Tereska Torrès will be probably be remembered as the world's first lesbian pulp novelist, though as Torrès was always the first to point out, she had no intention of earning that reputation. Born in Paris in 1920, Torrès served with the Free French forces in London during the Second World War and fictionalized her experience in the 1950 novel Women's Barracks. Though she went on to write fourteen more books before her death last week, Women's Barracks became a cult classic for its campy homoeroticism and since its publication has sold over 4 million copies in the US alone. ("If you look at Women's Barracks, there are five main characters," Torrès complained to the Independent in 2010. "Only one and a half of them can be considered lesbian.") The book was reprinted in 2005 by the Feminist Press (which also just re-released her 1963 novel By Cècile) and thanks to them, an excerpt from the book is available below. While Torrès was surprised by the book's reception, she wasn't surprised by its success: As she says in the novel's foreword, "the story will be interesting to Americans because we were a barracksful of Frenchwomen in exile, and it seems that Frenchwomen have a great deal of allure abroad."
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THE ALERT SOUNDED PRECISELY AT SIX O’CLOCK, AS it did every night. No one had gone out that evening. It was our first day, and we were busy arranging our things, and besides, very few of us knew anyone in London. In the evening, a second group of a dozen women arrived, and we “old ones” experienced a certain feeling of superiority.
We were already forming little groups among ourselves. The silken Jacqueline, noisy Mickey, and little Ursula were in my dormitory, and from the first we were somehow drawn together. The reason came out, perhaps, when a young woman with a large full mouth and an absolutely round face approached our little group, and standing facing us asked, without any preliminaries, whether we were virgins. Mickey began to laugh. Jacqueline assumed a haughty, offended air. Ursula simply blushed and said yes. On the instant, our dormitory was baptized “The Virgins’ Room”—though the young woman who had asked the question could obviously not be included in that category. Her name was Ginette, and she informed us that she was a salesgirl and a divorcee. She undressed, promenading naked among the cots, and declared to Jacqueline, “You know, the best thing about my face is my legs.” It was true that she had pretty legs.
Presently Ginette held up a pair of the regulation khaki panties they had handed out to us. “Just look at that! What a monstrosity! How can I expect to get a lover with that?” And on the spot, Ginette brought out a pair of scissors and a needle and thread, and began to turn the panties into briefs. At once, the rest of us followed her example. Each of us remade the regulation underwear.
A bomb fell not far away; then there was a crash of breaking glass. Mickey, sitting at the foot of her bed, was putting curl- ers in her hair. A woman who was a hairdresser in civilian life came over to help her, and then the hairdresser began to discuss Ursula’s coiffure. She declared that Ursula ought to have her hair done up in curls, to make her look a little more mature. An argument began. Jacqueline wanted Ursula’s hair put up in a bun, to make her look sophisticated, and Mickey was all for having it in short curly clusters, to make her look boyish. But Ursula rejected all of our suggestions, holding her head in her two hands as though to keep us from tearing out her hair.
At nine-thirty the corporal came to put out the lights. As soon as the door was closed, Ginette turned them on again.
Mickey, in pajamas, began teaching Ursula a dance step. Jacqueline was writing a letter, on monogrammed stationery; one of the girls was growling from under her covers that she wanted to sleep.
I could see that Ursula was beginning to feel a kind of warmth and security in the room with all these new friends—a warmth, I learned later, that she had never known in her life before. After all, the room was bright and filled with human sounds, and all these girls were like big sisters busying them- selves with her. Outside, there was night, exile, bombardment, a foreign city bathed in fog and rain. Here people spoke French, laughed and worked together, and it was as though everybody had always known each other.
Mickey told her, “As soon as I heard General de Gaulle’s appeal, I wanted to enlist. I’m so proud of being French, and I adore De Gaulle! I saw him once in a parade.”
“What’s he like?” Ursula asked.
“Oh, he’s marvelous—very tall, and he looks awfully serious and sad.”
Ginette spoke up. “I crossed over the Pyrenees on foot, and I got myself pinched in Spain. I told them I was a Canadian. I was with a man, an American, a good-looking fellow. He made love like a stick, but I liked him well enough. He’s in America now. He’s going to send me silk stockings and lipstick.”
“You’re lucky,” sighed Mickey, puckering her little nose.
Jacqueline raised her head, pausing in her writing to mutter something about women who permitted themselves to be kept. But Jacqueline’s lofty attitude didn’t annoy Ginette, who was now busy tailoring the jacket of her uniform, making it over to her measure, with the help of the former hairdresser. Somehow, I felt, nothing could annoy Ginette.
The door opened again, and the face of the corporal appeared, pinched and angry. She was about to shout something when she noticed Mickey, who had her scissors in one hand and her khaki drawers in the other. The corporal glared at her. Then she announced icily, “If I see the lights burning in this room once more after lights out, the whole lot of you will stand punish- ment.” She snapped out the light and slammed the door.
Ginette, who was caught in the middle of the room, cursed because she couldn’t find her bed. The woman who had wanted to sleep grunted that at last there was justice. Jacqueline and Mickey gossiped from their beds.
Over the house, all night long, we could hear the growling of planes.
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Courtesy of the Feminist Press