Two Serious Ladies by Jane Auer Bowles: book review

Jane Bowles’ unsettling novel of women breaking out of their conventional lives and following their own chaotic and scandalously strange bids for freedom.

Jane Bowles: breaking the rules

Jane Auer Bowles’ novel ‘Two Serious Ladies’ is is an odd book, but perhaps the oddest thing of all is that not one other review I’ve read has mentioned the part that I loved the most. It makes me wonder if I’ve accidentally mixed up the beginning of a review of a different book; it would be perfectly in keeping with the book itself.

According to me, then, ‘Two Serious Ladies’ by Jane Auer Bowles starts off promisingly by telling the story of a young girl almost drowning her sister’s friend Mary. It was incredibly tense and terrible, atmospheric. So much so that I read this part out loud to an unsuspecting member of my family as the tension was so deliciously wonderful, promising an enthralling gothic novel, but it was not to be. “[The game’s] called ‘I forgive you for all your sins’… You’ll have to take your dress off.” What happens next? Will it be murder? Accidental death? The life of a psychopath? No, of course not: this is Jane Bowles. Eventually I did find an article mentioning the near-drowning incident and some interesting background on Jane and Paul Bowles and just how innovative Jane was.

The narrative then skips to the adult world of New York, where women were expected to become wives and mothers, gracious hostesses, perhaps. The social observation is wry and witty. The structure is confusing. Jane Bowles deliberately broke rules, both in her life and in her works.

Miss Goering and Mrs Copperfield: serious ladies

While writing this review, I was wracking my brain to remember how the story of the schoolgirl ties in with the main story. Eventually I found a Barnes and Noble review that reminded me that one of the women, Christina Goering, was a social misfit who became a religious zealot; she had been the creepy schoolgirl. As an adult, she encounters various people at a party in New York. Soon afterwards, the hostess, Mrs Copperfield, reluctantly travels to Panama with her husband, but ends up falling in love with a prostitute and sinking lower and lower.

Meanwhile the wealthy Miss Goering first invites an unprepossessing acquaintance, Miss Gamelon, to move in, even though she doesn’t like her. “I’ve been typing manuscripts for famous authors all my life, but there does seem to be much demand for authors any more unless maybe they are doing their own typing,” says Miss Gamelon on page 9, as Jane Bowles invites us to join in wrily poking fun at herself. Incidentally, I assume the author had some ulterior motive in naming her unpleasant character after Hitler’s second in command, but I have no idea what that motive was. Nor for that matter, do I know why the other Serious Lady should be a Copperfield.

Miss Goering also invites another new acquaintance, Arnold, to join them in her expensive, comfortable house. Having ensnared them, she decides to sell the house and move to a smaller, decrepit and isolated house on an island, inconveniencing them all. She then proceeds to abandon them, meeting and getting into sexual relationships with increasingly unsavoury men. Later the two Serious Ladies meet up and compare notes. By the way, there is not a single appealing character in the entire novel, in case you were wondering.

“You are gloriously unpredictable and you are  afraid of no one but yourself,” says Mrs Copperfield. (p.15) Perhaps a sentence sourced from comments made to Jane herself.

“Our race, as you know, is not torpid. They are grim because they still believe the earth is flat and that they are likely to fall off it at any minute. That is why they hold on so hard to the middle. That is, to all the ideals by which they have always lived. You cannot confront men who are still fighting the dark and all the dragons, with a new future” (p.143), comments Miss Goering about communism to Dick in the bar.

“For several days it had been quite clear to Miss Goering that Andy was no longer thinking of himself as a bum. This would have pleased her greatly had she been interested in reforming her friends, but unfortunately she was only interested in the course that she was following in order to attain her own salvation.” (p.172)

Two obscure ladies, one obscure book

The quotations above were the only ones I wrote down when I was making notes about Two Serious Ladies. I know why that is: I started to research Jane Bowles and became fascinated by her life and that of her more famous husband, Paul Bowles. I believe the cover mentions that she only wrote this one novel and I wondered why, because she was obviously an accomplished writer and her writing was admired by many of her contemporaries: Tennesse Williams and Truman Capote, to name but two. Apparently the novel was ill-received by the critics, which dented her confidence, particularly when her husband’s novel ‘The Sheltering Sky’ was an instant success. This must have been particularly galling because up until that point he had been working as a composer. Only when he helped edit his wife’s book did he decide to try his hand at writing a novel.

