Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Out in the World contains one hundred and thirty-three letters written by Jane Bowles between 1935 and 1970. They were edited by her biographer, the writer Millicent Dillon, whose understanding of her subject informed her decision to intersperse the letters she chose with brief excerpts from Bowles’s unfinished novel. Jane Bowles had hoped to call her second novel Out in the World.

Jane Bowles produced a relatively small but powerful body of work. Her first novel, Two Serious Ladies, was published in 1943. Her play In the Summer House had three productions from 1951 to 1953, including one in New York. Plain Pleasures, a collection of stories, was published in England in 1966, the same year in which The Collected Work of Jane Bowles was published in the United States. Her letters underscore her obsession with verbal precision as well as concerns in her life that prevail as themes in her writing: her search for a place to feel at home in the world, and her experience as a woman living at times independently of men.

The first few letters are high-spirited, stylish narratives that reflect her youthful bohemianism and her determination to write. Bowles wrote them in her late teenage years to friends in New York City, where she was living with her mother. The opening letter to George McMillan, a young man who worked in a Greenwich Village club, shows her talent for narrative and flair for dialogue. After having run away from home and come back, she describes with compassion and merciless humor her mother’s and her aunt’s distress over her defiance and her lesbianism. The letter shows that she did not mind revealing her foibles to her friends: “George, pardon the tone of all this but I’m trying to counterbalance all the emotion and drama that’s been hanging between us so that we could hardly see each other.”

There follows a group of letters that were written during the early 1940’s when she was working on the novel Two Serious Ladies in Mexico, after her marriage to writer-composer Paul Bowles. These letters are written...

(The entire section is 869 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Jane Bowles may be best known for her short fiction, which is considered by many her most successful work. Plain Pleasures (1966), six stories and a short skit; the novel Two Serious Ladies (1943); a play, In the Summer House; and a few other fictional pieces and fragments since collected in My Sister’s Hand in Mine (1978) make up the balance of her small but influential canon.

Although she was afraid, she once wrote, to write herself into her work, Jane Bowles’s fictions pursue the personal demons that compelled her to write. With the publication of her letters, her readers have an alternative way of attempting to understand her greatest concerns and the way in which she transformed her experiences into fiction. They present encounters and people who influenced her life and also provide some sense of Bowles’s famous conversational wit and humor. A sense of her compassion, the sources of her humor, and the pain and suffering she endured in her life may help to illuminate the beauty, the comedy, and the absurd grotesqueness of her stories. The letters are carefully crafted documents that reveal her deepest concerns and at times the same fears with which her characters live.

The novelist Alan Sillitoe called Jane Bowles’s novel Two Serious Ladies (1943) “a landmark in contemporary literature,” and the poet John Ashbery hailed her in a review of The Collected Works of Jane Bowles...

(The entire section is 504 words.)

Out in the World

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

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...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bassett, Mark T. “Imagination, Control, and Betrayal in Jane Bowles’ ‘A Stick of Green Candy.’” Studies in Short Fiction 24 (Winter, 1987): 25-29. Bassett studies the story in terms of possible influences the desert environment might have had on Bowles while she finished it. He suggests that the story pits the order and control exerted by the childhood imagination against the chaos and uncertainty of the real world, or adult society.

Dillon, Millicent. “Jane Bowles: Experiment as Character.” In Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction, edited by Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. Dillon revises her thinking on Jane Bowles’s inability to complete her later work. The author’s uncompleted fragments were not the results of writer’s block but of an impulse to express herself in a fragmented style that reflected her sense of experience. Discusses the story “Camp Cataract.”

Dillon, Millicent. A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981. Dillon’s biography is meticulously researched and passionately written. It includes thorough discussion of the genesis of Bowles’s stories and other writings. Contains a chronology, a bibliography, an index, and notes.

Gray, Francine du Plessix. “Jane Bowles Reconsidered.” In Adam and Eve and the City: Selected Non-Fiction. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. A short, useful introduction to Jane Bowles’ work, mostly through discussion of her novel Two Serious Ladies. Gray considers the theme of women’s independence central to Bowles’s fiction. She compares it with the work of other twentieth century novelists, especially Jean Rhys.

Lougy, Robert E. “The World and Art of Jane Bowles (1917-1973).” CEA Critic 49 (Winter-Summer, 1986-1987): 157-173. A good general introduction to the life and work of Jane Bowles. Lougy explores her oddness and originality in an attempt to show that her concerns and themes are universal. He examines her craft and compares her work to that of her literary contemporaries.

Roditi, Edouard. “The Fiction of Jane Bowles as a Form of Self-Exorcism.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 12 (Summer, 1992): 182-194. Roditi speculates that Jane Bowles relieved herself of her own insanity by giving it to her characters. When Paul Bowles took her to Tangier, however, away from suburban America, she became disoriented, collapsed into insanity, and died. An interesting premise by a friend and literary acquaintance of the Bowleses.