The first thing to strike me about Two Serious Ladies is little Miss Christina Goering’s casual way of literally immersing Mary, her sister’s friend into a stream to ‘rid her off her sins.’ “If you don’t lie down in the mud and let me pack the mud over you and then wash you in the stream, you’ll be forever condemned.” This happens after Christina’s sister has warned her to stay away from Mary.
I know a girl who I think would have done something similar in her childhood. This girl was once told by her classmates that they were not playing catch-catch with her so she had better stop chasing them. ‘We are running away from you’, they had all said.
In the beginning, we are told that, “As a child Christina had been very much disliked by other children. She had never suffered particularly because of this, having led, even at a very early age, an active inner life that curtailed her observation of whatever went on around her.”
Years later, while on a train, Miss Goering is told off by a conductor to stop molesting a woman who Miss Goering was only trying to chat with.
There is something cavalier about the way in which conversations begin in this book. One doesn’t really have to have familiarity or some kind of connection to begin talking to anybody. It just seems that a desire for conversation and a good drink is enough and perhaps it sometimes is. There is no prelude to most of these conversations and it is a strange learning experience for the reader.
While I struggled to adapt to the many moods of Miss Goering, actually just one mood – the mood to go elsewhere, I found myself being drawn closer and closer to Mrs. Copperfield’s interior monologues. I am inclined to believe that in these monologues, Jane Bowles allows us a certain kind of release that Miss Goering is constantly looking for but never finds.
When Pacifica teaches Mrs. Copperfield to swim, it is very early in the morning and they are in the ocean, their naked bodies now rubbing, now moving apart. Mrs. Copperfield is at this point reminded of a recurring dream. She is running towards a mannequin that is about eight feet high, made of flesh but is frighteningly lifeless. Both Mrs. Copperfield and the mannequin roll off a cliff. The mannequin protects her body from glass pieces and other objects. They roll and she thinks about Pacifica. They roll and she’s one with her.
Towards the end of the book, Miss Goering is descending a staircase after a brutish man she was supposed to spend the evening with has abandoned her. “The long staircase seemed short to her, like a dream that is remembered long after it has been dreamed. She stood on the street and waited to be overcome with joy and relief. But soon she was aware of a new sadness within herself. Hope, she felt had discarded a childish form forever.”
In both these scenes, there is a hidden tenacity for survival, for attaching meanings to events, and for happiness. At the end of the book, Mrs. Copperfield has resolved only to do the things that she wants to because she has come to discover that that’s all it takes to be happy and we know that to be happy, “is her sole object in life”
Pacifica is her inspiration to be happy and we know that when she leaves, Mrs. Copperfield is going to be broken. Mrs. Copperfield also knows this.
In a letter that Mr. Copperfield writes to her after she has decided to leave him, he says,
“Like most people, you are not able to face more than one fear during your lifetime. You also spend your life fleeing from your first fear towards your first hope. Be careful that you do not, through your own wiliness, end up always in the same position in which you began. I believe that only those men who reach the stage where it is possible for them to combat a second tragedy within themselves, and not the first over again, are worthy of being called mature. Your first pain, you carry it with you like a lodestone in your breast because all tenderness will come from there. You must carry it with you through your whole life but you must not circle around it.”
The only response she gives to both the letter, and her husband is shaking her head three times. And then we never hear of him
The most delightful bit in the book is Mrs. Copperfield’s rescue of Mrs. Quill who is left stranded in a very expensive hotel with no money, after the man who was to pay storms out on her. Mrs. Quill is dutifully harassed by the assistant manager and Mrs. Copperfield turns up to pay the bill and to tell him off. The assistant manager is horrid to Mrs. Quill. And the narrator lets on a little more than what would have been just enough to sympathise only with Mrs. Quill.
“The most horrid thing about you is that you’re just as grouchy now that you know your bill will be paid as you were before. You were mean and worried then and you’re mean and worried now. The expression on your face hasn’t changed one bit. It’s a dangerous man who reacts more or less in the same way to good news or bad news. I came here for two reasons. The first reason, naturally, was in order to see your face when you realized that a bill which you never expected to be paid was to be paid after all. I expected to be able to watch the transition. You understand – enemy into friend-that’s always terribly exciting. That’s why in a good movie the hero often hates the heroine until the very end.”
In Bowles’ rendition of taking back honor, I saw in wild fervor, the Dhanush in VIP who renders a two minute long monologue to an upper class, entitled brat. They are both at the opposite ends of class yes, but both have been jilted by being shown what they lack and they are now taking back ground.
Jane Bowles, according to this New Yorker essay, is forgotten. There is no trace of her in her own home where she lived with her writer husband. He, of course is remembered. This is the saddest thing I learnt today.