Jane Rules: Reflections on Living and on Loving by Joanne Bealy
Jane Rule was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, on March 28, 1931. After spending time in England, she moved to Canada in 1956 to teach at the University of British Columbia. Rule and her long-time partner, Helen Sonthoff, bought a house on Galiano Island as a weekend getaway in the 1970s, fell in love with it and never left. It has been said that every child on Galiano learned to swim at Helen and Jane’s pool.
While Desert of the Heart, Jane Rule’s first published novel, may still be her most well known (in 1986 it was made into a feature film, Desert Hearts, directed by Donna Deitch), Rule is the author of 11 other books, including This Is Not For You, Against the Season, Theme for Diverse Instruments, The Young In One Another’s Arms, Contract With The World, Outlander (stories and essays), Inland Passage, Memory Board, After the Fire, Lesbian Images and A Hot-Eyed Moderate. A new book of essays was published this spring.
Joanne Bealy interviewed Jane Rule at her home on Galiano Island 17 months before Rule’s death on November 28, 2007, as a result of complications of liver cancer.
HERIZONS: Talk a bit, if you would, about what you think are the most important things about a relationship.
JANE RULE: It seems to me that the best model we have for love, though it doesn’t happen all that often, is the love of a parent for a child. A friend of mine once asked my mother, “When do you start letting your children go?” She said,“When they’re born.”
I think that any relationship that’s a good one is based— for both people—on their freedom to be who they are. I’m always sorry that people talk about relationships that don’t last a lifetime as a failure, because they’re often not. They are, for the time that they exist, nurturing, nourishing, growing for both people. Then they go in different directions. And if there’s real love involved, though it’s hard and there’s pain, you let go if you really care about the other person’s wellbeing. And if you care about your own, you take the responsibility of being independent.
I also think that a relationship based on sexual fidelity is silly. I don’t have anything against sexual fidelity, but I think using that as a basis for a relationship, rather than really caring about the other person and supporting that other person, doesn’t work. To say I love you so much I forsake everyone else seems, to me, untrue. Making sexuality the one commitment that you give to the other person seems archaic and goes back to men owning women and wanting to know that their children are their own.
You and Helen were in a long-term relationship….
JANE RULE: 45 years.
How did you deal with any difficulties that arose between you?
JANE RULE: We agreed to disagree on some pretty basic things. I can remember a couple of little kids, five and six years old, sitting at the pool one day while Helen was gardening. Both of them were having troubles at home, both their parents were fighting, and one of them asked Helen, “Do you and Jane fight?” Helen said, “Not very often.” She explained that we’d known each other so long that we knew where we disagreed, and that there wasn’t really much point in fighting. We knew where we differed, and we just had to agree that we couldn’t change each other on that and that there was no need to.
It’s a mature stance that many people find hard to get to.
JANE RULE: I think that’s partly because of marriage. The image of marriage and forsaking all others to become one is just a ghastly concept. All the time we see people who live together decide to get married, and the next thing you know they’ve separated. Because suddenly you are my husband, you can’t do that because that embarrasses me in public. Or you are my wife, and therefore you can’t do that because it reflects on me. And suddenly that ownership comes in and wrecks what has been an apparently good relationship—until that particular emotional plane kicks in, and then it’s destructive.
You’ve said you’re not going to write anymore. I’m curious about the imagination that you might have funnelled into your stories—what do you do with that now?
JANE RULE: I think fiction writing—at least for me—is a habit, and if you don’t use it all the time, it doesn’t stay there. Short story ideas don’t occur to me. Novel ideas don’t occur to me any longer. You really do have to court them and nourish them, encourage them in order to have them happen. I had had the chance, as many people don’t, to write all my adult life. And I’d really said most of what I’d had to say, and things that were occurring to me seemed awfully close to what I’d already written. Writing is very hard work, and I think it’s okay to be in love with your favourite stories and retell them to your friends, but I don’t think you really ought to bore your public with being repetitious. Get on and shut up. (laughs)
You’ve also been known as a very important activist. Do you see writing and activism as being connected?
JANE RULE: I think of political activism as much more connected to essay writing. I don’t think of my fiction as political, or propaganda, or on the side of any one particular viewer. I might write about characters whose views don’t correspond with mine or even agree with mine, because I’m interested in other points of view and other ways of living.
