Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies

In a letter to her husband, Jane Bowles wrote, ‘Men are all outside, not interesting. They have no mystery. Women are profound and mysterious—and obscene.’ This conception of the world is the orbit of Jane Bowles’s only novel Two Serious Ladies.

It is a decidedly odd story, one that seduced me almost immediately as I fell under the spell of its highly mannered vocal inflections. Bowles’s two serious ladies refuse to settle for a life in which all is reduced to a state of acquiescence and uniformity. Bowles suggests two possible responses to a world her characters find profoundly alienating, to seek redemption through generosity and sacrifice, or withdrawal into happiness and sensual pleasure.

Written in 1943, Bowles’s story feels ahead of its time, bold in its treatment of sex as a calculated gesture rather than an erotic response or a significant human connection. I don’t know much about Bowles’s life, but that it is her only completed novel, and the striking similitude between the two serious ladies, suggests a distinctly autobiographical novel. To quote Julien Gracq, “I’m always happy when I have the impression of surprising the author hot in her tracks and as though about to move out.”

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