For Truman Capote Two Serious Ladies was a novel “unlike any other” as the eccentric and adventurous Miss Goering meets the anxious, but equally innovative Mrs. Copperfield at a party. Mysterious, anarchic and humorous, Two Serious Ladies is a daring, but original work of art that defies analysis and categorisation; it is a modernist cult classic and Jane Bowles’s only novel.
Bowles anatomises women’s delicate, but devastating place within society, as Christina Goering – a wealthy and impulsive New York heiress and spinster – and Frieda Copperfield – also, a wealthy, but unhappy married woman – seek escape from their social milieu. By following their singular paths, they are in search of salvation and even though their journey’s take them far apart, they each embark upon perverse adventures that does not require a return ticket. Both women flee from the prospect of a respectable middle class life and choose to live outside of themselves. Driven by the desire for release, the object of their quest is to lose themselves, to fall and find glory in the mud.
Their journey relies upon the descent into debauchery and depravity as Miss Goering abandons her family home and decamps to a squalid little house upon an isolated Island. Accumulating hopeless and helpless followers to initiate into the cult of Miss Goering, her appetite becomes ever more insatiable as she relishes in increasingly sordid encounters with men. Mrs. Copperfield dutifully accompanies her husband to Panama, only to abandon him for her growing infatuation with a prostitute; consumed by her new brothel home and the seedy world of bars and bordellos she is only too happy to leave her old world behind her.
Bowles spare and elliptical prose has a hallucinatory quality that exposes the mystery and Bowles’s own fascination with women’s hidden lives. The effect is a reminder of the inappropriate that we willingly relinquish in the desire to be understood, or at least to be understandable. When the two meet again they are much changed – they have both suffered from the trauma of their deadbeat odysseys, but have also found a new strength too: “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years,” Mrs Copperfield declares. “I know I am as guilty as I can be, but I have my happiness which I guard like a wolf, and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring, which I never had before”. Her characters maintain a sphinx-like dignity until the novel’s final page, which is both unsettling and engrossing, but their undisturbed posture is revelatory. While we all many go to pieces sometimes, very few of us have the strength to decide not to piece ourselves back together and embrace the fragmentation of individuality.
Two Serious Ladies is a triumphant novel and a singular achievement that allows us to watch the bravery and courageous acts of two women as they begin to live outside of themselves and in doing so we are transported to a world of women that is endlessly strange. After all, their own impulses are mysterious to them.