A Valentine for Jane Rule's Desert of the Heart

Reviewed by Garry Thomas Morse

“In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start”

–W.H. Auden

One can hardly speak of Desert of the Heart without first acknowledging its significance as a serious novel that addresses lesbian love (and one that struggled for acceptance in 1964 amid a slush pile of exploitative pornographic texts). In addition to startling and even frightening some reviewers, the book triggered an outpouring of letters from the public to Jane Rule, thanking her for expressing life and love in such a way as to make them feel less alone, as the book had perhaps saved some individuals from the brink of disaster.

In fact, this book even inspired the 1985 film adaptation Desert Hearts, which has recently been re-released in a two-DVD set. Were I in the digital media or love business, I would surely be advising you to rent it tonight.

However, it is now time, in retrospective fashion, when we can review Jane Rule‘s novel in a slightly more objective literary sense. This is not something I aim to do or feel equipped to do on this particular day of hearts and commerce, but it is a mild whisper of encouragement to all those indefatigable enthusiasts of Rule’s work to explore additional aspects of her writing, including the enchanting abstruseness and intoxicating obliqueness of her collection of short stories Theme for Diverse Instruments.

The mythopoetic sensibility of Desert of the Heart is striking and is reminiscent of the manner in which Iris Murdoch freely combined ancient myths with dark, even brutal humour to create a profound and stirring effect:

The secretary was middle-aged and solicitous. She offered to take Evelyn’s parcels, moved an ash tray already within her reach, and, after Evelyn had begun to read a magazine forced on her, the secretary continued to chatter like a bird in a cage. Evelyn looked up, making her face a mask of polite interest, while she let an inner voice answer, “If you don’t keep still, I’ll strangle you and put you in a pie.”

We are presented with Evelyn Hall, an English professor who has moved to Reno, Nevada for six weeks in order to obtain a divorce from her husband. She soon meets Ann Childs, a change girl in a gambling casino who bears a strange resemblance to her, a fact that reinforces the role of the psyche and mythical archetypes that are deeply involved in this book.

The desert is not simply a terrestrial place. For Evelyn Hall, it is an otherworldly place that appears to offer freedom from social proprieties of the time. As with Bloom and Daedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses, the meeting of the two women also exhibits a materfamilias element, as Ann Childs comes to symbolize the child Evelyn Hall lost, or never had. This symbolism is even transferred to the extensive descriptions of the incessant drudgery of casino life:

She strapped the apron very high, carrying it like a fetus in its seventh month, careful to lift and turn the weight as if it were her own flesh, for she had to walk some distance with it, and maneuver on and off escalators, her back burning, the veins in her legs aching with the drag of sixty pounds of dead weight: the ironic emancipation of woman, martyred to nothing but her own belligerence, surely.

There is also a Dantean sensibility to the two ladies private expedition, during which they sunbathe upon the burning sands of the desert and take a dip in an artificial lake. With every step, there is an implied question about their behaviour, and whether their feelings for one another are allowed to be expressed or are in fact prohibited. In this age of populist young adult and maturiteen novels, it is refreshing to encounter a mature novel that explores areas of love and relationships that are often overlooked. The book expresses a collective difficulty for individuals finding the right balance in their shared existences with lovers and spouses alike.

In an inferior text, there would have been a number of stock villain characters trying to thwart the so-called illicit lovers, and yet Rule ensures that essentially all of her characters, one way or another, even in their rages and jealousies, are acting upon the lone motivation of love. What is astonishing is the way in which she retains such clarity and steely determination in her writing style, never letting it turn either sappy or maudlin. Once all the possible challenges and barriers are shoved aside, Evelyn and Ann must be able to come to terms with their love and affection for one another on their own terms, without falling prey to the arbitrary opinions of others.

Rule also shows great compassion in her description of the divorce process. Her spouse does not seem to be an obstacle to her new life or her happiness, and it is clear that Evelyn feels great pity for him, on account of his inability to support himself financially. Yet, the legal procedures become abstract monsters based upon the human mythology of the everyday, and in many ways, how they usurp the ability to express one’s emotions with any singular truth:

Evelyn wondered if the divorcees who stayed on in Reno were those who, having broken their marriage vows, could, nevertheless, not bring themselves to commit perjury. It was a last ditch morality she knew she could not take seriously. Perhaps, being able to answer two of the three questions honestly was an unusual privilege. She was learning to treat laws as most people treat poems, making them mean whatever she wanted them to without reference to the author’s intention or achievement.

Although she still retains feelings for this individual, the situation is impossible. And yet, her decision to divorce him puts her in a metaphorical glass house as far as her actions are concerned, not to mention the guilt she suffers for having abandoned him. And yet, this bittersweet sorrow mingles with the possibility of hope in the sudden rebirth of love. It is noteworthy she has fallen in love with another woman although if we are to accept the ecstasies of love as the most common experience uniting people, then this is also incidental.

The point of this story is that each woman has awakened something positive in the other, catalyzing possibilities and turning them into realities, as no other individual could have done. After experiencing the anguish of a broken marriage and the pain of failed relationships, these two characters are happily bemused to discover reinforced strength in one another.

The only question in this book is whether they will seize upon it or let it pass them by.

Jane Rule’s autobiography Taking My Life will be available from Talonbooks in the fall, 2011.