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Posts Tagged ‘Jane Rule’

I hadn’t even heard of this novel – to my shame – until Virago selected it as their book club read for July. Despite reading a lot of VMC titles, I have probably only joined in with the book club once before, as they so often read things I have already read. I quickly bought a copy of Desert of the Heart so that I could join in – there’s an online discussion on FB that starts later this week.

The novel is described as ‘an undisputed lesbian classic’ which made me feel like I should have heard of it before – but neither it nor its author were previously known to me. Written in 1961 – published in 1964 after twenty-two rejections – it was the author’s first novel. This was a time when sex between people of the same sex was a criminal offence – the novel was a breakthrough piece of work, and caused quite the stir. This edition includes an excellent introduction by Jackie Kay – who really sets the novel in context.

It’s simply a wonderful novel – I was immediately drawn in by Rule’s warm and witty tone, her intelligence and her brilliantly drawn characters; fully authentic and real. Evelyn Hall is an English professor who has come to Reno – for the necessary period of six weeks – to obtain a divorce from her husband George. She has been married for sixteen years. The pair have been living incompatibly for years, the marriage has been childless – and it is finally time to bring it to an end.

From the opening lines, Rule sets out her stall – how only one way of life is considered conventional or ‘normal’ while those living outside of that are somehow other.

“Conventions, like clichés, have a way of surviving their own usefulness. They are then excused or defended as the idioms of living. For everyone, foreign by birth or by nature, convention is a mark of fluency. That is why, for any woman, marriage is the idiom of life.”

Evelyn has come to stay at a B&B run by Frances Parker who lives there with her son Walter. Another woman seeking a divorce is also resident when Evelyn arrives, as well as long-time resident – the almost step-daughter of Frances, casino worker Ann Childs. When they first meet, Evelyn and Ann are struck by how similar in appearance they are – Ann though is fifteen years younger. The two are clearly very highly aware of one another right from the start – though it takes a few days, before they start to get to know one another.

Ann has a very different life, a world that is entirely alien to Evelyn. Working nights at the casino – she finishes in the early hours of the morning, often going straight to her friend – and sometime lover – Silver’s house before heading back to the boarding house. Silver is due to be married soon to Joe – after which Ann’s relationship with Silver will change. Silver is a brilliant creation, generous, tough talking, and no nonsense.  Rule reproduces the sights and sounds of the casino brilliantly – Ann one of a number of ‘change girls’ – who spend hours lugging around a heavy change apron. At the club, Bill is Ann’s boss – there is some residual bitterness between them, after their relationship was ended by Ann.

Soon though, Evelyn and Ann are drawn together – each of them attracted to some similarity in the other. Outside of the casino, Ann is a talented cartoonist – and her bedroom is lined with books, which Ann allows Evelyn to borrow. Despite their obvious differences these women share a not dissimilar intelligence. Ann introduces Evelyn to the incredible beauty of the Nevada desert – and to a sensuousness that is entirely new. The women begin a passionate affair.

“Evelyn wanted to be charming, provocative, desirable, attributes she had never aspired to before out of pride, perhaps, or fear of failure. Now they seemed most instinctive. She was finding, in the miracle of her particular fall, that she was, by nature, a woman. And what a lively thing it was to be, a woman.”

Although at this time a sexual relationship between two women was illegal and definitely seen as being outside the usual conventions, Rule doesn’t present these relationships in such a way. This is a positive relationship – and no spoilers – a hopeful one. Evelyn and Ann are two people who fall in love – in that way perhaps this novel feels like one written in a much later period than it was. What a very long way this is from the depressing rather negative relationships portrayed in The Well of Loneliness that the author discovered when she was fifteen.

“Because I can’t help loving you, your wild, inaccurate emotions, your bizarre innocence, your angry sense of responsibility, your wrong-headed wit, your cockeyed joy, your cowboy boots, your absolutely magnificent body, your incredible eyes. I can’t help it. I don’t know how anyone could.”

The relationship between Evelyn and Ann is complex – the age difference making Evelyn almost old enough to be the motherless Ann’s mother – their strikingly similar appearance underlying this point. Clearly both women have had relationships with men – and there are no real labels applied here – and it is obvious that Evelyn had never considered a relationship with a women in all her life. Ann has had a very cynical view to the accepted romantic ideas of love and marriage – but as she and Evelyn’s relationship develops she has to re-evaluate her prejudices. The story of these two women coming together so unexpectedly is beautifully understated. A wonderful book group choice – I wish I had suggested it to the book group I’m a member of.

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