Jane Rule (1931-2007) and me
I’m sorry to say I never met Jane Rule.
I knew about her, of course; she was in the media spotlight now and then, particularly in the 1970s when I was coming of age. I wanted to look for her books at the library but was afraid her high public profile made asking for—or worse, being seen reading—them feel like some big public announcement I wasn’t ready to make.
Jane Rule wasn’t in the spotlight just because she was a writer, but particularly so because she was a lesbian writer.
Her novel “Desert of the Heart" was rejected by 22 publishers before it was finally accepted and released in 1964. The movie adaptation called “Desert Hearts” was made 21 years after that.
She went on to write many more novels of course, as well as non-fiction, short stories and columns.
But when I became a teenager in 1973 I was more into books like Radclyffe Hall’s “The Well of Loneliness”, which requisite tragic ending probably allowed it to be published in the first place. (I wish I could remember by what subterfuge I managed to find and surreptitiously read this novel.)
When in 1974 came “Portrait of A Marriage”, by Nigel Nicolson, I gobbled it up. No one had to know I wasn’t reading it solely for its historical interest. It’s a memoir about Nicholson’s parents’ relationship and their love affairs, kept secret from the outside world but not from each other. Vita Sackville-West would fall deeply in love with women, among them Violet Trefusis and later, Virginia Woolf, while her husband Harold Nicolson had many male lovers as he sailed through a brilliant career in politics and diplomacy. Vita and Harold also created what is arguably the most beautiful garden in England at Sissinghurst, in Kent, today preserved by the National Trust.
But I digress.
Portrait of a Marriage got me interested enough to learn more about Vita and Harold, first to find and read, then to eventually purchase all published volumes of Harold Nicolson’s diaries. I relished the elegance of his writing style. But I was less interested in Harold’s lovers than I was in Vita’s, which pursuit brought me to Virginia Woolf. Virginia introduced me to the Bloomsbury Group, whose members included Duncan Grant, Clive and Vanessa Bell, Maynard Keynes, and the biographer extraordinaire, Lytton Strachey. I began to collect works by and about all these people.
A few years passed recently during which I made no new acquisitions to my Bloomsbury book collection. Then at a friend’s house I came across one I didn’t have, called “Lytton Strachey by Himself”, a collection of writings including juvenilia edited by Michael Holroyd. I found a used copy online at a surprisingly reasonable price and ordered it from the Victoria, B.C. bookseller. When it arrived in the mail I first opened the invoice, a folded piece of paper which bore a brief description of the book, a list of its shortcomings, as it were: faded back cover, a small tear at the top of the front dust jacket, a faint stain on the inside cover, a bookplate. In other words these four imperfections contributed to the price being low. As any avid reader knows, these were all signs of a book being often handled, much loved. Which to me is where the real value lies.
Curious, I opened the cover and found the bookplate.
“From the library of Jane Rule and Helen Sonthoff”
And there it was. A posthumous gift from someone I never met but who blazed a trail before me, someone who dared in her work to present women loving one another and living fulfilled lives, who validated and empowered a generation of us, whose own 45-year relationship ended with Helen’s death in 2000.
Jane Rule died in 2007, and some time afterwards this book from her library ended up in a second-hand bookshop in Victoria, where it was wrapped up and mailed to me. Now it is in my astonished and grateful hands. Thank you, Jane Rule.