You took an incredible amount of flak for Desert of the Heart, and I wonder how that affected your writing and how you got through it at the time.
JANE RULE: I didn’t know what to expect because we were still—at that time, in 1964—illegal. We could have been jailed for five years for living together. It didn’t surprise me that people were upset about the subject matter of the book. I was writing about a relationship that was against the law, which is hard to remember now, but there it is. That law didn’t change until 1968 and the book had been out for four years already.
So everybody was very circumspect and defensive, and I think so many different things happened after the book. I got a huge amount of fan mail, which I didn’t expect. I thought movie stars got fan mail. People were writing things like, “You are the only person in the world who could possibly understand who I am, how I feel. If I’m not able to talk to someone I’m going to kill myself.”
Well, I was used to relating to the world as a teacher. If I had a student in trouble that I couldn’t help, I had all sorts of people that I could call. Suddenly, I was getting cries of help from all over the world about which I could do nothing. I could answer the letter and be sympathetic, but it just felt to me overwhelming and depressing that there was so much fear and so much self-hatred and so much loneliness. So there’s that aspect of it, which was a surprise to me. I don’t suppose I was terribly surprised with the outraged reviews.
It didn’t stop you. You kept writing, kept living your life.
JANE RULE: Oh, yes. The other thing that happened in our personal life was that the few gay friends we had were the ones that dropped us because they didn’t want to be guilty by association. That did shock me. It felt like a betrayal. And our straight friends defended me by saying writers of murder mysteries are not necessarily murderers. So there was this odd denial, fear. People who wanted to protect us protected us in precisely the wrong way. Instead of defending our right to be who we were, they said we weren’t.
It was a confusing time.
We take so much for granted today. Listening to you now, you seemed fearless. Did you see yourself as fearless?
JANE RULE: You have to realize that I had written for 10 years without having anything published because I was preparing to write just exactly what I wanted to write and not try to suit my fiction to a particular magazine style. I believed that if I learned to do this well enough, finally someone would have to publish it because it’s so good, not because it’s saying what they wanted to hear. And when I finished Desert of the Heart, which was my fourth novel, I suddenly thought, “This is good enough to publish.”
And I felt some panic because I was so used to writing without any sense of audience or any sense of reaction. I look back on that and it seemed discouraging at the time, but in fact it was a blessing because I learned to pay no attention to the world and to do exactly what I needed to do without a sense of that outer critic voice. My inner critic voice had to be silenced sometimes, but at least I didn’t have that outer world constantly impinging on what I was doing. By the time I knew it was going to be published I knew there was going to be trouble.
You must have had a lot of love growing up to have the kind of
confidence required to step forward like that and to keep going.
JANE RULE: Certainly my parents were very innocent, ignorant people who had no notion of what homosexuality was. I had been living with Helen for years before I ever dealt with my parents about it. She was a member of the family and they all adored her when I finally sat down and wrote my parents a letter.This was right before Desert of the Heart came out and I knew they would have to be able to deal with any flak from it.
I had a letter back from each of them and they both said they cried all day long for what they must have done to me for all those years of being so stupid. They apologized for all the casual remarks they’d made, all the gay jokes they’d cracked, all the prejudice and ignorance they’d spewed out—and they had, it was their culture. But they became gay advocates in their later years.
I thought it was an extraordinary response.
What do you think now, looking back and seeing where we are today as a community?
JANE RULE: One of the interesting things is to have a gay niece and to watch her process of coming out in a family that couldn’t be better prepared for it. Her mother had a hard time dealing with it, but my parents, her grandparents, didn’t. They were fine. But what she expected of them just took my breath away. She was furious that her parents were reluctant to walk in the gay parade, and I said to her,
“I don’t even walk in the gay parade. Give your parents a break.” But it was wonderful to see how empowered and expecting she was, when something like that would never have occurred to me in my time. I thought it was a miracle that my parents didn’t disown me.
I know you watch The L-Word with your niece. What do you think of it?
JANE RULE: I think it’s a very good show. I think they deal with a lot of issues quite interestingly. Sometimes
they’re oversimplified because of the medium, but often I think they raise issues and deal with
them with a fair amount of sophistication. I think it’s a marvelous program.
What books have given you sustenance over the years?