Jane Bowles work never became particularly popular. I came across one newspaper article about her that stated that she only wrote one novel, and it wasn’t this one; that must have been a mistake. A Guardian book blog article refers to a New York Times article which claimed that in 1964 a publisher asked her to find a copy of ‘Two Serious Ladies’ as they wanted to reprint it; she was unable to provide it, though whether this was due to her poor health, alcohol, general disorganisation or unwillingness is not mentioned. I was lucky enough to find a copy of the Virago imprint at a BookCrossing meeting. Even though I had never heard of the book or the author, the books chosen by Virago rarely fail to make an impression, so I was glad to get hold of it.

Another interesting snippet the author of the blog article mentions in the comments is that there were originally going to be three serious ladies, but Jane’s husband advised her to leave the other one out because it would be too distracting. The other sections were later published as separate stories, A Guatemalan Idyll and A Day in the Open. It does however show how much influence Paul Bowles had on his wife’s writing.

An unconventional marriage

Jane Auer married Paul Bowles in 1938 in New York on the eve of her 21st birthday, when he was 27. As a composer, he was already socialising with influential cultural and intellectual leaders of the time. Paul Bowles was friends with Gertrude Stein and her sophisticated circle, meeting and collaborating with influential authors and musicians including his mentor Aaron Copland and many other modernist and avant garde personalities. Paul and Jane Bowles’ lives were equally adventurous and unconventional. For their honeymoon they travelled to Central America (including Panama), Costa Rica, then off to France on a ship filled with German Nazi sympathisers. Returning to New York, they shared a house with W.H. Auden, Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten.

In 1947, Paul Bowles decided to move to Tangier, a place that was tolerant of gay people and with a lively expatriate and cultural community; Jane only joined him the following year. They were both bisexual with an open marriage, each mainly attracted to their own sex, living in separate apartments in the same building and yet devoted to each other. Jane had various lovers, but eventually became involved with a ‘peasant woman’ who wore a burqa when out in public. Paul Bowles was horrified and believed that she was taking advantage of Jane. Though Morocco was an inspiration for her husband, for Jane it crippled her creativity since she had a profound sense of being cut off from herself as an expat in North Africa:

“Jane’s lack of output after her novel’s poor reception was a result of many factors, not least of which was her fear of being further misunderstood, heightened as it was over the passing years by a sense of alienation not only from the literary world and not only from North Africa, but from herself, uprooted as she felt herself to be living so far away from home. Isolated in Morocco, living through a foreign filter, Jane Bowles was practically silenced by her displacement, which is of course contrary to the lore of the ex-pat living in a creative rush on distant shores. Jane Bowles felt somewhat untethered by living abroad in such an alien culture, one that she once described as her prison. For Bowles residing inside what Foucault called a heterotopia led to paralysis, exposed her profound alienation from herself.” (Source: Jane Bowles as Proto-Beat: Two Serious Ladies on the Cusp of Two or More Movements, Miryam Sivan).

Like the characters in her novel, Jane Bowles had escaped a conventional life. Perhaps she was the model for Mrs Copperfield who, like her, hated being abroad, but enjoyed the freedoms that being outside society gave her. Maybe Paul Bowles was more like Miss Goering, who did whatever came into her head, however much that inconvenienced her family and friends. After all, he was the one who decided to up sticks and leave their life in the USA for Tangier, probably living in conditions that were less comfortable than their life back home. Sadly for Jane, she was plagued by writer’s block, possibly self-induced; instead of concentrating on her writing, she spent too much of her time drinking at the Parade Bar, taking too many prescribed medications. This all resulted in her having a series of strokes, the first in 1957. This put the final nail in the coffin of her writing as one of the effects was that she lost her concentration and imagination. Her husband remained devoted to her for the rest of her life, though she finally died in 1973 in a nursing home in Malaga, Spain, after years of ill-health.

