Flavorwire Author Club: Jane Bowles’ ‘Two Serious Ladies’ Gone Wild


There’s a famous saying about the ethos of Seinfeld, and how it broke all the rules with a mere four words: “No hugging, no learning.” The characters didn’t evolve; we did. We watched Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer run amok in New York City, trying not to masturbate, figuring out the rules of soup, and getting lost in the parking lot, and the results were, much of the time, as modern as can be.

While it feels like a bit of a stretch to think about Jane Bowles’ singular and only novel, Two Serious Ladies, in light of Seinfeld‘s “no learning” ethos, it also feels like a way inside a book that, for all intents and purposes, is not letting you inside in any generous or desperate fashion. Mystery drives the story, mystery is what you’re left with, and mystery is part of the book’s strange allure.

Bowles, who was married to the writer Paul Bowles, lived one of those expatriate artists’ lives that had all appearances of glamor: friendships with Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, a central relationship with Paul that was supplemented by lovers of the same sex, travel throughout the world in the early part of the century. Her legendary writer friends, including Capote and Williams, made sure to leave behind gushing quotes about her brilliance: “the most important writer in prose fiction in Modern American Letters,” Williams called Bowles. Based on the charms of Two Serious Ladies, the playwright was probably exaggerating. That said, years after its 1943 debut, this slim novel still has no equivalent in American prose, and there’s something to be said for that quality.

The skein of plot that it hangs on is this: two women, Mrs. Copperfield and Miss Goering, meet in New York at a party. They go off into their lives, which grow increasingly strange and sordid. Mrs. Copperfield follows her husband on a trip to Panama, where she takes up at a seedy hotel with a teenage prostitute. Miss Goering moves to an island and spends nights with seedy men. They are, for all intents and purposes, society’s dropouts.

Bowles can fillet her characters in the span of one sentence: “Mrs. Copperfield’s sole object in life was to be happy, although people who had observed her over a number of years would’ve been surprised to discover this was all.” Later, the character ruminates on beauty: “What has the absence of worry to do with beauty?”

Between Mrs. Copperfield and Miss Goering, we see how easy it is to fall out of society’s favor in the span of a year, to choose your choice, however base or crude. “Acts of violence are generally performed with ease,” Miss Goering says, and all around the world, the frightening truth that Bowles gets at, in words simple and vicious, is that a woman can choose her own life; everyone else, the reader included, will judge it. No hugging, no learning. Just mere existence — distilled down to its essence.