JANE RULE: A hundred thousand books. In the last years of Helen’s life, when her eyes were going, I read to her aloud every night we didn’t have visitors for about three hours after dinner.
We read a lot of contemporary books, but one of the things we enjoyed was going back to what I call the “dead white males” who actually wrote to be read aloud. We read almost all of Dickens, and I didn’t even particularly like Dickens until I started reading him aloud. .Trollope, I adored, and we read all of Trollope. I also spent a lot of time reading Canadian books, initially because I was called upon to judge contests.
I feel nourished, and more companioned by books than Ifeel led by them or guided by them. I feel an enormously deep companionship with writers like Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Audrey Thomas. But they feel to me like companions rather than mentors. I don’t think I had any mentors when I was beginning to write because there wasn’t anybody I knew saying the things I wanted to say. I didn’t discover people like Willa Cather until I graduated from college. Gertrude Stein was never taught in college. At the time when I was forming myself as a writer, I suppose that the writers who mattered most to me were Shakespeare and some of the poets. Auden was very important to me. Yeats was very important to me.
How did you start writing? Did you just know you wanted to write?
JANE RULE: Yes. I was in my teens and thought that people weren’t really saying how they felt or talking about anything that mattered. I wanted to tell the truth, which is an arrogant and very young notion. So it wasn’t for any great literary ambition that I wrote. It was for moral reasons.
Advice or words of wisdom for the youth coming up today?
JANE RULE: I always tell my students who want to be writers, if you’re stupid enough to want to be a writer, be very smart about everything else. Figure out an economic way to do it. For me it was teaching. I was able to teach every other year at UBC and write every other year from the time I was in my mid-20s, which was a wonderful arrangement. It gave me a contact with the world so I wasn’t too isolated, and gave me enough money to pay my share of the bills.
What would you say you are most and least proud of?
JANE RULE: In writing?
Any way you want to read it. In your writing world, your activist world, personal world. Anything you regret?
JANE RULE: Oh well, one regret, that’s what you spend your old age doing… . (long silence)
I think that the requirement of time to be a practising artist is enormous and you have to protect your time in order to get the work done, and that means being a less good friend, a less good social human being than you often would have liked to be because you really do have to shut the door to everything.
One of the things that was very useful to me in Vancouver was that a lot of our friends were also artists and somebody would say, “I’m not going to see you for the next six months because I’m working on a show,” and that was perfectly okay.
You were not frowned upon. I would say, “I’m disappearing into a novel, I’ll see you next year.”
But it is hard on friendships, nonetheless. It’s hard on people near you to have to live that kind of blinkered [existence], and one of the lovely things about giving up writing is that I get the world instead. I can spend my time with children at the swimming pool, and read to people who are losing their sight, and be available to people who are in trouble.
I have a small building and loans business that I run on the island and it keeps me in touch with all the young people who are trying to figure out how to buy trucks or start businesses. If you talk about money, you talk about all sorts of other things as well. And I’m there. The imagination I used to give to my characters I can now give to my friends.
Didn’t Helen do some writing as well, as part of her academic life?
JANE RULE: She did very good reviews, but she was primarily a teacher. That’s what mattered to her. A wonderful reader of poems. And she would be willing to review Canadian works that none of the academics would touch because there wasn’t a body of critical work to tell them whether or not it was good. Helen had no qualms if the work was interesting to her. She wrote some of the first stuff on Ethel Wilson, on Phyllis Webb. But it was not her main concern. Her main concern was teaching kids how to read a poem without feeling intimidated by it.
Other things, too, but she was absolutely spectacular at poetry.
She would understand the life of a writer.
JANE RULE: Yes.
Was it a big decision to move to Canada, and then after that to a rural community here on Galiano?
JANE RULE: Helen and I met in Concord, Massachusetts, and if somebody had said to us you’re going to
end your life on a little island off the West Coast of British Columbia, Canada, we couldn’t possibly have imagined it. I didn’t even like islands. I thought they were isolated and terrible. When we bought this house, we didn’t intend to live here. This was our place to escape. We found we liked escaping so much we stayed escaped. And I’ve been here now for 30 years.
So, no big transition, just a natural occurrence?
JANE RULE: Yes. Life in Vancouver had just gotten too demanding. We were out four and five days a week with show openings and play openings. It was all fun but it was just too much, so we decided we needed a place to get away. We spent nearly every weekend here once we got the place. And then Helen took a year’s leave and we came over here and lived for a year and liked it so well. And it was very good for my writing, so we stayed.
