“Even Stranger”: Two Serious Ladies

 Mr. and Mrs. Copperfield had gone over to Panama City for two days. The first day after lunch Mr. Copperfield proposed a walk towards the outskirts of the city. It was the first thing he always did when he arrived in a new place. Mrs. Copperfield hated to know what was around her, because it always turned out to be even stranger than she had feared.

Coming to Jane Bowles’s only novel, Two Serious Ladies, I didn’t fear it would be strange. But I certainly found it to be strange. I don’t think Bowles intended this passage, which for me centers on that comparative adjective “even stranger,” as a description of her novel, any more than Mrs. Copperfield is an advertisement for ignorance. It doesn’t take us long, after all, to see that Mr, Copperfield, like all the men in this novel, is caught up in his own brutish self-righteousness. His spirit of adventure is a lot less interesting than he thinks it is. It’s not that the novel is advocating being afraid, only that it admits that for women, even wealthy and eccentric women like the ladies of the title, there’s quite a lot to be afraid of, mostly men and their violence and neediness. Mrs. Copperfield, in other words, is much shrewder than almost anyone gives her credit for.

The Serious Ladies of the title are Christina Goering—impossible, in a novel published in 1943, not to hear an ominous echo of fanaticism in that name—and Frieda Copperfield. They know each other slightly, and near the beginning of the novel even meet at a party in New York. Mrs. Copperfield is about to leave on the trip to Panama referenced in the passage I’ve quoted above. Miss Goering has just taken on a female companion, a Miss Gamelon, who she will eventually be quite mean to. Goering and Copperfield run into each other again at the end of the book, but one of the things I liked about it is that it doesn’t spend much time making parallels between them, beginning with its narrative structure, which quite favours Goering’s story over Copperfield’s. I found that a pity, since I much preferred Mrs. Copperfield to Miss Goering, but I appreciated the (at least apparent but actually I think quite sincere) casualness, even haphazardness of the book’s structure.

I confess I’ve never actually understood what a picaresque novel (technically a solecism, I suppose—a picaresque isn’t a novel, it’s another literary form altogether, right?) but I think the term applies here. It really was never clear to me why characters did the things they did, this despite but perhaps ultimately in keeping with Miss Goering’s claim that something she is about to do “is against my code, but then, I have never even begun to use my code, although I judge everything by it.” There’s the sense here of a moral imperative, however inchoate, a desire to push established ways of behaving to a limit. Taken out of context, Goering’s comment about the code she never uses but judges everything by sounds a little arch, like something from Wilde. But the book isn’t arch at all. In fact, I’m not quite sure how to get a handle on its tone., and in the end that might be the thing that bothers me the most about it.

Miss Goering takes up with one man after another, each worse to her than the last, and leaves the city for increasingly precarious and transitory living situations. Mrs. Copperfield abandons her husband to live in a Panamanian brothel, befriending its alcoholic owner, Mrs. Quill, and one of the prostitutes who live there, Pacifica. In the loveliest scene in the book, Pacifica takes Mrs. Copperfield to an isolated beach where she tries to teach the terrified older woman how to swim. It’s an idyll of sorts in a book that doesn’t hold much truck with anything that gentle, though it’s also a sad scene, foreshadowing the falling out between the two women by the end of the book.

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Two Serious Ladies quite bedeviled me. I’ve written before about the risks of thinking of books as sui generis. What that often means is that we haven’t valued their context highly enough. But even though neglected Anglophone women writers of the 20th Century are my bread and butter, as it were, nothing I knew helped me to categorize Bowles’s novel. So many of the writers I love—Jean Rhys, Barbara Comyns, Rebecca West, Penelope Fitzgerald—would seem to be close kin to Bowles. But I didn’t find that to be the case. Maybe it matters that Bowles was American and the others weren’t. I did compare her fleetingly to Kay Boyle, but the comparison is mostly to Bowles’s credit. She seems both more viscerally clear about the dangers of authoritarianism than Boyle (it took her a while to come around) and less obviously in thrall to an aesthetic of high modernist seriousness. As I think about it now, Bowles strikes me as much less invested in a tradition of literary realism than those other writers, even though they all, in their different ways, contested it, mostly by having recourse to the Gothic tradition that has always been the doppelganger of English-language realism. Bowles is doing something else, but I can’t figure out what. It matters a lot, I think, that unlike the women in Rhys and Comyns’s novels, especially, money insulates them from the patriarchy’s harshest depredations. Goering and Copperfield can be more overtly in control over their own lives than the protagonists of those other writers’ books. But just because they’re financially independent doesn’t mean they know who they are.

*

The longer I blog—and WordPress tells me it is exactly two years ago today, in fact—the more I’m convinced that I only really care to write about things I really like. And so I’m a bit hamstrung by Two Serious Ladies. If I hadn’t agreed to participate in Dolce Bellezza’s readalong I probably wouldn’t have written about it. And even then I don’t know if I would have had I not read Seraillon’s wonderful & intelligent piece.

It’s always a pleasure to read criticism where the subject clearly resonates with the critic. Although Scott’s post confirmed for me that Two Serious Ladies didn’t speak to me in that way, it also opened up the possibility that I might change my mind. Frankly, it’s unlikely I’ll read this book again anytime soon, but because of the carefulness of his reading I can imagine wanting to do so. All of which is to say, read his post, and those of the others taking part in the group. If you’re like me, you’ll be amazed and grateful that thanks to the glorious strangeness of the Internet you can always find someone out there who has understood something more richly than you have.

