During her lifetime, Jane Bowles produced a novel, Two Serious Ladies (1943), a play, In the Summer House (1954), which ran briefly on Broadway, seven short stories, and some fragments of works that were never completed. She was of interest to such writer friends as Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams and to a small group who admired her experimental style. Her reputation has grown as society has changed. It is now somewhat difficult to disentangle the interest in her works from the interest in her life—a life tortured by anxiety, tormented by writer’s block, committed to open marriage that permitted her lesbian affairs, hampered and shortened by ill health. To some degree, feminism is responsible for the increasing interest in Bowles, a woman who sought independence at a time when few women had that goal. Recent publications have at last made it possible to study Jane Bowles fully. My Sister’s Hand in Mine: An Expanded Edition of the Collected Works of Jane Bowles (1978) includes fragments along with the previously published works. It was followed in 1981 by Millicent Dillon’s biography of Bowles, A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles. The 133 letters in Out in the World, assembled from various collections by Millicent Dillon, who has also dated them and provided necessary editorial comments, further illuminate both the life of this unusual writer and her works.
In her letters, Jane Bowles writes frequently about the difficulty she has in writing. Sometimes she finds excuses: The weather is humid, or she has guests, or she is ill. Certainly after she had her stroke in 1957, ill health was a valid reason. Though in her early years, she bemoans her slowness without finding either cause or remedy. For example, in 1947, she was in Connecticut working on a second novel. She writes to her husband, Paul, that her lover, Helvetia Perkins, on whom a character is based, intrudes in the novel, so that Jane finds herself dwelling on Helvetia, who always makes her feel “uncertain,” rather than working at the writing itself. Jane forces herself to remain in her room, but she cannot force her thoughts to remain with her work. As a result, she averages only a page a day. Often she comes close to despair, but then her imagination saves her, and she turns out a few more sentences.
Jane’s depression was exacerbated by her knowledge that Paul wrote rapidly and efficiently. To her, his facility seemed a rebuke, and the fact that he and some of her friends regularly sent her money on which to live put even more pressure on her. For Jane Bowles, writing justified her existence. In 1950, she wrote to Paul about her current block. What if she cannot write, she muses, continuing that she sees her options as suicide or as life as a nonperson, a writer’s wife. “I don’t think you’d like that, and could I do it well? I think I’d nag and be mean, and then I would be ashamed. Oh, what a black future it could be!” Clearly, her very identity depended on her writing; only her career marked her individuality.
There was, however, another area in which Jane Bowles exercised her creative powers. In 1948, she expresses her dream of what marriage should be: “If only you had been here . I wish you liked Tangier. I cannot imagine a better time really than being in a place we both liked and each of us being free and having adventures.” Throughout the letters, it is clear that Jane viewed life as an artistic creation, which she and her husband would produce together. In her letters, she dreams that other affairs will not hinder their relationship; like friends, she and Paul will discuss their lovers, encourage each other in romantic difficulties, and even suggest possible partners. Thus Paul suggests the Moroccan woman Cherifa as an interesting lover for Jane. These sexual “adventures” will keep life interesting and presumably stimulate their marriage as well as their work.
For Jane, however, the dream of an open marriage did not work; it only increased the anxieties of a person who was already extremely nervous. In her desire to be independent, was Jane forcing herself into a life more adventuresome than she could handle? Not only does she write frequently about her frustrations in her relationships with Cory, Helvetia, Cherifa, and others, but she seems also to be jealous of Paul’s relationships with...