March Hastings was the pen name of Sally Singer – who also wrote under the name of Laura Duchamp. I came upon the cover of Hasting’s book ‘Three Women’ featured on the cover of a book about book covers – Jaye Zimet’s study of the cover art of lesbian pulps entitled ‘Strange Sisters: the art of lesbian pulp fiction’.
Hasting’s style is confident, and her pace does not flag. For the usual hurriedly written books of that genre, her plot is surprisingly layered. The designation of ‘overwrought’ so dismissively applied to the prose of lesbian pulp fiction is in some cases – and in this particular instance, blatantly undeserved and unjust. Ann Bannon of Beebo Brinker fame, a cynosure of lesbian pulps, after all, possessed a Phd in linguistics! Nor does Hastings disappoint.
During the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, so-called lesbian ‘pulps’ were the the ‘plat du jour’, catering to the pressing hunger of lesbians for visibility. It was a hunger so urgent that it could be met even under the cover of blatant animadversion.
I have to admit that what compelled me to get this book was its cover, and specifically the face on that cover: Coincidentally (?!) its amazing resemblance to Anna Foss Wilson, who played Beebo in the theatre production of Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker.
This was a face which perfectly captured the secret dream of love between women in the ‘fifties: The ravishing curve of sweeping lashes, the lowered gaze of concealed passion, the inwardly turned expression of banked intensity, which were then the apt symbols of lesbian love. Ann Bannon refers to these affairs as ‘a flaming romances’ – and ‘Three Women’ is nothing if not a work of un-aplogetic female for female passion.
Even so, I had to overcome a reflexive reluctance to trudge once more along the cheerless and dispirited path of lesbian fiction of that
era, with its themes of happiness blighted, hopes dashed, women expelled from the warm arms of other women into the starkness of the hetero wilderness and condemned/compelled to join the plodding ranks of stepford-wifedom which was the treasured ideal of the ‘fifties.
But this book has what Carlos Castaneda refers to as
‘ A path with a heart’, and thereby delightfully exceeded all my expectations.
Here’s the synopsis. Protagonist Paula is a lovely young girl from a blue-collar background, living with her parents and teen-aged brother in a cold water flat, which is in fact a tenement . Paula is beautiful and a budding artist. Her father, to whom the family is devoted, is terminally ill as a result of a lifetime of drinking. Her resigned and long- suffering mother is worn out by a life of hardship and penury. Paula’s younger brother Mike is a bit of a jerk, but in a way that sixty years ago passed for standard male behaviour.
Phil, Paula’s handsome upper-class boyfriend and soon to be fiancè with whom she is ‘in love’, is a thoroughly upstanding guy. Phil is Paula’s ticket out of this dreary life.
Phil has ambitions of owning his own business, a paint store, but he lacks the capital for this venture. He takes Paula along for the ride when he goes to visit his spinster aunt Bernadette, in the hope of tapping her for the down payment.
The reasoning behind Phil’s Freudian slip is that he hopes Paula’s presence might tip the scales in his favour.
Paula is expecting to meet a wizened old biddy, but what she finds (though she still doesn’t quite get it ), is what we instantly recognise as a fabulously ravishing dyke, elegantly dressed in the high ‘fifties dyke couture of white silk shirt and charcoal grey slacks. Byrne, as she likes to be called, is compellingly beautiful. She exudes that species of magnetically irresistible charm lesbians (and perhaps some straight men) dream of encountering. Byrne is aptly named for her smouldering beauty.
Needless to say Paula is irredeemably smitten: Though she surrenders to Phil in a misstep of displaced passion, things are obviously not right. For her Byrne is a ‘coup de foudre’. Byrne’s upscale flat also features the portrait of a naked woman. Byrne, we find out, is a gifted painter.
Somehow for Paula, the mix is both heady and incendiary. She is instantly captivated and drawn like a moth to the flame of Byrne’s presence, even to the point of (very innocently ) stalking her. Paula’s seemingly hitherto unexamined heterosexuality is demolished in a passionate conflagration ,
Paula pursues Byrne, and Byrne yields to Paula’s persistent importunities, as a consequence of which the two fall in love, They begin an affair with all the expected charm of a same- sex May / September romance and many accompanying flying sparks. Paula studies painting under Byrne’s artistic tutelage. She seems even to play a naive Galatea to Byrne’s indulgent but understated Pygmalion.
But alas the path of true love never did run smooth did it? Paula’s discovery that Byrne’s past still haunts her makes her jealous and insecure.