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11 thoughts on ““Even Stranger”: Two Serious Ladies

  1. I’m glad you shared your thoughts. Two Serious Ladies is a book that needs to be discussed intensely right away! I too was stymied trying to come up with an author to compare Jane Bowles to.

    • Thanks, Laurie! I remember once, many years ago, reading a few pages of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood and finding it too quite odd. Admittedly, it was 20 years ago and I might not find it that way today, but I wonder if Barnes is a companion, if you will, for Bowles.

  2. One of the most wonderful things about blogging, in my opinion, is the opportunity to read one another’s thoughts about a certain book and thus enrich our (my) own understanding. Each person sheds light on a different, or new, aspect, and that thrills me. For having wondered what you would say, I think you did a fantastic job.

    What, do you suppose, Christina’s last name implies? Can it be a direct reference to the Goering? I must confess, I didn’t like her either, at least not as well as Mrs. Copperfield. But, I don’t suppose I liked either of them. I mean, I wouldn’t have chosen either one as a friend should they be truly in existence.

    They were two serious ladies, and two really weird ones for me. But, I did enjoy reading about the events of their lives, their choices and how those choices played out.

    I was also quite intrigued with Bowles’ writing style, which seemed almost deceptively facile. There is much to be pondered over in this seemingly simply book, written in a way I’ve known no other writer to use. It was an unusual, and interesting, experience.

    Thanks for reading with Scott, Laurie, Frances and me, and taking the time to write your thoughts.

    • Thanks, DB. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed at the beginning of this semester and feared I’d never make the time to write anything. And I felt bad for writing what I thought was kind of a half-assed post. But I’m also getting a but tired of the pressure I’ve for some reason put on myself with this blog. So last night I set a timer for 30 minutes to see what I could do. It still took 50 when all was said and done, but maybe a step towards a looser blogging style.
      Thanks again for organizing!
      And as to Goering, yes I think it is a reference to *that* Goering. I’ve no idea whether Bowles intended that of course, but as I said who at the time could have read that name and not thought of the fight against fascism?

      • I could never consider your posts half-assed. You, and Scott, and Tom of Wuthering Expectations, and Frances of Nonsuch Book, write the most beautifully indepth analysis I know. It’s almost enough to make me wonder if I’ve read the same book sometimes, but I think we should each carry on in our own style. Only, don’t be too hard on yourself.

  3. I guess I took the book at face value, not being any kind of critic, it threw these two women out of their comfort zones and we witnessed what they would do, when society wasn’t observing them so closely, perhaps in the same way that Jane Bowles lived much of her life in a foreign country and must have had some equally bizarre experiences having the freedom to do as she pleased.

    Mrs Copperfield sought the company of women who were their own women, drawn towards something they exuded which she didn’t quite understand herself. She was experiencing responding to her own instinct – once husband was out of the way. And so too was Miss Goering, but her inclination was the opposite, she was curious, but either had an underdeveloped instinct or chose to ignore it.

    A strange read perhaps, but I found it rather interesting.

    • I like this point about instinct. Their certainty, at any rate, is striking. In the end, though, Miss Copperfield seems more her own woman than the women she is drawn to. They are all dependent on men in one way or another. Thanks for reading!

  4. Wow am I embarrassed to see your post just now. I do not know how I missed it two months ago, but obviously you didn’t miss mine about Two Serious Ladies, and thank you for your very kind comments about that. This is hardly a “half-assed” post. You bring up much that has me rethinking the novel. “Bedeviled” seems like a particularly apt word for how a reader might feel approaching this work, which does not provide much in the way of handholds. I’ve read it several times, and this last go ’round was the first time I started to feel I was getting any traction at all – though frighteningly little of it.

    Your mention of the financial situations of Bowles’ two serious ladies opens up a whole other can of thought worms. Also, I suppose I’m guilty of taking the sui generis quality of the book far too much for granted, so I find your putting Bowles in the context of other writers like Comyns and Fitzgerald to be re-orienting. Despite that, I agree that such context doesn’t seem to help much in this case, though I don’t know exactly why (nor do I know much about any of those other writers that might help inform me). It could be partly Bowles’ alcoholism, her bisexuality, her pronounced internationalism, her having written the book not only in the premonitory atmosphere of impending war but also in the astounding setting of the house in Brooklyn she shared with her husband and W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Gypsy Rose Lee, Carson McCullers and a slew of others (some of whom, especially Auden, apparently had a hand in shaping Two Serious Ladies) – and probably all those things. And I’d never thought of the story as an idyll, but I think you’re onto something there: both women strike out on these bold adventures that do indeed create a sort of suspended, temporary idyll – though one shot through with violence.

    I’d be curious to see this novel taught (is it taught anywhere?), and wonder if a good assignment might be to try to write a coda to it. I haven’t the slightest idea, on the spot, where one might go with that, but I don’t think it would be a particularly sunny place.

    • No worries, Scott. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. That’s a great idea for an assignment: I don’t know if anyone teaches this novel, though I kind of want to now. Even though I’ve had a difficult few months since writing that post, I still think of the book from time to time. Always a good sign! There are so many wonderful, mostly neglected mid-twentieth century Anglophone novels by women. Probably my favourite kind of book, actually!
      Really like your blog BTW, both for the variety of things you write about and the perceptiveness of what you have to say about them.

  5. Pingback: 2016 in Review – Dolce Bellezza

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