Across the Page: The Classics

This month we’re taking a tour of some classics of lesbian literature, including Jane Rule’s Desert of the Heart (which was ultimately made into the film Desert Hearts), Isabel Miller’s Patience & Sarah, and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Each of these classics revolutionized the genre of lesbian fiction in a different way and represent the first time many readers, myself included, opened a book to find a well-rounded lesbian character.

Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule (Bella Books)

One of the first hardcover books to feature a lesbian story line, Jane Rule’s Desert of the Heart received critical acclaim when it was published in 1964 by Macmillan Canada. Though there were obvious objectors, including the Canadian university where Rule taught at the time, the book was an immediate hit among lesbian readers desperate for quality literature.

Rule, who died this past November from liver cancer, was the author of seven other books, though she is probably best known for Desert of the Heart. The story opens with Evelyn Hall, an English professor who comes to Reno, Nev., to divorce her mentally ill husband. Ann Childs, a bright young dreamer who works at a casino and writes cartoons, is a resident at the house where Evelyn rents a room for her stay.

Though 15 years separate the two women, each has reached a point in her life when it’s time to make sense of the past. Evelyn fears she failed her husband and in the process lost her identity. Ann, who claims to manage her mother’s abandonment and her father’s death by sleeping with both men and women, is more comfortable offering up her body than her heart.

All of these issues, and plenty more, rush to the surface when Evelyn and Ann’s friendship turns romantic. The women challenge each other by exposing the private vulnerabilities hidden beneath their different but equally protective shells.

Evelyn thought marriage was a way to make herself a real woman, but she was unable to have children and is not sure whether she ever really loved her husband. It is her connection with Ann, finally, that puts her in touch with her femininity and all that it encompasses: “She was finding, in the miracle of her particular fall, that she was, by nature, a woman. And what a lovely thing it was to be, a woman.”

The novel covers a relatively short period of time — the six weeks Evelyn needs to attain a divorce — but Rule packs it with emotional tension. There is a constant tug-of-war as the women negotiate their attraction and different backgrounds. The focus is less on the lesbian nature of their relationship, though certainly that brings up additional complications, and more on what it means to simply fall in love.

Desert of the Heart is dialogue-driven, and it is easy to see why it was turned into a film. Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts (1985), however, does not come close to capturing the complexity of Rule’s novel. In fact, there is no way it could or should have, for that matter.

In the novel, Ann, particularly, is a darker character whose insights into her own sexuality are intriguing. “I’ve always made love with women,” she says to Evelyn at one point, “to prove to myself that they aren’t, after all, the mother I’m supposed to be looking for, to prove that she doesn’t exist. So you could probably say my loving of you is a perversion and a destructive one.”

When Evelyn challenges Ann on this evaluation and asks whether her attraction feels perverse and destructive, she recants. “No, not at all,” she says and goes on to explain how it is easy to look at oneself and others as textbook cases, but ultimately, she concludes: “You’re not in a textbook. You’re a human being.”

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (Grove Press)

Aside from being a compelling and inventive coming-out story, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is also one of Winterson’s most accessible novels. First published in 1985 and winner of the Whitbread Award, the book features many details from Winterson’s own life and was later turned into a BBC television drama.

Oranges is the story of Jeanette, a young Englishwoman; her adoptive evangelical parents hope to turn her into a missionary: “We stood on the hill and my mother said, ‘This world is full of sin.’ We stood on the hill and my mother said, ‘You can change the world.'”

Jeanette does, in fact, change the world — if not for everyone, certainly for herself. Home schooled until the age of 7, she eventually attends public school. Though Jeanette continues to isolate herself by talking to the other children about hell and damnation (something her mother takes great pride in when the teacher complains), the experience ultimately offers her the opportunity to experience the world outside her home and church.