Posts Tagged ‘lesbian novels’

First published under the title of ‘The Dark Side of Venus’, if you are looking for the kind of salacious lesbian romance that can be lazily read in the course of a single afternoon, you can safely give this one a miss. But even if you could read it quickly you would find that the protagonists in this story are not the kind of substance-less characters upon which we frequently find the overwrought fabric of sexually graphic material conveniently draped.

This book is a totally overlooked treasure – and even when I clearly understand why this is so, I still can’t quite believe it.
The writing is bold and precise while being at the same time personal and evocative. Even the most minor characters, presented in vivid vignettes are as unforgettably drawn as the nurse and the friar in Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
The secondary – and of course the main characters emerge as very real people – with the result that to me they are simultaneously intimate and iconic.

Dialogue, is where one finds many writers falling short, but Verel has perfect pitch in this department. She is deft and clear, and adept, and if readers do not pay close attention to everything that is said by the characters – both reading and ‘ listening’ between the lines, much of the book’s nuance and subtlety will be missed. One has to almost read this book in the way one reads poetry.

The plot, set in London and its suburbs, is fairly simple – girl meets girl – they take a while to delicately acknowledge the force that draws them together, they fall in love and become a couple, difficulties intervene to drive them apart, and when all has been lost and they hang on a single frayed thread, incredibly the prospect of a restored love and its suggested success is recovered.

Those are the bare bones, but the story is so beautifully and unforgettably wrought, that I have re read it innumerable times over a period of more than twenty four years.
Shirley Verel writes about love between women in an indeterminate time between the late ‘fifties’ and the early ‘sixties’.

Judith Allart is divorced from her husband Martin, in large part because of the inescapable – if one is honest – incompatibility which results when a lesbian marries a heterosexual man, even one as civilised as Martin. Despite her honesty, she does not tell him that she is a lesbian until much later, – and to my way of thinking, this, rather than being a deception, is the proof of her very private nature. Judith and Martin are still friends, though Martin continues to cherish the hope of a reconciliation.

Judith is intelligent and aloof – and though we are spared the clumsy and excessive physical descriptions commonly resorted to by writers who want their readers to find their protagonists attractive, one slowly gets the suggested sense that she is also beautiful – tall, slender and fair-haired with a skin that easily takes a tan. She is twenty eight when she meets Diana Quendon the niece of Andrew, one of her wealthy colleagues. Diana, a beautiful dark haired nineteen, has just published a lighthearted book about her life as a schoolgirl in a French convent, and the book is garnering unexpected success and publicity. Andrew throws a party for Diana, and Judith is invited – and the two meet.

Though things seem very hit-or miss at first, the two of them are brought together by a force that somehow impels them towards each other, and through all the course of their getting to know each other, quickly the unstated force of their love begins to emerge and inevitably direct their actions and circumstances.
Judith’s motives are lofty and altruistic – and paradoxical. She knows from her own experience that a lesbian can never make a success of a heterosexual marriage, yet she has convinced herself all the same, that it may be possible, for a young women of lesbian inclination (like Diana) to avoid a full acknowledgment of her true nature, and somehow ‘fit in’ to the less complicated and less potentially tragic arrangement of a heterosexual lifestyle.

Even when it is clear to Judith that Diana is painfully in love with her, she determinedly holds back – not wishing Diana to forgo the chance and ‘privilege’ of a conventional life. This persists even Diana makes it clearly though un-explicitly known to Judith that she feels no passion at all for her beau Gerald Paley,the lively, ‘normal’ and thoroughly heterosexual boyfriend who wants to marry her The tension created by Judith’s agonised resistance which in turn forbids Diana to frankly express her own feelings, creates a tightrope for them both. Eventually, when it can no longer be denied, they tacitly acknowledge the elephant in the room, and go off together to France for a summer vacation.

