I just finished re-reading Desert of the Heart, written by Jane Rule, for about the twentieth time. It is a remarkable, perfect little book. I have almost memorized certain lines and phrases, and I am certain that this work, all Jane Rule's work, has influenced my own. It says what it has to say, in the first paragraph, and it says it again in the rest of the book, and it ends just as it should.
"Conventions, like cliches, have a way of surviving their own usefulness. They are then defended or excused as the idioms of living." This is a book about the conventions we accept as the medium of our lives, most of us without questioning their real value to us. For some people, this makes life an absurdity devoid of meaning. People are born, grow up, go to school, get married, get jobs, raise children, and die. This book examines the absurdity of this idiom for some people. The convention of marriage, for homosexual people, is absurd. The cliche of fidelity and forsaking all others, for some, is meaningless, a promise impossible for humans to keep.
The story involves a woman who lived within these conventions all her life, even while feeling emotionally detached, outside them, as if she were speaking a foreign language. She meets another woman who has spent her life deliberately, consciously, living outside these conventions, even though studying them and the effects of trying to live within their boundaries. When these two women begin a relationship, one in defiance of those idioms of Iife, one accepting that their relationship may just be a visit outside the lines for her partner, the tension comes when each must acknowledge that what she thought about Iiving inside and outside those boundaries may not be true.
For Evelyn Hall, respectable college professor, stepping outside the conventions of her life forces her to examine them and question what she never before doubted, that women are supposed to marry, have children, and that she has failed because she played poorly at this game. She is forced to examine the basis for her assumptions about morality and love.
Ann Childs is forced to explore whether the cliches about love, the ones she has defied and dismissed all her life, might not hold some truth. If she accepts that she does love Evelyn, does that mean then that she must accept the other cliches about love that she has denied, that some of them might indeed be real and achievable, like fidelity, like "forsaking all others?"
There is an argument posed in the book about whether the human will or its nature influences us to choose or deny love. Is it our nature to marry men, bear children, and is it unnatural to seek love outside those accepted parameters? Is it our will, our intellect, that allows us to explore love outside the accepted convention of heterosexuality? Is it the will that bends us into the conventions of life, subduing our nature, which seeks out love wherever it may? Are those established conventions, old and worn, there to protect us from our nature or to bend our will away from our natural inclinations? If, in admitting and accepting her love for Ann, Evelyn is responding to her own nature, long denied, what does that say about the foundations on which her life was lived?
This is a small, short book, so well put together that I could not remove one line, one sentence, without unbalancing the whole. The movie that was based upon this book left out a great deal and added elements that are not there. Movies do that. Trying to remain true to the "theme" of the book, it completely re-routes characters, leaves out the very best lines, and substitutes some fine images and atmosphere. It is set in the early 1960's, and does a fine job of conveying the flavor of that period with the music and the fashions and the automobiles. Instead of portraying Ann Childs as an intellectual, in order to define her character as one who defies conventions, she is shown as rebellious and wild, promiscuous, and unaware of herself until she falls in love with Evelyn. Evelyn is shown as reserved and appalled at Ann's wildness, shocked, until she gives in to her own inner nature and makes love with Ann. This is not exactly how it played in the book, but the movie is also a short, fast story, and movies use shorthand methods. Movies can show us a person's character. Movies are defended by their makers by saying they remain true to the author's intent while engaging in wholesale restructuring. Movies can show us, in a single frame, what it takes a writer pages and pages to tell. So their defenders say.
I have no idea what Miss Rule thought of the movie they made from her first book. I believe she thought it was important, significant, that it get made. I believe she had no interest in assisting the makers. And the movie does hold true to the theme of accepting love in whatever form you find it, for its own sake. I find almost none of the original, beautiful lines from the book in the dialogue of the movie. I find none of the depth and elegance and artistry. Yet, on its own terms, the movie avoids some of the cliches one expects to find in a movie concerned with this topic. It does a good job of that. Even if some characters are made into caricatures, grotesque imitations of themselves, it can be forgiven because it is a movie. It has color and sound and movement. It can show us two women making love, something the author saw no reason to detail. It can show us Evelyn's transformation. It shows us things. That is what movies do.
I love this small, tight book. Jane Rule is a remarkable writer. If my own writing has been influenced by hers, consciously or unconsciously, I could find no other guide that would better suit me.