Bookish Birthday: Jane Bowles

22nd Feb 2012

Bookish Birthday: Jane Bowles

Search for information about Jane Bowles, and you will find her more often than not referred to as a “writer’s writer”. With a reasonably short collection of work comprising of a novel, a play, and a series of short stories, Bowles very much split critics’ opinion, while some of the great American writers such as Tennessee Williams considered her writing among the best of the time.

Born on the 22nd February 1917, Bowles was raised in New York City, and was often considered to be a strange character. With bright red dyed hair and a limp, she often frequented the city’s gay bars and clubs dressed in men’s clothing, and had several lesbian affairs including a passionate romance with the well-known singer Helen Morgan.

At twenty-one, Bowles married the openly gay musician Paul Bowles, with who she travelled the New York gay literary and art scene along with their writing friends. While spending time together in New York, the couple spent much time abroad, originally travelling to Panama which was used for the locale in her novel Two Serious Ladies (1943).

Two Serious Ladies is the most well-known of Bowles’ short catalogue of work, and divided opinion with critics. While some enjoyed the strange and peculiar tones of the work, many also felt that she was pushing the tone too far, with one critic writing that she “strains too hard to startle and to shock and that it all too often is merely silly.”

Her play In the Summer House (1954) investigated mother-daughter relationships and many believed there were autobiographical elements to the play in regards to her complex relationship with her own mother.

Much like Two Serious Ladies, opinion of the play was again divided with little praise from audience members, though some critics praised it as one of the best plays of the year, alongside her friend Tennessee Williams calling it “one of the most original plays I have ever read”.

By using inner monologues spoken aloud, Bowles reflected the earlier trend in Modernist writing in which similar aspects can be found in the work of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, in which the inner monologue is used as the primary narration.

By bringing this trend into the play, the results are challenging and original, which is a possible reason for the criticism from audiences who, in a troubled time and chaotic time, preferred something more stable for their evening escapism.

While Bowles often attempted to compose a second novel, her time was mostly devoted to a Moroccan woman with who she was having an affair, alongside other minor affairs with other women and a social life that comprised of heavy drinking.

Her husband Paul speculated that the Moroccan woman was poisoning his wife, and if this is true, may have contributed to her steadily declining health.

In 1957 Bowles suffered a very serious stroke that affected her sight and limited her capacity for creativity, and through her journals it is shown her attempts and failures to produce more work.

Her inability to produce work frustrated Bowles and she declined into drinking and causing fights in bars. Her health continued to decrease and her husband Paul, unable to look after her himself, was forced to commit her to the Clinica de Los Angeles in Malaga, where she eventually died in 1973.

While her writing remains on the out skirts of the literary scene, those that are fans of her work consider it to be some of the greatest writing of the twentieth century. And for that, we wish her happy birthday today.

Gina Kershaw

Image: Terrence Spencer