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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Thursday
Aug232012

« In Which We Write Our Covert Lesbian Manuscript »

Innermost Secrets

by KATE HART

During my last few days at the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern, where I had spent three months reading through the personal letters and papers of the American author Patricia Highsmith, I came across a manuscript fragment in a box marked “unfinished novels.”

Simply titled First Person Novel, this unpublished and loosely autobiographical novel contains a series of a letters that reveal an intense romance between two young women. With the exception of The Price of Salt, a lesbian cult classic that she published under a pseudonym, Highsmith’s treatment of homosexuality in her fiction is coded and evasive. First Person Novel provides a rare, personal glimpse into Highsmith’s experience, as well as those of other gays and lesbians, in the forties and fifties.

I understand your feelings, I understand. And I think I also understand mine. I reserve the right to like whom I like, to be honest with my feelings, and I reserve the duty, also, to curb my feelings and actions, if they are likely to hurt people I care about. In a fictional German village, Juliette Tallifer Dorn writes these extraordinary sentences about her attraction to women in a letter to her husband. Juliette inhabits Highsmith’s own personal predicament in the fifties: she is a “mature woman who cannot keep herself from practicing homosexuality, even if for social reasons she should wish to.” Her sojourn in rural Germany from her family life in the States allows her to reflect on her lesbianism for her bewildered husband, who demands an explanation of her ongoing affairs with women.

In her letters to her husband, Juliette justifies her present fling with a ballet dancer by delving into the past, into her memories and recollections of an adolescent romance that happened nearly twenty years ago, when she met another American girl at a Swiss finishing school. Juliette’s past history, she writes to her husband, is “not the facts you know, but the trail, the chain of crushes and loves, amounting to nothing but memories, but such memories.”

At seventeen, Veronica is “not really pretty,” boyish, and slightly unkempt, but has energy and vivacity, and Juliette is drawn to her on the first day of school as “a sick person’s eyes might wander to a happy, lively bird that has suddenly perched itself on a windowsill.” During a class outing, the two become separated from the rest of their group, when a sudden storm brings them propitiously together. As both of us looked, a long jagged flash of lightning shot down the sky, lighting up everything bright and green, and there was a sound as if a huge rock had been split apart. Verie and I were holding each other`s hands. Then Verie smiled and said, ‘It didn’t get us.’ We kept holding each other’s hand. Verie kept looking at me, her eyes smiling, and her fingers tightened and moved on mine. I wanted to kiss her. Verie moved first, then I a second later. A short, surprised kiss, and then a longer one. And a startled silence between us, and our hands in the same grip – that spontaneous, accidental hand clasp that turned into something else now, a promise, a reassurance, a bond.

As Juliette’s first love, Verie shapes the mold of her future lovers. So much of love is conditioning, and I mean the emotion of love as well as the habits and the means of its expression. I grew conditioned to a physical type like Verie – not too tall, slim, but rounded and much softer to touch than she appeared to be, her short, wavy hair, her firm, round breasts that needed no brassiere, her slender feet braced against my insteps in bed, the slight depressions – favored by Rubens and odd in anyone as slim as Verie – on either side of her spine above the buttocks, little sinks that I could feel in the dark with my fingertips. All this has never left me. They may not all turn up in the same person, but every woman I have liked has had one of the characteristics of Verie in her. After graduating, the pair go on holiday together in Europe disguised as “old school friends.” We had consent and blessing from home. We were gloriously happy. We loved each other and we had each other, and we had the approval of our families … does one ever get over wanting and needing the approval of one’s family? It seemed to us that we had everything…

Their grand tour passes in a glamorous whirl of sightseeing, shopping trips, and late nights in European capitals. The girls’ bond, forged during a freak storm, becomes the still center of this new, transitional world of hotel rooms, trains, cafes, and theatres. I used to look at my face in the mirror in those days, more than ever before or after. The image of myself I remember best is from one evening when Verie and I were dressing to go out in Venice. I leaned toward the mirror to check my make-up: a nineteen year old face, the longish cheeks rounded still, the gray-blue eyes clear and sparkling without a wrinkle around them or a frown above them. Not pretty, I think, not by any means. But it was a nice mouth. And what am I saying in all this? Only that the world was right for me, and it showed in my face and in my expression… At twenty-four, Highsmith wrote in her journal: “in the cases in which I have reached the real persons and have allowed others to reach me, then I do not shy from new company; I am sure of this.”

That the two women will have a future together is never questioned:

We talked of buying a house in California, of starting an art gallery there, since we both liked painting, and we talked also of finding a house somewhere inland from the Cote d`Azur, in some village, and living there. We also talked of a house in Italy. But it was always a house. We were happy and the rest would follow automatically. Verie is unconcerned about their risk of exposure, or the consequences that could follow such a revelation. She lights Juliette’s cigarette and makes a habit of holding her hand in restaurants. In Capri, she talks openly about their relationship to a group of gay men and women, many of whom were married, married to each other, married to someone in Europe or America whom I got the idea they seldom saw. It was all cynical, flippant, wide open and unserious.