The women drive through the French countryside and room chastely together in little rented lodgings – because though Judith yearns express her feelings, she resists. She has imposed upon herself a condition of reserve, because of a conviction that she wants Diana to make the first move: Love remains palpable and unspoken, until an accident on the way back to England literally makes further suppression impossible.
Finally there is the much anticipated clarification, and two of them decide to turn back and have the kind of holiday they should have had in the first place.
No sooner it seems ( barely a week or so ) than the lovers and declare themselves, than their secret is exposed to – and later by – Julian, a conservative friend and suitor of Judith’s who arrives to vacation in France..

When Judith and Diana return home after their vacation, they move in together for a brief period of blissful domesticity in Judith’s London flat. However, Julian reveals the truth about them, and this leads inevitably to a wrenching separation.

I don’t want to give away the rest of the story, except to say that there is so much said in here – and not at all heavy – handedly but almost as a suggestion – about the nature of true love: Both lovers are terribly altruistic, and willing to sacrifice themselves and their happiness for the other, and this is what I find most beautiful and at the same time, aggravating about this story. Today we might find it astonishing that false morality and hypocritical and priggish conventions could coerce women in love with each other to forgo their chance at love and happiness, but those were the repressively homophobic mores which prevailed at the time. It is clear that neither Andrew or Julian is capable of experiencing or understanding love – and yet they are only too happy to judge.

I found the separation of Judith and Diana the most wrenchingly painful part of the book to read. Every time I read it I have to clench my teeth to get through it.
Told almost as a story within a story and Indelible and telling are the incidents in Judith’s girlhood and life prior to her meeting with Diana – which led her to an acknowledgment of her lesbian nature . It is difficult for us today to imagine this world of more than fifty years ago – when lesbian love had to be kept a secret from society. It seems unbelievable now that being gay then was so freighted with fear and peril.

The other slight and perhaps incongruous note to me was that both Judith and Diana seemed to possess the kind of poise and innate dignity that one expects to find in much more mature people – but then again – this could be because they are meant by Verel to be presented to us as remarkable…

The book suffers slightly from careless editing – I found one small gap – nothing I could not extrapolate – and a dropped word. Though it is impossible to blame Virago press their oversights: If not for them, this little gem would be completely unknown.

Verel steadfastly avoids the trite certainties that accompany most love-stories, and her prose is both pared down and vivid. It felt to me like a perfume which though fresh and clean and strong is full of intense complexity.
Her other lesbian love story ‘The Bee’s Kiss’ set in England of the ‘fifties, is also about the love affair between and ‘older’ ( in her twenties ) and ‘younger’ ( in her teens) woman. It is no less wonderfully written.

I found one other lesbian short story by Verel, ‘Going With the Weather’ in an anthology of mostly terrible lesbian short stories, and one other book ‘ ‘Room for Trouble’. The fourth book ‘Goodnight my Vow is difficult, though not impossible to find, and I have found only one mention of the fifth, – ‘Little Girl Left’.

I tried very hard and very unsuccessfully to find out more about this wonderful but elusive writer who is not well known, and certainly not celebrated here in the U.S. Perhaps it is because she is so serious and un-sensational, and has to be read with attention, If not read carefully the finesse of her subtle touch will go unnoticed.

Regrettably this is a detriment in an age of careless readers, so I think this book will never get the attention and appreciation it so richly deserves.
I think this story would also make an excellent movie – and I wish someone would.

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The beginning of this book was more than promising: the account of a butch lesbian’s evolution from the embryonic sense of difference of a born sexual dissident to the archetypal stone butch, Frankie Hucklenbroich’s autobiographical opus ‘A Crystal Diary’ seemed to be a novel about the long and dangerous journey from an early childhood immersed up to the eyeballs in the fierce heterosexism of a blue collar world that was a mid western city in the ‘forties, into -the euphoria of self-discovery, and an increasingly confident claiming of self identity.

