Women on Women in Love

Strangely enough, until now, Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 The Price of Salt has never had a proper film treatment. Announced at this year’s Cannes festival, the long-waited-for adaptation, directed by John Crowley and starring Cate Blanchett and Mia Wasikowska, will start filming in February 2013. Published under the name Claire Morgan, Highsmith’s second novel is a slow, swoony tale of women in love and on the run in midcentury America: Opaque, orphaned convent girl Therese meets the older, glamorous Carol, a perfect Hitchcock blonde, while working the toy counter during Christmas rush at a New York department store. (Highsmith first saw the real-life Carol as a Bloomingdale’s shopgirl—an intense, wordless encounter that was followed by high fever, chicken pox, and the germ of the novel.)

Too meandering to be pulp, the hard-to-classify The Price of Salt lacks the clammy human ugliness that makes much of Highsmith unbearable for the overly empathetic. Beyond the glitter of Ripley, her themes of small-time guilt, obsession, and surveillance give a dominant feeling of moist-handed men eating salami in sad apartments. Here, Highsmith broke free, gaining the purity of the highway and a vision of Carol, gambling on the side of the road in her moccasins against the private detective and a world that would hound her from her happiness. Although the book wasn’t issued under Highsmith’s own name until 1990 (retitled Carol), it’s comforting to think that the young author—who had just published Strangers on a Train, who was undergoing psychotherapy in an attempt to get herself married to the writer Marc Brandel, and who would know no happy love affairs—could write something so (mostly) sweet-tempered, a heroic romance with a famous end refrain: “It would be Carol, in a thousand cities, a thousand houses, in foreign lands where they would go together, in heaven and in hell.” In honor of Highsmith’s heroines, here’s a look back at some other women who, in early years, in other lands, went together.

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

The twentieth century’s founding lesbian novel overcame a 1928 obscenity trial in England to find a readership as “the strange love story of a girl who stood midway between the sexes,” back when homosexuals were called “inverts” and diagnosed using texts like Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis. Hall gives us the life of Stephen, from her birth as a “narrow-hipped, wide-shouldered” babe delivered of a virginal mother on a Victorian English estate to the dissolution of her great love among the gay underground in Paris, where those with “the mark of Cain” gather, “like to like.” Maudlin and overwritten, with singing birds, sympathetic horses, and no aversion to stereotype, the book still captures the tragedy of a society that will destroy all that’s best in its people.

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

A boat ride away from the earnest shores of most lesbian lit, Bowles’s 1943 work and only novel is a high-modernist take on unhappy women drinking gin and eating avocados: A New York spinster picks up a woman she seems to hate (plus other loser guests) and decamps to a house on an island; another descends into Panama with her husband and falls in with a prostitute. “Don’t let the word ‘jungle’ frighten you,” Bowles writes. “After all it only means tropical forest.”

The Illusionist by Françoise Mallet-Joris

Like The Price of Salt, The Illusionist, by a Franco-Belgian nineteen year-old, was published in 1952, but in a culture where the young girl/older woman relationship was apparently so routine as not to be considered lesbian at all. Another distinction: Not exactly fatherless (while in Disney movies, fatherless girls grow up to be princesses, in literature, they become lesbians), schoolgirl Hélène cuckolds her provincial but good-hearted papa with the Sadean Russian emigre who would become her stepmother.

Beebo (and Her Sisters)

The ’50s were the golden age of Lesbian pulp fiction (yes, with a capital L, as the word appeared in much of the canon). 1952’s Spring Fire, the first pulp with a purely lesbian story, sold nearly 1.5 million copies in its first printing (author Marijane Meaker also wrote a journalistic series on urban lesbian life, including the intriguing title Take a Lesbian to Lunch, and a memoir of her relationship with Highsmith called Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s). Spring Fire’s lovers, two Tri Epsilon “sisters” at the fictional Cranston U., met classic pulp fates: Green-eyed she-devil Leda goes mad, and the innocent, Mitch, is preserved for heterosexuality. The sorority was also the starting point for Ann Bannon’s celebrated series, which introduced characters like young pledge Laura, the odd girl out in Odd Girl Out, who goes in search of comfort and identity in the Village, where all roads lead to Beebo. The final book, Beebo Brinker, is a prequel of sorts, an urtext of the origins of the LGBT Holly Golightly: Betty Jean/Beebo, a tall, lost Wisconsin farm girl who arrives in the city and grows into the archetypal butch, known by the pants she dons as an elevator boy and pizza deliveryman.

Patience & Sarah by Alma Routsong

Self-printed in 1969 and a well-loved underground classic, Patience & Sarah, inspired by the lives of early-nineteenth-century folk painter Mary Ann Willson and her “farmerette” companion, is a half-spicy, half-soothing picaresque of lesbians on the prairie. (The Village Voice review upon the book’s release compared it to “spiked gingerbread or surprising samplers.”) Its women fought fiercely for a home when everything was frontier: the land, the radical new love (with nothing to reference, they make up their own terms for their acts and sensations), and, realistically, the terrifying vagaries of sexual desire.

The Female Man by Joanna Russ

In Russ’s hilarious, brave 1975 masterwork of feminist sci-fi, four women—genetic counterparts from variant worlds—stumble through sex, murder, anger, desperation, cocktail parties, and probability mechanics-fueled transport to end up sharing Thanksgiving dinner at Schrafft’s, “where the secret maintenance work of femininity is carried on.” Why the revolution? Russ, writing in second-wave feminism’s early days, was responding to the limits of even Ursula K. Le Guin’s hermaphroditic fictions, not to mention a general worldview that occasioned such thoughts as this, from The Female Man: “His contribution is Make me feel good; her contribution is Make me exist.” Or this one, from a character’s painfully tentative sex scene with a precocious 17-year-old (the sort of girl made for men’s shirts and autumn lawns): “I felt the pressure of her hip-bone along my belly, and being very muddled and high, thought: She’s got an erection. Dreadful. Dreadful embarrassment. One of us had to be male and it certainly wasn’t me.”

Small g: A Summer Idyll by Patricia Highsmith

How to read Highsmith’s last novel, published after her death in 1995? Set in and around a Zurich bar called Jakob’s—categorized with a “small g” in the guidebooks, “meaning a partially gay clientele but not entirely”—this roughshod work has a soap-operatic, slow-burning warmth. The cast: A beautiful young man murdered in the opening pages; his aging lover, given a false HIV diagnosis by his doctor; the homophobic couturier who enslaves her apprentice, who has run away from a sexually abusive stepfather. This was Highsmith in a loose but very specific mode (kind of Northern Europe The Real World spun with Grimms’ Fairy Tales, village idiot intact). Still, for the woman who gave Therese and Carol a chance, then spent the next few decades writing from within her own cheerless depths, Small g—with its vision of sexual fluidity, acceptance, hope, even happiness—is not a bad endnote.

Phyllis Fong is a writer based in Texas and New York.