Further reading:

A detailed description of Jane and Paul Bowle’s marriage, their lovers and friends.

Two Serious Ladies in context:

Another blogger’s review at the ClaireMCA site gives more detail about the storyline than I can remember.

According to Chris Power in the Guardian books blog, Jane Bowles’ short stories deserve to sit next to Mansfield, Rhys and Woolf.

A brilliant interview with Millicent Dillon, who wrote several books about the Bowles, including individual biographies of each. The best part of this interview is the part at the end where she describes the amazing coincidences and unexpected connections she discovered when researching Jane’s biography.

An extraordinary account of searching for Jane Bowles’ last resting place in Malaga. Paul Bowles did not believe in any religion or in commemorating physical remains, so only paid for a ten-year lease of a burial plot. Even a year after her death, visitors wanting to pay their respects were led a merry dance before they found her simple grave. Since then, roadworks have displaced her grave and new memorials have been created. Read more here:

Michel the Giant: An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie: from Togo to Greenland

From the sublime to the ridiculous: a man from Togo visits Greenland, the land of his dreams.

You wouldn’t imagine there would be many similarities between life in sub-Saharan Africa and one of the coldest inhabited places on Earth, Greenland. Thanks to An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie from the West-African Togolese Republic, I discovered that there are.

This is based on the life story and journey of a young Togoan man who dreams at an early age of visiting the strange and exotic land of Greenland. After running away from his duties and a string of lucky breaks working hard in the right places, his dream comes true. The book gives a really interesting insight into traditional life in an African country, with snakes, medicine women and polygamy, then into traditional life in Greenland, with hunting, large amounts of whale blubber, alcoholism, permissiveness (traditional or not?) and an unexpected amount of correlation between the two ways of life. Fascinating.

Weird and wonderful book connections

I often notice strange and unexpected connections between the book I’ve just read and the one I’m reading now. The book I read before this one was The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles, about an American couple travelling in North Africa. There isn’t much connection between the two books, unless you count the fact that both The Sheltering Sky and An African in Greenland are about travels in a foreign land, both beginning somewhere in French-speaking Africa (Algeria and Togo). There is also a passage in this book where the author describes a huge moon rising low over a frozen sea where he specifically says it reminds him of the desert and even before he made that comparison, it was triggering memories of descriptions in The Sheltering Sky of the moon over the desert. In addition to that, the descriptions of unappetising food are similar, though Greenland takes it to a whole new level of disgusting.

Many reviews I have seen on Goodreads comment on how ungrateful Kpomassie seemed for the food and lodgings provided to him by his hosts in Greenland. However, that was not the impression I got. If you come from a culture of hospitality where it is normal to invite visitors to share what you have, however little that may be, then it is also normal to accept hospitality. In Greenland, he seems to have been accepted as a visitor without any problem. Perhaps extremes of temperature make a culture more likely to take a stranger in, whether to protect them from scorching sun and dangerous wild animals or from freezing to death.

Where is the author now?

As I was wondering what happened to Kpomassie after his trip to Greenland had finished, I was searching the internet and discovered a blog post by a journalist who visited him in Paris and corresponded with him. He now lives in France, but was later able to travel back to both Greenland and Togo. Update 2 March 2022: At the grand old age of 81 he is planning to leave France and spend the rest of his life in Greenland. The Guardian published an excellent interview with him which is well worth a read.

Final verdict: Not the best travel book I’ve ever read, but interesting nevertheless.

Surprise new translation

While scrolling The Guardian at the weekend at the end of February 2022, I was astounded to see a review of An African in Greenland, as I read it so long ago. A new translation by James Kirkup has appeared as a Penguin Modern Classic, presumably due to the current level of interest in reading books in translation and books by people of colour. This particular book also has bonus points for ticking the boxes for those difficult-to-find countries Togo and Greenland for ‘reading the world’ readers, which is why I read it in the first place.