Imagine two women of independent means – one unmarried, one married – going through the motions, more or less, of belonging to conventional (bourgeois) society and doing what’s expected of them, until suddenly they stop. The surrealness of Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles (first published in 1943) comes from other people’s continuing to interact with them as if they were the same ladies they were before – a little eccentric, maybe, but basically normal upper-class ladies. Their old friends and the strange new acquaintances they make – separately, and independently of each other – are puzzled and intrigued by them, but don’t seem able to acknowledge the changes they are going through in the process of trying to become their true selves.
It may be more accurate to say that Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield (as they are called throughout the book) are on a quest to behave – and be – the women they actually already are by ceasing to behave like the ladies that most of society (except for a few other odd ducks) is expecting them to be (and insists on seeing them as).
As the book opens, Miss Goering is already considered odd, and weirdly religious; she has few friends other than Mrs. Copperfield, but she does like to get invited to parties and be out among people. She and Mrs. Copperfield talk together at a party given by their mutual friend Anna, and that’s the last they see of each other until the very end of the short book.
Miss Goering is compelled to leave the party early with Arnold, whom she has just met, because he has asked her to come to his home:
“After leaving Anna’s party, Arnold walked awhile with Miss Goering and then hailed a cab. The road to his home led through many dark and deserted streets. Miss Goering was so nervous and hysterical about this that Arnold was alarmed.
‘I always think,’ said Miss Goering, ‘that the driver is only waiting for the passengers to become absorbed in conversation in order to shoot down some street, to an inaccessible and lonely place where he will either torture or murder them. I am certain that most people feel the same way about it that I do, but they have the good taste not to mention it.'”
Mrs. Copperfield, on the other hand, seems conventional and timid at first, not as neurotic and odd as Miss Goering, and doesn’t seem to stand out as being different, right at first. At Anna’s party, she tries to tell Miss Goering how extremely nervous she is about an upcoming trip to the tropics with her husband and then goes off to cry in a room by herself for a while.
We learn later that Miss Goering gives Mrs. Copperfield a gift before the Panama. trip. This gift of a manicure set from Miss Goering seems imbued with some special meaning, for Panama is where Mrs. Copperfield begins to act as she pleases instead of as she is expected to. This passage describes Mrs. Copperfield’s thoughts on her first worried night in the low-rent district of Panama City, before she embraces this new, loud, and colorful world:
“Mrs. Copperfield’s sole object in life was to be happy, although people who had observed her behavior over a period of years would have been surprised to discover that this was all.
She rose from her bed and pulled Miss Goering’s present, a manicuring set, from her grip. “Memory,” she whispered. “Memory of the things I have loved since I was a child. My husband is a man without memory.” She felt intense pain at the thought of this man whom she liked above all other people, this man for whom each thing he had not yet known was a joy. For her, all that which was not already an old dream was an outrage. She got back on her bed and fell sound asleep.”
I marked a lot of passages throughout the book, but since I can’t quote them all here, I will sum up by saying that the characters in the book are strange and puzzling, for the most part, and their behavior seems to exist in a different moral universe. Censure and disapproval are mentioned from random onlookers, but there is none forthcoming from the author, who seems to be observing what everyone does and commenting on it, without forming judgments.
The edition I read has an introduction by Claire Messud which says that the author was the wife of Paul Bowles who started out as a composer before turning to writing and achieving greater success as a writer than she did. This was a marriage of friendship, for both were gay, as (it is strongly implied) the Copperfields were in Two Serious Ladies, which was the author’s only published novel. An alcoholic, the author suffered a stroke at age 40 that left her unable to write and she died in her 50s.
I read Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles for a January Read-Along with Dolce Bellezza and other book bloggers. Visit Dolce Bellezza’s discussion post for more about Two Serious Ladies.
Given the introduction from Claire Messud, Two Serious Ladies might appeal to readers of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, and also any readers who want to become familiar with female writers from a previous generation, when women were overlooked by literary critics even more than they are today.