The beginning was sweet. I was drawn into the story of tall slender Jo Koerner, the author’s young across the street neighbour, who returns home after her demobilisation from WWII as one of those fascinating, exotic, mythical creatures – a full fledged dyke. I was hooked by the tense suspense of Jo’s stubborn refusal to relinquish her identity: As in defiance of convention she drives her car, wears pants, crops her hair (there is a dramatic telling of this particular incident), and gets a job in a nearby factory. Hucklenbroich made me cringe to read about the narrow-minded neighbours of Jo’s world, who trapped in their own bitter lives don’t know what to make of her, and how the vicious gossip and prejudice leads inevitably to bullying social rejection.
Of course this made me root for Jo, to succeed – to create a happy life for herself. The anecdote about Joe Koerner is the story I wished this could have been: That story would have I think been infinitely more engaging – and rewarding than ‘A Crystal Diary’.

Nonetheless, we readers were wrenched from this promising beginning, and compelled to take an abrupt change of direction as the story bumped along. Each new chapter seemed full of jolting herky-jerky turns in the road. The narrative seemed not so much elliptical ripped through with huge gaps, so much as to make the segments seem like non sequiturs.
But perhaps we should be grateful for those gaps – and for the unpleasantness we might probably have been spared.

What we may have hoped to see from this bit of time travel beginning in the ‘forties is perhaps a fond and nostalgic look at our hidden lesbian history and our antecedents while safely situated in our relatively safe and un-repressed present. I was rather expecting a look from the through the wrong end of the telescope into the past to the bad old days of bar raids and paddy wagons and corrupt police bullies, and there was some of that, but this was not intended to be a comfortable read.

Instead we are made to follow Hucklenbroich’s veritable ‘rake’s progress’ from a not very innocent child to feral juvenile living on the margins of society: From hawker of magazines to liar cheat and thief, vagabond, mugger, crook,depraved exploiter and abuser of women, methamphetamine addict, pimp, business owner, proprietor of a whorehouse and finally writer.

In the historical dramas set in the Roman Empire, we see the robed patricians resplendent in their spotless snow-white togas. That’s the way we like to imagine ancient Roman aristocrats. But I can’t help wondering if those togas reeked, since the historical truth is that the raw material for the Roman laundromat was found in the city’s public urinals.
In Hucklenbroich’s telling of our lesbian past, I felt as if my nose was being buried in one of those togas.

I came to this book by a circuitous route – first as an excerpt in Joan Nestle’s anthology ‘The Persistent Desire’, and then Lillian Faderman’s ‘Naked In The Promised Land’. In Faderman’s book she writes of her crossing of paths with Hucklenbroich, and their tragi-comic affair. In ‘A Crystal Diary’ the favour is returned, and Lillian is ‘Jill’. Faderman and Hucklenbroich tell each other’s stories. To hear Faderman tell it, ‘Nicky’ was a likable kid, who fell passionately in love with her – but it was a passion she was unable to return. In Faderman’s book Nicky is sketched sympathetically as a lovable outcast, equal parts rube and dork, but with a talent for writing.

I knew this was not going to come close to the gold standard of butch memoirs – Leslie Fienman’s achingly written ‘Stone Butch Blues’ . I expected ‘A Crystal Diary’ to be gritty: Hucklenbroich’s excerpt from ‘A Crystal Diary’ in Joan Nestle’s anthology ‘The Persistent Desire: a butch femme reader’ prepared me for a gritty read. But I wasn’t prepared for this novel’s sheer sordidness and squalor – the sleaze, the repugnance of it.

The character who emerges from this tale is an amoral opportunistic monster: A mugger and a thief, meth-addict, parasite, pimp and a sociopath – a predator and a sadist. In the course of reading ‘A Crystal Diary’ I forgot the the slightly silly picture of the young butch with the elevated eyebrows, delicately bulging hip and breasts hidden by a bent arm, and came to imagine instead a swaggering female thug, an image which was not dispelled by the ‘wine turned to vinegar’ photograph of the bloated old personage on the back cover.

