botswana and the story of Life, a woman who returns to her village after seventeen years in South Africa. While Katherine Mansfield tells us the story of a thoroughly unpleasant, spoiled young girl – who is rude and unkind to just about everyone.

One of my favourite stories was Wedlock by George Egerton, the pseudonym of Mary Chavelita Dunne. It’s set in nineteenth century London, the woman at the heart of the story a dreadfully sad drunken woman, who takes a terrible, unimaginable revenge on her husband. Nevertheless – her story is such, that even in the face of a truly terrible act, we feel some sympathy with her. Two bricklayers working in the street outside provide a kind of chorus – the one telling the other about the woman, they have just witnessed reeling down the street, and later, feeling something bad might happen, tries to keep an eye out – but is interrupted and taken away from his post.

“The little man has watched her go in, and stands in the laneway looking up at the house. A light appears in the top back window, but it must come from the stairs, it is too faint to be in the room itself. He bends his head as if to listen, but the steady fall of the rain and the drip of the roof on to some loose sheets of zinc dominate everything. He walks away a bit and watches a shadow cross the blinds; his step crunches on the loose bricks and stones; a woman rushes down the flagged path of the next house and opens the door.”

(From Wedlock by George Egerton)

In Angela Carter’s own story The Loves of Lady Purple a puppeteer – the Asiatic Professor – has created a life sized puppet called Lady Purple. The Professor has travelled the globe with his little theatre and his strange little entourage of a dumb girl and a deaf teenage boy – weaving a story of shocking exoticism around the puppet. He is the creator of everything she does and is – the stories of her escapades come from him alone.

“As he crouched above the stage directing his heroine’s movements, he recited a verbal recitative in a voice which clanged, rasped and swooped up and down in a weird duet with the stringed instrument from which the dumb girl struck peculiar intervals. But it was impossible to mistake him when the Professor spoke in the character of Lady Purple herself for then his voice modulated to a thick, lascivious murmur like fur soaked in honey which sent unwilling shudders of pleasure down the spines of the watchers.”

(From The Loves of Lady Purple by Angela Carter)

So, when Lady Purple actually comes to life – the only one to blame is her creator himself.

There’s just a little light witchery in Colette’s The Rainy Moon, set in Paris and Frances Towers’ Violet – about a servant, who sets out to control the household she is working in.

Far too many stories to write about in any detail – but overall a thoroughly satisfying collection, in which I encountered new to me writers and a few old friends.

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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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