But Juliette remains uneasy about being outed, even to such an unconventional social set. When we left, I felt as if we had left behind us thirty five or forty potential enemies, people who knew Verie’s and my innermost secrets, people who would spread it still wider, mentioning names, telling stories, telling of the time Verie kissed me on the lips in Grace Field’s swimming pool, the Canzone di Capri – such a long kiss that people sunning around the rim or drinking drinks had sat up to look at us. Most only smiled. Who cared, after all? But I was nineteen then, and I cared.

In Rome, Juliette’s fears are confirmed. We ran into some friends of Verie`s family in a restaurant. I’ve never spent a more uninteresting or quieter evening. It was quiet – like an unlit bomb. Within a week came a blistering letter from Verie`s mother, which Verie let me read. Verie took it with a careless smile at first, but I noticed she had turned pale. She was shaken to the core and did not want me to see it, but as the days passed, it was impossible for her to hide. We went over what happened with the Tompkins. No, nothing had happened, and no innuendos had been dropped by the Tompkins. It was just a case of their smelling out something, given almost nothing, nothing but the fact we’d been best friends at school and were now traveling together, and – the future art gallery, of course.

Other letters arrive from Verie’s brother, sister, and a former teacher, containing similar messages: she must “break off the relationship” and return home, or, as her mother puts it, “break with us.” Verie begins drinking scotch during the day and into the night. It was a long way from the old Verie, the real Verie, who might have dismissed all this with a wave of her hand and a smile. At least, a few drinks could make her smile, cynically, but it was not Verie`s old smile. There was bitterness in it now. But it was better than no smile at all. She made love to me once, but it was rudely and defiantly – predictably, and that started to break my heart.

Though Juliette has money for them to live on, even enough to start a gallery together, she realizes that Verie does not dread the loss of her inheritance, but something less tangible and more valuable. She was inarticulate about it, I had to guess it, to see it, to face it: she couldn’t face the social blot, after all. I hadn’t realized until the ax fell in Rome that Verie`s world was Baltimore. Even though she didn’t intend to live there, her roots there were deep. If they were cut off, the whole tree would die. It would die of shame. It was curious, it is curious, looking back on it, at Verie who pretended never to give a hang what people thought. The only explanation is her age, twenty. At twenty, one has not the strength, the character one thinks one has. I groped around this, trying to get her to say it – that she was going to give me up. She wouldn’t say it, for the three days I was trying to put the words in her mouth. At last, I said it for her, and Verie corroborated it. ‘Yes.'

The haste with which Verie leaves for home and discards her lover was “the most painful of all” to Juliette. Verie’s blind panic renders her a stranger to her girlfriend. At that time, I couldn’t comprehend the terror that was in Verie. I saw it as a sudden heartlessness, a complete reversal. She looked the same, her voice was the same, her clothes, the scent of her hair, as she bustled about her suitcases, but the inward thing I had loved had fled, flown away like the bird on the windowsill, which I had thought of the day I met Verie, and still could remember. To this day, it doesn’t make sense. The fiasco ending doesn’t make sense, because it wasn’t preceded by enough warning, danger signs. It doesn’t seem to hang together. Yet that was the way it was.

After a long string of failed relationships with women, Highsmith writes in her journals of the “faithlessness” and “transitoriness” of gay relationships, and, conversely, on her feelings of guilt and shame for her “sexual hypocrisy.” Her partner reports that in the fifties, Highsmith began slipping alcohol into her morning orange juice, a sign of her encroaching alcoholism that dogged her for the remainder of her life.

Verie never stopped drinking in Rome, nor does she stop in Baltimore. I can see it, the quantity increasing with her age until it`s a half bottle a day, then three quarters, then a whole, and the same ball of discord, unhappiness, tragedy, hopelessness, rolling along in her with the years. She lives still in Baltimore, and I wonder if the upright citizenry down there are more pleased with her celibacy, her ins and outs of alcoholic institutions in Baltimore and elsewhere, than they would be if we were running an art gallery together in San Francisco? That's a bitter question, but after all, is anybody pleased by what happened? Is anybody happier for what happened?

Highsmith writes in her diary of her dream of dancing with a woman on a midnight river cruise in Mississippi, which she contrasts with the reality of the presence of her male partner: Even in his arms dancing, one feels her in one`s arms dancing. The brain dully occupied with him, dreams with a clarity and a sentiment that stifles the breath, bringing tears.

First Person Novel concludes with Juliette’s similar sense that her love for another woman was built on fantasy, on the impossibility of two women living together as a couple in the middle half of the twentieth century. The loss of Verie – I am as incapable of describing what that was as I was incapable of describing what it was to have found her, to have known her and been with her those three years….It`s all finished. It`s all far back in the past. I have heard of people who cracked up under similar circumstances. At nineteen, as I was, it wasn’t unlikely that I’d crack up. I felt the beginnings…

As I look back, it's all so simple, so absurdly simple: Verie was weak, she did what she had to do, what others told her to do. But at the time it happened, it was a grand tragedy, we were torn apart by cruel fate, cruel Other People who presumably had infinite power over us. It was all not so. It was a dream, all of it.

Kate Hart is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Montreal.

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