I was reminded of the shocking and repulsive scene in an old movie – James Cagney with his mean little too-closely-set together-eyes snarling at his long-suffering wife and reaching across the breakfast table to gob smack her… but Cagney has nothing on the remorseless, parasitical, unapologetic exploitation of women cold-bloodedly recounted in ‘A Crystal Diary’. I am referring to the unforgettable stomach-turning incident where Nicky, after first publicly humiliating her, throws the woman she is prostituting out into a rain drenched street with the injunction that she not come home until after she had earned over a hundred dollars: This of course is after she had ground out a lighted cigarette on the woman’s shoulder. This is woman on woman predation at its most callous. If that was not sufficiently appalling, Hucklenbroich gloats that the woman returned like a whipped cur to hand over her earnings.

I will not deny that ‘A Crystal Diary’ both powerfully and compellingly written – So one star for that, and another for it’s sheen of honesty, which exerted on me the kind of hypnotic revolted fascination that one feels when catching a glimpse of unspeakable aberrations, madness, roadkill, or exhumed bodies.
But this writer makes of us her readers the voyeurs of her sadistic and sociopathic compulsions. We eat the meal that is set before us, but the aftertaste is putrid. The monumental self-absorption of this crook – this pimp – is not redeemed by the brutal honesty of her writing style. Here style and content are incommensurate. The ugliness in this litany of one distasteful incident after another seeps indelibly into our consciousness like a nightmare that won’t go away. I would rather have read a novel about cannibalism or vampirism than this heartless tribute to a life of dissolution.

Faderman uses words like ‘poignant’ and phrases like ‘lesbian strength’ and ‘noble courage’ to describe ‘ A Crystal Diary’, but in my view ‘despicable and ‘contemptible’ would have served us better. Faderman blames the publishers of this book for not doing a better job of promoting it, and for not including what must have been the flattering blurb she was asked to write, and wrote. However I can see the dilemma faced by the publishers had they tried to aggressively pitch this book to p.c lesbians. It would have been like trying to sell rotten meat to devout vegetarians.

I am not an uncritical respector of p.c. ( p.c lesbians would blench to read this book ), and I have no difficulties with squeamish themes. Much maligned Humbert Humbert, the professorial pedophile in Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ is in my estimation quite a sympathetic character: But Humbert is a paragon of propriety and sexual epicureanism compared to this vulgar bit of autobiographical depravity, which also contains some disgusting graphic sex – sex minus humanity. I found particularly galling the glib and callous (no doubt meant to be humourous and satirical) pseudo-commandments of the butch’s code.

We cheer when the ruthless seducer Don Giovanni in Mozart’s opera gets his final comeuppance. The audience feels a certain satisfaction when the earth splits open, and the Don is helplessly dragged into the fiery inferno of hell. This is not vindictiveness, but the wish for a moral symmetry. We feel a little uneasy when evil deeds go punished, or the murderer gets away with his crime. Such things are not to be passed over with a wink and a nod. But the Don ( who never tortured and prostituted the women he seduced) is a choirboy in comparison to this monster. Even other well-known sexual miscreants like Cassanova and the picaresque Encolpius of the ‘Satyricon’ appear in comparison to be likable philanderers and harmless rogues whose seductions are decidedly non toxic.

So in my view it would have taken an act of retribution – a punitive fiat, or at the very least an expression of remorse for this story to have been redeemed. Suddenly I find in myself feeling a new and unexpected empathy for Dante (I have read him in the original Italian and still think he is overrated) whose over-the-top delight in and unsparing descriptions of a thousand hellish scenes, was little more than a crude revenge fantasy finished off with a careful sugar coating of literary virtuosity.

But there is no sugar to be found here.

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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.

Anna Foss Wilson

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

Anna Foss Wilson

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.

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Han Suyin/ Elizabeth Comber/ Roselle Elizabeth Kuanghu Chow: September 12 1917



















I can’t quite recall how and where I first saw this title mentioned, except that it was in the rather solemnly pompous pronouncement of some self-appointed male arbiter of tasteful writing, who commended ‘Winter Love’ for “its delicate and sensitive treatment of a difficult subject”, by which of course he meant he was praising  it for being the kind of novel which, despite its lesbian subject, ended ‘circumspectly’, and thus did not transgress the decent and proper constraints of heterosexual values and good taste.