I had originally come to Canada to help a friend find an apartment. I had a year off to write, had saved enough money to do it, came to Vancouver, and I thought this is the most that it existed. I thought I’ll spend the winter here and I did. Helen was still married when I met her. So I had left her and, in the middle of that winter in Vancouver, I phoned her and said, “You know I think we’re both crazy. I think we should come here.” And so she did, for a holiday, a 45-year holiday.
It was Helen who said we’ve got to become Canadian citizens. She was much more political than I, and it really bugged her not to be able to vote. And she said if we’re going to stay here we’re going to have to start participating in the whole system. And I agreed with her. It wasn’t as high up on the agenda for me as it was for her. But the only trouble she had was she thought her mother would have a fit because her mother was an American patriot. Her mother died and she got her citizenship right after that. For me, my great-grandparents came from Canada on one side, so my mother said, “Well, you’re going home.”
Is there anything you want to add? Anything you would ask yourself if you were interviewing yourself?
JANE RULE: There are things that still occur to me that I want to say, and that’s why I write essays. But they’re almost always in response to a particular circumstance, like gay marriage or Canadian writers, about which I just wrote an article. Our top writers in Canada are women and almost all of them are mothers . This is a very extraordinary thing when you think of the great women writers of the past—very few of them had children. I talked about what it was like for them compared to what it was like for me. Constant condescension and putdowns, and then all of the pressure on them because writing doesn’t pay money and in fact they would have to pay money to have their kids looked after while they wrote.
That they persevered and became internationally known and beloved writers changed the climate of fiction. [ Jane Rule’s article “A Tribute to Literary Mothers” was published in the Spring 2006 issue of Herizons. It is reposted at the end of this interview]
Sometimes I’ll write a personal essay because I’m trying to figure out what I think and feel about something. One of the issues for me is dealing with grief. I’ve tried to write something about that because people talk very conventionally about grief, if they talk at all. They don’t deal with the amount of anger about it, they don’t deal with the sense of isolation. I feel as if by now—I’m almost seven years into [losing Helen]—I’m beginning to get the hang of it. I think for each person it’s different, but for someone to be free to say, “I feel so angry to have been left like this,” that’s not something you say. I remember when my father died I was just outraged. He was my father, he had no right to do that. And when you get to be in your 60s and haven’t lost a parent, you begin to think you’re going to get away with it. It took me three years to deal with that because I couldn’t talk with anybody about it. It was idiotic. I knew it was a six-year-old response, not a 60-year-old one.
To try to figure out what it was, finally three years after my father died, I wrote an essay called “I Want to Speak Ill of the Dead.” It was the first time that I was really confronting the fact that I was mortal. That was part of it.
You told a story earlier today about a young child who came up to you, looked you straight in the eyes and said, “Your partner died.” I think there’s some of that we adults need to get back to, whether it’s a six-year-old response or not.
JANE RULE: It’s a great relief to have someone acknowledge that this is a huge part of who you are. I can remember for two years after Helen died, I couldn’t imagine why anyone came here. There was nobody here. And people would say, “I can feel Helen everywhere.” I can feel her nowhere. And you know, that’s not the polite thing to say. People are thinking they’re comforting you. There’s just this vast emptiness in your life and you have to learn to deal with that. Everybody does. It’s very common. But it’s not something we talk about.
And we don’t have permission to deal with it. My mother said, from the time we were young, “Grief is self-pity; get over it.” Of course she grew up going to funerals for a lot of people that everybody hated with everyone being pious and phony.
Neither of my parents allowed any kind of funeral, any kind of burial, any kind of marking of where their ashes were—nothing.
So when Helen died and the island wanted a memorial service, I thought, “I can’t cope with this.” But I knew I didn’t own her and the island needed to say goodbye. It was a wonderful experience.
Did you participate?
JANE RULE: I went. I didn’t speak. And it was just extraordinary. I had thought, endure, just get through it, the island has to do it. It was nothing that I was needing or wanting. And my niece said she didn’t know that she could bear it, either, so I said, “We’ve done a hell of a lot of hard things for Helen in the last weeks, and this is one that we’ll get through.”