In order to reassure Paula, Byrne recounts to her (in what is a chilling cautionary tale), the blossoming of Byrne’s first love with Greta. It is a story which ends tragically, due to the homo-sadistic interference of Greta’s mother, an interference which Byrne’s psyche manages to survive, but Greta’s does not.
By the time we come across Greta she is deranged. She is a grotesque, shattered, occasionally violent ruin, whose life is sustained by Byrne’s pity – and guilt. Byrne suffers Greta’s unpredictable and sometimes frightening intrusions with kindness and forbearance. Byrne is determined to spare Paula the terrible fate which overtook her and Greta.
Here I digress a little in order to interject a personal observation or two, but only because I am convinced of their contextual relevence: Besides, such a richly textured plot as this, makes one’s hermeneutical impulses impossible to resist!
I readily admit, I shrank from reading part three of this book, anticipating the dreaded ectoplasm of vicarious repression that would ooze out of the pages and engulf me in the feeling of hopelessness and loss of lesbian love gone wrong, replete with the heaviness of other-imposed shame and guilt.
I didn’t want to subject myself to feeling the sense of paranoia of the ‘gay’ ‘fifties, when simply a whiff of one’s homosexuality could lead to the kind of discovery culminating in social decapitation. Being gay was after all, in those inquisitorial times, a pathology, for which one could be quite legally lobotomized.
Lobotomy was then considered a cure for otherwise incurable homosexuality, and concomitantly, the ‘schizophrenia’ of the double life of homosexuals.
The sinister Dr Walter Freeman ( the wizard of the ‘ice pick’ lobotomy) said of his ‘patients’ ” They cannot dream” – and this must have been an additional inducement – if such a thing was at all required, to those who reveled in the sight of sexual heretics being sacrificed on the pyre of heterosexist dogma.
I knew I couldn’t’ stomach the story of another such lesbian disaster.
But somehow I made myself go on reading, and as I did, I couldn’t escape the feeling about Greta that I was gazing at a palimpsest. I had the feeling that something beneath the surface was seeping through, that was sensed but not quite seen.
Then it came to me, that sure enough, this was an intertextual reprise of Charlotte Brontë’s classic, ‘Jane Eyre’!
The figure of Greta is surely something out of a gothic novel: A travesty in the real sense – of something wrongly clothed.
The echo I had heard inside my head was the sound of footsteps: Those Mr Rochester’s insane wife Bertha escaping her warder and running around the manor at night. Bertha, who would in a fit of jealousy and rage destroy Jane’s symbol of love, her wedding veil, just as Greta destroyed a treasured painting of Byrne’s.
But will the parallel continue? Will Greta, like Bertha, nearly destroy her former lover just as the lover was about to begin a new life with a much younger woman?
Do we as readers hear the literary equivalent of the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth? Could this be the dreaded past making it’s unwelcome intrusion into the present solely in order to confound one when one is on the verge of attaining a dearly longed for and long deferred happiness?
Old lost loves, now turned grotesque and sinister, but also tragic, can serve as warnings to us of the terrible wreckage love can leave behind. In this case, the wreck is the damage wrought to the psyches of sexual dissidents (lesbians like Greta and Byrne) by the sadistic and punitive eruptions they unwittingly unleash in people like Greta’s mother. Could the same fate overtake Byrne and Paula?
I held my breath waiting for the wolf-note of cynicism to interject itself into the narrative as so disappointingly and repeatedly happens in the lesbian novels of the pre- Stonewall lesbian dark ages, including Ann Bannon’s. I gritted my teeth for the compulsory commissurotomy that comes at the end of the lesbian relationship, when love is kicked aside and ground into the dirt. Would Hastings/Singer also step on that particular mine?
Will Paula’s and Byrne’s touching adoration of each other remain alive?
Will Byrne show herself to be as ethical and constant as she as well bred?
Will Paula remain starry-eyed? or will the homophobia of their word defeat them?
Will Byrne do better by Greta than Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester does by poor lost Bertha his insane wife? Or will she disappoint us after all?
Will love conquer all – or will it fight hard only to be defeated in the end?
This book is remarkable for its purity and sensitivity. It never succumbs to debauchery or cheapness, and its little clichés are endearing and forgivable.
Though ‘Three Women’ is a hi fidelity reverberation of the ‘fifties, will this particular song stay fresh, or strike a sour note?
Will the denouement break our hearts – or merely disappoint?
Read this book and find out!
When Hastings published ‘Three Women’ in 1950, ‘Nevertheless’ by The Mills Brothers, was number 17 on the top 40.