Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

When did you first read it?

I first became aware of Jane Bowles while suffering from a tubercular toe. A striking photograph of her stood out in one of the hospital’s old magazines. Mrs Bowles had a tubercular leg which dragged behind her as she wandered around Tangier. Dangerous gave me a copy of Two Serious Ladies after we got married in Berlin: the novel is partly drawn from her honeymoon with Paul Bowles in Panama. Relieved that it has only 198 pages, I stayed up all night reading it.

Why did it strike you so much? I expected to like Two Serious Ladies, because it was my husband’s favourite book (until he read mine) but its beauty and strangeness still surprised me. The heroines, Miss Goering and Mrs Copperfield, are both trivial and profound.

Have you re-read it?

I often read the last lines aloud: “`Certainly I am nearer to becoming a saint,’ reflected Miss Goering, `but it is possible that a part of me hidden from my sight is piling sin upon sin as fast as Mrs Copperfield?’ This latter possibility Miss Goering thought to be of considerable interest but no great importance.” Reading the end first gives nothing and everything away – a sign of genius. These words have a mysterious power, like chanting the Creed at Mass; or buying a ruby bracelet then realising everyone’s got one. This mix of surprise and recognition, the original and the familiar, makes Two Serious Ladies seductive.

It was published when Jane Bowles was 26 and she spent the rest of her life failing to finish her second novel, “torn between an almost overwhelming desire to bolt out of the room and a sickening compulsion to remain where she was”. She converted to Catholicism on her deathbed, and died in Spain before her husband could reach her. Paul Bowles wrote about their marriage in The Sheltering Sky, and it is interesting to compare how different writers re-invent the same material.

Do you recommend it or is it a private passion?

I’d recommend Two Serious Ladies to anyone who likes the idea of heaven and hell, goodness and glamour, sin and salvation. I almost took a hammer to one of the murderers in my class at Wormwood Scrubs who asked to read my favourite book then said he didn’t like it. Then again, I may have been more insulted if he had adored it.

First published in the Independent

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