And it turned out to be amazing for both of us. It was like bringing Helen home. After all those weeks in the hospital, with all of those hostile, angry, stupid nurses, Helen was home again with the people who loved her and took delight in her. Twelve-year-olds spoke, asked to speak. It was just extraordinary.
That’s what family is.
JANE RULE: Yes, yes.
Do you still speak with Helen?
JANE RULE: No. She’s not there.
Spring 2006 Herizons Archives
A Tribute to Literary Mothers
by Jane Rule
Most of the great women writers of the past were childless. Not only obvious lesbians like Gertrude Stein and Radclyffe Hall, and spinsters like Jane Austen and the Brontes, but George Eliot, George Sands, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Virginia Woolf. All for various reasons avoided motherhood.
Since the 1950s, a remarkable number of the best known writers of Canada have been women, and the great majority of them have also been mothers. Margaret Atwood, Marian Engel, Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, Carol Shields and Audrey Thomas come quickly to mind.
All have had long, productive careers. Aside from Margaret Atwood, who had her daughter after she had established herself as a writer, the others were all contending with small children at the same time they were serving their apprenticeships as writers—Marian Engel with twins, Audrey Thomas and Alice Munro with three daughters each, Carol Shields with five children.
These post-World War II women did not grow up expecting to have it all: marriage, children and a career. At most, they probably expected to work at part-time jobs until their husbands were better established and the babies began to arrive. Writing was not a practical way of increasing family income.
In fact, it cost money to write. Someone else had to mind the children, in daycare or at home, if a woman were to have any time alone at her desk or the kitchen table. Publishing a poem or a short story might boost the morale of a beginning writer, but it certainly would not practically justify the investment of time.
Writing was an expensive, self-indulgent habit, fostered guiltily in the early morning, late at night or in snatches during the day as children got older.
For those whose marriages survived such selfish, self-indulgent behaviour, aids that other writers depended on, like Canada Council grants and part-time teaching, were harder to come by. What does a married woman need with government support or a job, when she has a husband to pay the bills? For those who found themselves single parents, the Canada Council might be more generous, but jobs were harder to come by, for many bosses were unwilling to hire women whose sick children might get in the way of work.
I had been given two Canada Council grants before Margaret Laurence got her first. I was offered tenure in the Writing Department at the University of British Columbia, where Audrey Thomas had been refused a job because she had children. She was apparently supposed to stay home with them, even if she couldn’t feed them.
Against these odds, all of these women did begin to publish, but they were reviewed less widely than their male counterparts. And the public readings and publicity tours which were established were often out of reach for them because of their children. When they were reviewed or interviewed, they were often referred to not as “writers” but as “housewives” with a hobby.
Or, their femininity was called into question. Margaret Laurence’s most disliked caption under her photograph was “mannish but motherly.” Earlier in her career, Margaret Atwood said she wouldn’t be interviewed at home or asked personal questions, because the first one would be: “When is Graeme leaving you?”
It was bad enough to scribble at home, a vice like secretly gorging on chocolate, but to publish was to confess openly that you routinely neglected your family for the vanity of public attention. For what most writers earned, no one could be accused of material greed.
Against charges of being castrators, child abusers or vain delusionaries, these women, these wives and mothers, along with dozens of others, have persisted— while also carrying the burden of all artists in a country where there is only room at the top for the few survivors. They have become among the most loved and appreciated writers, not only in Canada, but in the English-speaking world, honoured by awards, honourary degrees, Orders of Canada. Their work is taught in schools and universities. They are household names, inspirations to generations of women coming after them, showing that, yes, it is possible to do it all. But not without a terrible price, some would say: a failed marriage, a drinking problem, a child burdened with a famous parent.
Success is costly, and often not in ways that can be anticipated, or easily paid for. But failure is, too, and the world, so much the richer for its artists, is also poorer for those whose voices and visions were silenced by its bigoted inhospitality to their dreams.
In a time of cutbacks to services for women and children, and for the arts, the difficulties faced by young mothers today who also want to write are enormous. But they do have, as generations before them didn’t, literary mothers who have been mothers themselves and have given us a literature richer for that experience. They have transcended or changed the meaning of women’s literature.
Canada’s voice in world literature is, as often as not, a woman’s voice, a mother’s voice, now being joined by the voices of women around the world.