Jane Rule Desert of the Heart (1964)
Fidelity to any human place, except the heart, seems to me a dubious thing.
When Desert of the Heart appeared in 1964, Jane Rule became, she says, "for the media the only lesbian in Canada." It might, nowadays, (thankfully) be hard to see why the book was such a game-changer, but it is certainly far more than just a 'lesbian novel'.
It engages - generally wittily, sometimes brutally, frequently heart-breakingly - with all manner of conventions about the expectations surrounding how a woman should live her life. It is an engagingly important feminist text, I thought, as well as a thought-provoking examination of contemporary sexual politics. It is also, as Jackie Kaye notes in her introduction to this Virago edition, a "relatively positive work of fiction, where no lesbian dies."
Evelyn Hall goes to Nevada to get a divorce from her husband of sixteen years. She is an educated woman, an English professor, but not, we discover, prone to anything but a quiet dissidence:
She was one of the few women she knew who preferred Mrs to Dr, perhaps because her marriage had been more difficult than her Ph.D. to achieve and maintain... Dr now was her only 'proper' title, but it seemed too easy a solution, or too ironic.
One of the joys of Desert of the Heart is how Evelyn's somewhat stifled inner voice begins a regeneration.
The divorce is her choice - "She was to be divorced, a convention that might be as strange to her as the convention of marriage had been" - and to obtain it she must live in Reno in Frances Packer's boarding house, until the divorce comes though in six weeks' time. Evelyn is prepared for boredom, prepared to read and get on with her academic work, prepared even to rediscover a life alone; but she is not prepared for the effect that Ann Childs will have on her as she crosses off the days until she is free.
Ann is a permanent resident in the boarding-house: a slot-machine change girl at a casino, easy with her favours - "the child she had always wanted, the friend she had once had, the lover she had never considered." Will she also be Evelyn's salvation from the dull sadness, that "desert of the heart", the "aesthetic distance", her "care about morality"? "But decorum was a climate in which Evelyn lived." Can she lose - and find - herself in "unimportant intimacy"? "Must I be careful?", Evelyn begins to ask herself, as she (of course!) begins to over-intellectualize "the grotesque miracle of love" and whether she is embarking on "an attempted moral suicide".
"Why have you loved me at all?" "Lack of social orientation. Latent homosexuality. Moral amnesia. Masochism. Revenge. But I'm willfully ignorant in these matters. My terms are probably very inaccurate."
You might see here how dangerously close Desert of the Heart runs to a good wallow in the clichés of lesbian melodrama that inform its background (e.g.,. The Well of Loneliness). But that would be, I think, to miss how manneredly Rule deals with her potentially florid material.
If she had never actually made love to another woman, she was intellectually emancipated in all perversions of the flesh, mind and spirit. Her academic training had seen to that.
I addition, the Reno setting works beautifully as a background to the novel. It makes emphatic the fluctuating status (rich/poor, unmarried/married, married/divorced, morality/amorality, fidelity/unfaithfulness, even living/dead) of the characters, and the desert too functions as a clichéd yet powerful image - a sort of demarcated zone signifying both sterility and the potential for (re)development and fulfilment. Its emptiness is particularly potent in contrast to the Hogarthian (Rule's image, not mine!) chaos of the casinos.
So, in sum? A quiet, clever, beautifully written, heart-breaking love story.