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Bowles, Jane Auer (1917-1973)  
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Jane Bowles, born in New York City on February 22, 1917, spent her life examining lesbian identity with an honest and sardonic wit. In 1934, on a ship returning from Switzerland, Bowles met the French author Celine, whose work she had been studying, and she suddenly decided that "I am a writer." Her first novel, La Phaeton Hypocrite, a parody of the Phaeton myth, was privately printed. Although admired by her mother, Bowles regarded the novel, no copy of which survives, as a childish exercise.

Bowles's adventures in the lesbian and gay bars of Greenwich Village, and her open pursuit of women lovers, caused her mother and her family consternation. In 1937, she was introduced to the novelist and composer Paul Bowles--himself a homosexual--and agreed to marry him. The two soon recognized that their marriage would succeed only as a platonic friendship; both continued their homosexual liaisons.

Bowles claimed that her novel, Two Serious Ladies (1943), was heavily indebted to Paul's editorial advice; and her biographer, Millicent Dillon, stresses that Jane relied on Paul's calm and rather detached sensibility in order to cope with the exigencies of life. At her death on May 4, 1973, Bowles was working on two novels, Out in the World, and Going to Massachusetts, which feature women who have chosen to isolate themselves.

Bowles also maintained a lively correspondence with her lovers, friends, and husband; these letters are collected and edited by Dillon in Out In The World: Selected Letters of Jane Bowles 1935-1970 (1985).

Bowles's writing is existentialist but with a unique lesbian sensibility. Like those of Djuna Barnes, her characters speak in curiously formal yet mocking tones.

The puppet play, A Quarreling Pair (1945), is a fine example of Bowles's unique blend of existentialist dramaturgy, irony, and lesbian sensibility. Two middle-aged sisters, Harriet and Rhoda, sit in separate rooms and quarrel endlessly about trivial tasks, the futility of life, and their inextricable bond. Dillon suggests that the play is a transcription of Bowles's relationship with Helvictia Perkins, but it perhaps better reflects Jane's marriage of convenience.

Bowles's family and her lover, Helvictia Perkins, rejected her first novel, Two Serious Ladies, as too obviously lesbian, but despite recognition that the novel's main theme is women's sexuality, the novel's lesbian content has yet to be seriously considered.

The two protagonists, Christina Goering and Mrs. Copperfield, seek salvation in a world that Bowles depicts as fragmented and threatening. From her childish religious obsessions to her adult pursuit of hopeless heterosexual love affairs, Goering seeks redemption from a self she believes is flawed by inherent sin. Her childhood friend, the more complacent Mrs. Copperfield, suddenly leaves her husband when she meets Pacifica, a prostitute who initiates her into the sensual pleasures of lesbian sex. Ironically, it is Mrs. Copperfield who finds the serenity that Goering desperately longs for.

Bowles's play In The Summer House was produced in Ann Arbor and then moved to Broadway in 1953. Remarkable for its strong women's roles, it was not the financial and critical success that Bowles desired. The play opens with Gertrude Eastman's long monologue in which she bemoans the hypocrisies of the world and berates her daughter Molly whose reclusive nature Gertrude regards as pathologically antisocial.

Molly's belief that she alone possesses her mother's affection is upset by the arrival of two rivals, the ingenuous Vivian, and Mr. Solares. Mr. Solares seduces Gertrude with displays of his wealth, and Vivian charms Gertrude with her clever comments. Feeling betrayed by her mother, Molly pushes Vivian off a cliff, but her action only reveals the hollowness of the Eastman home.

By allowing Molly to dream endlessly in the ivy-covered summerhouse, Gertrude has trapped Molly in childhood. Molly's passion disconcerts Gertrude, who flees into a marriage with Mr. Solares. Abandoned, Molly tries to recreate the safety of the Eastman home by marrying the equally innocent Lionel. Gertrude finds Solares's affection superficial, and she returns to Molly. The play concludes on an ambiguous note, for now Gertrude and not Molly is the seeker after absolute love.

Men are either ineffectual or disruptive forces in Bowles's shorter fiction, which is collected in My Sister's Hand in Mine: An Expanded Edition of the Collected Works of Jane Bowles (1978).

Following Paul's advice, Jane removed "A Guatemalan Idyll" from the original manuscript of Two Serious Ladies. Once again the search for peace of mind highlights this tale of Mrs. Ramirez and her two daughters who are vacationing in a Guatemalan pension. Mrs. Ramirez seduces a male American traveler who has mistakenly wandered into the hostel, but she regards his eventual departure with dispassion.

Mrs. Ramirez's young daughter, Lilina, believes that the possession of a snake owned by a local boy, Ramon, will provide her with omniscient power. After bargaining with Ramon's mother, Lilina is forced to recognize the futility of seeking salvation through the possession of another being. The snake is crushed by a passing cart, and Lilina expresses only contempt for Ramon's anguish.

In "A Day in the Country," two lesbian prostitutes toy with two unwitting Mexican businessmen whose attempts to romanticize the women are juxtaposed to the women's more calculated seduction.

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A photographic portrait of Jane Auer Bowles (1951).
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