At any rate, by a lucky chance, I became aware of this particularly well-written and semi- autobiographical lesbian novel I had not even heard of before.

This tautly written novel is set in the bleak sulphurous greyness of WWII England and its dangerous uncertainties, where two young women, Mara and Red, meet in medical school. The writer, Elizabeth Comber, who wrote under the nom de plume/guerre of Han Suyin, was the daughter of a Belgian mother and a Chinese father. She unceremoniously plunges us, her readers, into the miasmic atmosphere of dreariness and near-Dickensian shabbiness of the world which was Britain during WWII; a microcosm of which is the squalid boarding house in which Red lives.

Red’s grubbiness is in contrast to elegant and perfumed Mara, whose prosperous businessman husband can afford a warm and comfortable flat with hot running water. Red, an orphan, doggedly fends for herself, and her barely suppressed anger is a prickly foil to Mara’s tender nature.

Red has had previous relationships with women, (Mara has not) but she is resistant to looking at either her experiences or herself in the context of what those relationships  signify. She cannot grasp the truth about herself, and is therefore unable either to see or accept herself in a way that would allow her to be happy and self-affirming. She is pursued by the ghosts of her previous involvements, and when the inevitable happens and Mara and Red fall in love with each other, Red is unable to to keep the taint of her past from infecting her present.

Mara secretly rents a flat where they can be together when Mara’s husband Karl is away on business. Mara, though married to a man, has a clear sense of her own unfolding, and of who and what she is. She is determined to find a way to live an authentic life with Red. She is open and willing to love, and to be affectionate, and to express the sexual feelings which are the natural accompaniment to romantic love. She is beautifully lucid and open to the flowering of her emotions and feelings, and to where they are leading her to her self-identification as a lesbian. In sharp contrast, Red is angry and overcome with jealousy that Mara for the present has to maintain the illusion of a marriage ( albeit completely hollow and loveless ) with her husband Karl. Red expresses her anger and insecurity and jealousy by lashing out at Mara and subjecting her to emotional cruelty. Her sexual feelings are twisted and confused.

Mara’s love is unaffected by Red’s venom and her unkindness. She refuses to allow herself to be drawn into the distortions that Red’s tormented and tormenting behaviour create for the two of them. Mara possesses a sanity and generosity that Red, who is parsimonious and bitter, completely lacks.

When the two of them leave together for a holiday in rural Wales, (which turns out to be quite dreadful and dogged with mishaps), more evidence is offered of the tragi-comedic absurdity of human relationships, and the frailty of human nature, and in particular the oafishness of men.

We as readers know, as Red does not, that against such odds, in order for her relationship with Mara to survive in such an inhospitable climate, Red would have to be tenacious and determined. She simply doesn’t know that if she were to have a chance of being happy, would have to keep old wounds from festering, and allow herself to be healed in the love lavished on her by Mara. If love were to endure, it would have to be rooted in the soul at a depth beyond the reach of frost, and not in the shallow rocky hard-scrabble of Red’s self-disowning heart.

Winter Love, published in 1952, is a pre-figuring or Sarah Waters ‘The Night Watch’. Both are stories set in WWII England of damaged people and their failed and failing relationships. Both stories begin backwards in the present and move into the past. They both ask and answer the question of how the characters came to end up as they did. They both examine the disastrous consequences of blighted love, and the ways in which it destroys the human heart and human potential.

The narrative of ‘Winter Love’ begins many years after Red’s and Mara’s love affair has ended. Now Red is a middle-aged woman. Both women have made their choices, and Red knows that hers has not been the right one. The story is related in her voice, with the dry touch of retrospective bitterness that a certain degree of self-loathing makes inevitable, and yet it is also a cri du coeur of longing and regret.

