A Little Original Sin

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Shortly after undertaking a biography of Jane Bowles, Millicent Dillon began to discover coincidental circumstances in their lives: both had a mother named Claire and a grandfather named Louis, both had lived in Woodmere, Long Island, at the same time, and both had broken their legs in the same year. At one point Jane and her mother moved to the building where Millicent Dillon’s family had lived at the time of her birth. Needless to say, these uncanny coincidences imply a closeness that really is not there. If there is a closeness of spirit between the two, that is not apparent. This biography gives the impression of Dillon plodding up a street in Woodmere, earnestly in search of an elfin Jane, who despite her slight limp is dancing along only two streets away, never glimpsed with entire clarity and never quite caught.

To give a proper estimate of a cult figure is of course always difficult and is particularly so in the case of Jane Bowles, who was original in much more than her sinning. Thrown with composers and writers at an early age, she was recognized as a talented writer before she had published anything and achieved a succès d’estime in certain circles for her novel, Two Serious Ladies (1943), and her play, In the Summer House (1954), without gaining either a popular success or a critical success in the ordinary sense with these puzzling and elusive works. Interest in Jane Bowles and her work has continued to the point that The Collected Works of Jane Bowles was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1966 (with an Introduction by Jane’s friend Truman Capote) and reissued in a slightly expanded form by Ecco Press in 1978 as My Sister’s Hand in Mine. At present her fiction is particularly well-known in Spain, where, in 1973, at the age of fifty-six, she died.

Jane Bowles’s work is interesting for its imaginative, poetic quality, its impression of significance beyond what is actually said, and its openness to whatever meanings a reader might wish to discern there. Her life is interesting in somewhat the same way. She lived differently and more imaginatively than most people; she lived in foreign places such as Mexico and for a long period Tangier; she loved her husband yet had many lesbian relationships. She was a stimulating conversationalist, witty and delightful, and, Dillon says, was able to give her friends a sense of increased freedom, as of being let out into a wider and more exhilarating place. Reading about her, one gets a sense of the excitement of her life. Yet she lived an overwhelmingly messy existence, drinking to excess, becoming entangled in unsatisfying and finally unpleasant relationships with other women, extravagantly courting indifferent Moorish women who kept her in a constant state of nervous intensity, always fretting over even the smallest decisions, lapsing into illness, alcoholism, and eventually insanity.

Meanwhile, her work went slowly even during the times it was going at all, and the expanded edition of her collected works contains only 476 large-print pages including unfinished stories and journal entries. What is one to make of this person? Was she a genius whose life and work were crippled by a sense of sin and self-doubt, or was she simply a self-indulgent child-woman whose indulgent friends were always willing to make much of her achievements and overlook her erratic behavior?

In her serious, intelligent, and painstaking way, Millicent Dillon has followed Jane Bowles through her life, uncovering details from her early years, procuring statements from people who knew her, turning all facets of Jane’s personality to the light, and trying to sort out and make clear the contradictions which animated Bowles’s odd and contradictory existence.

Evidence about Jane Bowles’s early years is surprisingly slender (she was born in 1917). There are no photographs from these years, and Jane had little to say about them to her husband or to other friends. Recollections of a schoolfriend and a few cousins suggest a slightly wild, highly imaginative, pixielike creature who took the lead in excursions into a fantasy world. When Jane was thirteen, her father died. A rather stern parent, he had condemned Jane’s dilatory ways, saying she would procrastinate till she died (and in this he was right) and making clear his hostility to her efforts to escape the real world through art and imagination. In Dillon’s view, Jane’s imagination, which was her great power, became therefore something to be feared as sinful. What in later life she most wanted to do, to write, she saw as condemned with a condemnation not subject to change.

To her mother, on the other hand, Jane was her “million-dollar baby.” Jane had a French governess when she was small, expensive clothes from the best stores, and her mother’s passionate love and attention. She also experienced a good deal of extended-family life in a large Hungarian-Jewish family, until she was sent to an exclusive girls’ school where she broke her leg in a fall from a horse. Tuberculosis of the knee set in and led to two years in a Swiss sanatorium, from 1932 to 1934. Jane’s leg, which was in a cast, was kept in traction. According to Millicent Dillon, the traction that pulled at her leg day after day came to symbolize the various tensions operating on her life. In Switzerland, Dillon says, Jane...

(The entire section is 2203 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Book World. XI, August 2, 1981, p. 3.

Booklist. LXXVII, July 1, 1981, p. 1383.

Choice. XIX, November, 1981, p. 378.

Library Journal. CVI, June 1, 1981, p. 1223.

Maclean’s. XCIV, August 31, 1981, p. 62.

New Leader. LXIV, October 5, 1981, p. 14.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, September 13, 1981, p. 11.

Saturday Review. VIII, August, 1981, p. 56.

Time. CXVIII, September 14, 1981, p. 96.

Village Voice. XXVI, August 19, 1981, p. 35.