Somehow I have found myself reading two lesbian novels written in the ‘50s one after the other. I had both Ann Bannon’s and Patricia Highsmith’s books under my radar for quite some time, but only the news recently come to my attention that a movie based on Carol was coming out soon prompted me to finally read it (or listen to it, rather). After Carol, I craved more lesbian fiction and I turned to Ann Bannon. Both books being published in the same era, only few years apart – Carol in 1952 and Odd Girl Out in 1957, they ask to be compared to each other.
Now, I don’t know how strict the publishers were at the time when they were asked by the Censorship to avoid any positive final outcome of lesbian and gay relationships, but somehow Carol, or the Price of Salt as it was originally named, managed to overcome those limitations and get away with a relatively happy ending. It’s well known for that, unfortunately. I say unfortunately because I have the feeling I would have appreciated the ending more if I hadn’t known that. As it happens, I did, and I wish it had been happier. But I had little or no knowledge of how the lesbian fiction of the time was, so of course I didn’t have any terms of comparison. Now I have read another one, Odd Girl Out, and compared to it, it seems like a celebration of all things lesbians, of EVERLASTING and TRUE LESBIAN LOVE. It’s even more surprising, knowing that it was published five years earlier than Ann Bannon’s novel. Could it be that its New York setting made it more permissive or more realistically open to different kinds of love than the conservative microcosm of a Midwestern University? Perhaps, but for whatever reason the two books are strikingly different.
Carol is the story of Therese, a 19-year-old stage designer who, at the beginning of the story, is working in a department store for some extra cash at Christmas, and of Carol, a charming woman in her '30s, about to get a divorce. One day Carol comes to Therese's desk to buy a doll for her daughter and Therese quite literally falls in love with her at first sight. She sends her a Christmas card later and Carol replies by inviting her out for coffee. They start an intimate friendship that later on becomes a love affair. There are complications though, as Carol is going through a divorce and the husband is not ready to let go of their daughter’s custody without a fight.
I enjoyed the writing in Carol. It’s quite beautiful and perceptive. The story is as much about Therese’s complete entrancement with Carol as about Therese’s struggle to find her place in life. To find meaning and fulfilment.
I loved the age gap between the two women and I was fascinated by Carol as much as Therese was. Their relationship isn’t one between equals, though. Carol has way too much control over Therese and never seems to reciprocate the younger woman’s feelings in equal measure. For a while it seems Therese is merely a distraction, a way of taking her mind away from her bigger problems in her life. She’s guarded and cold, always keeping Therese on the edge, never fully letting her in and embracing their romance without reservations. This was the only reason that kept me from falling in love with the book completely. I wanted to see more passion from Carol. I know it was there, she just never let herself show it. I understand her pain and fear of losing her daughter were clouding her ability to show love to Therese, but it made me weary of her, and I never fully trusted her. I didn’t trust her even if I knew how it was going to end.
This said I am really excited that Cate Blanchett is playing Carol. She seems perfect for the role and I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing her.
After Carol, I was craving a true, passionate lesbian romance and I turned to Ann Bannon. Ha! Little did I know.
At first, I thought the budding romance between young and timid Laura and confident and charming Beth was really cute. I loved how protective Beth was of Laura, how despite her teasing, she never means to hurt her. This, however, proves to be her biggest mistake. I never fully warmed to Laura, until the end, when she surprised me, by showing how much she has grown and how much Beth had underestimated her. I found Laura throughout the book to be annoying and spoiled and whiney. I liked Beth at first, I liked how sure of herself and fearless she was. But as soon as she starts falling in love with a guy, I started losing interest. This was supposed to be my steamy, forbidden, lesbian story! What was happening? Alas, heteronormative was happening. Of course, Beth hadn’t met the right guy yet. And of course, Charley was finally that right guy. Who tells her that lesbian relationship can only happen during childhood, that women should like men only, otherwise they are refusing to grow up and to accept reality.
Thankfully Laura is having none of this shit. Even though it takes a while for her to stop acting all confused and clueless about who she is. I liked the ending, which is supposedly a bad one for their romance? Except it’s the best ending that I could have asked for. I couldn’t wait for Laura to get rid of Beth. It took her way too long. That ending gives me hope. And it’s the reason why I will keep reading these books, and hopefully, finally, get my steamy, forbidden, lesbian story.
Compared to Carol, there was a lot more talk about how homosexuality is wrong and illegal and how it can stop a woman from growing up. Surprisingly in Carol, Therese never questions herself about her love for Carol. It just happens and she accepts it completely. She might have posed for a moment to consider how society viewed her sexual inclinations, but she never lets them affect her. The only time the issue is raised is by a man, who is speaking out of hurt and disappointment. It’s never raised after that. It’s not Carol and Therese’s concern to judge or hate themselves for what they’re doing, which is beautiful. Of course, there are consequences to pay, because they are still lesbians in the ‘50s, but I loved how self-hate or denial was never even a thing for them.
In Odd Girl Out, the issue is raised again and again. Mostly by men, but also by Beth, who does really think that lesbianism is a thing to outgrow, and by her friend Emmy, who doesn’t even begin to comprehend how a woman could find another woman attractive. ‘What’s there to want?’ she says. But as much as she doesn’t understand it, she doesn’t judge it either. The only one who isn’t affected by this is Laura, and that’s her redeeming quality. Like Therese, she never questions her feelings, never doubts them and never betrays them. Which is something to admire in both of them.
I probably will never find the passionate, Tipping-the-Velvet kind of romance I want from these books, but I will keep reading them. I love the vintage setting, I love to read lesbian stories that were genuinely written at that time, and I love to see how much they dared, and how much they could get away with.
And hopefully Carol the movie will be as satisfying as that trailer promises to be.