The knowledge that unfulfilled love has resulted in an incomplete self has come too late to Red, and the chance of salvation has been lost with the irreclaimable past. In a futile protest Red cries out her belated recrimination at Mara for not having fought her rejection – But Mara and her past have been left behind in that long-ago Winter in which contentment may have been found if only Red had paid the the price of honesty and courage, and so it happened that the kingdom was lost for a nail. Despite her name, (which means ‘bitter’ in Hebrew,) it is not Mara who is bitter, because she had the courage to take her personal version of Pascal’s wager, and so she hazarded the self she knew would be lost anyway, if she like Red had decided to repudiate her true self in return for the dubious inducements of a hollow social institution and to societal imperatives of compulsory heterosexuality. Interestingly Han Suyin herself had four failed heterosexual marriages: the first to a Chinese man, the second to an Australian, third to  an Englishmen, and the fourth to an Indian.

There is an incident when Red leaves town to spend Christmas in the country with the spinster aunt who took her in after the deaths (at different times) of her parents. Mara, in what to Red is an act of huge extravagance, calls her long distance. In the course of their strained inane un-private conversation, interrupted every three minutes by the operator who asks Mara if she wants to pay for the next three minutes. Mara tries to ‘break through’ by asking Red if she likes Blake and tigers, obviously referring to William Blake’s metaphysical poem “Tyger Tyger”. The profound significance of the insight she is trying to communicate is obvious. Blake’s Tyger is a marvel of creation, and a powerful, beautiful creature, though set apart from the lambs. But Red is only uncomprehending and irritated. All she can hear Mara asking is a pointless and stupid question about tigers. If only she had sought some clarification.

This incident more than anything else illustrates for me the tense impasse between the two women, which is caused by Red’s inability to see beyond the imperfect, and Mara’s inspired grasp of the imperative, the conditional and the future.

A case could be made that this novel is about the perversity of human nature and the futility of love. All the marriages in it are ghastly, and all the relationships repellent. Red’s past and present offer her ample evidence that ordinary people fail each other in horrible ways due to lack of honesty and decency and kindness. It is clear to us as readers that in this respect, Mara’s unfailing decency shows her as far from being an ordinary person. Yet Red ignores it all. She is grubby and literal, and lamentably, she completely misses all the magic. I wonder if Han Suyin had her regrets as well.

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A brief song sung in a minor key is the musical equivalent of this slender offering presented in understated and mannered prose by Gail Willhelm in this stylistically elliptical unfolding of girl meets girl.
It could be claimed that Willhelm dwells rather a little too lingeringly on the ethereal beauty of her protagonist Morgan T, who is almost wraithlike in her lack of corporeality. A tall, slender, pale light haired woman of few words who sustains herself on coffee and cigarettes and to the exclusion of food except for an olive which she only bites but fails to eat.
Willhelm presents Morgen’s feelings as being too deep for words.
She is the sole companion of her valetudinarian father with whom she has lived all her life with almost no other human contact.
Willhelm leaves unexplained all the mundane details of life such as how food appears in the refrigerator, or how the bills are paid.
The first three quarters of the book are about Morgen’s rather drily sterile relationship with her would-be fiancé Royal, who falls slightly hysterically – but unrequitedly in love with her.
The book has a few non-sequitors for which I think the reader is supposed to supply the connective sense by reading between the lines. This may equally have been an oversight as a writerly assertion of a style that is based on lacunæ and omission.
The appearance of Toni as a ‘dea ex machina’ carries the plot to its restrainedly optimistic ending, and this is a fortunate relief for what could have been an unendurably substance-less plot.
The portrait on the back cover of Willhelm herself, a darkly sculpted androgynous profile of chiseled features and a passionately still gaze, is one of the most dramatic things about the book. Her description of Toni ( I had wrongly supposed that the substitution of ‘i’ for ‘y’ in women’s’ names was a modern affectation ) could easily be a stand in for her own strikingly handsome dark hair and intense gaze.
The theme, that it is hopeless and misguided to expect that heterosexuality can be anything but hollow and unnatural to a Lesbian, seems obvious on the face of it, but the unspoken rule is that it can never be believably rejected without giving it every possible opportunity to take.
Nevertheless, after what was tried is found to be not true, we may permit ourselves to expect a tremulously happy ending.


Gail Wilhelm and her partner of 40 years Helen Hope Rudolph Page

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