It’s easy to forget when you’re reading Desert of the Heart, by American-turned-Canadian author Jane Rule, that it was actually published in 1964. But it is essential to remember, because it’s astonishing, really, that this kind of lesbian novel was even published (in hardcover no less) at a time when cheap paperback lesbian pulp novels—with appropriately depressing endings—were the only kind of contemporary books available with queer women’s content. It’s not only that the novel doesn’t condemn either of the women for their desires, although that is significant; it’s that Desert of the Heart presents a startlingly psychologically complex reading of a lesbian relationship. Rule, who passed away in 2007, should really be heralded as one of the key lesbian writers who paved the way for and began what we currently call queer women’s literature.
Evelyn and Ann are the two lovers at the centre of the story, but that is much too simple a description of their relationship. When they first meet, they and others are shocked at their uncanny physical resemblance; for Evelyn, Ann’s face is “a memory.” Evelyn, however, is fifteen years Ann’s senior, and so is almost old enough to be Ann’s mother. Given that Evelyn is in the midst of ridding herself of a childless marriage and Ann lost her mother at a young age, there’s a distinct Freudian something-or-other going on here. Rule could easily have reduced their relationship to this mother/child dynamic, and followed a familiar pulp narrative by having Ann ‘cured’ of her mother issues via her relationship with Evelyn and move on to proper hetero marriage.
Instead, what the novel does is profoundly engage with the idea that eroticism is present in many different kinds of relationships: Evelyn tells Ann early on that “no relationship is without erotic feeling.” She tells Ann this, as if to diminish the charge between them while trying to acknowledge it. Ann is “the child [Evelyn] always wanted, the friend she had once had, the lover she had never considered.” Evelyn’s desire for her is not despite the intricate connections between them, but precisely because of these connections. Ann’s motivations are also complex: at first she sees Evelyn as a kind of conquest, until she realizes that Evelyn really wants her too; Ann is then astonished to discover that she actually loves Evelyn.
The novel also has quite an interesting, and might I say queer, take on sexual identity: both Evelyn and Ann have had relationships with men previous to their lesbian affair, but it’s unclear exactly how they conceive of their sexualities. Evelyn mentions “latent homosexuality” when prodded by Ann to tell her why she has fallen in love with the younger woman but she has never had a relationship with a woman before. Rule does give us a glimpse of a distinctly homoerotic relationship Evelyn had with her friend Carol while their husbands were away during the Second World War (this is the “friend she had once had” that Ann becomes). Ann has had affairs with men and women, including her friend and co-worker Silver (who marries a man near the end of the novel), but has rejected the idea of commitment and attachment with anyone. The novel is actually uninterested in the women’s identifications,; rather, it is fixed on their current desires.
There’s a fascinating and essential context to keep in mind while reading Desert of the Heart: getting a divorce in the late 50s (when the novel is set) was quite complicated. From the 1930s until the 60s, Nevada, and Reno in particular, were known as the divorce capital of the U.S., because it was so difficult and time-consuming to obtain a divorce in other states. There was actually a divorce trade, and accommodating and entertaining hopeful divorcees become a legitimate industry in Nevada. Evelyn, an English professor from California, has merely to spend six weeks staying in the state, assert her ‘intention’ to remain there, and her divorce is processed. Ann and Evelyn meet in this loose but liberating place, at Ann’s stepmother’s divorce ranch; Ann is a ‘change girl’ at a casino, but also a talented cartoonist. The bare, threatening, and sublime landscape of the desert and the soulless but mesmerizing activity of gambling play key roles in setting the tone of Ann and Evelyn’s romance. Their courtship, if you could call it that, consists of philosophical discussions such as:
“Accept damnation,” Ann said. “It has its power and its charm. And it’s real.”
“So we should all get jobs in gambling casinos.”
“We all do,” Ann said, her voice amused. “What do you think the University of California is? The only difference is that it has to be subsidized.”
“Are you talking nonsense on purpose?”
“No, I’m serious.”
“You think nothing has any value?”
“No, I think everything has value, absolute value, a child, a house, a day’s work, the sky. But nothing will save us. We were never meant to be saved.”
“What were we meant for then?”
“To love the whole damned world,” Ann said, delighted.
“ ‘In the destructive element immerse.’ Perhaps there’s some truth in it. I might learn. I don’t know. I’m old to learn. And I’m not sure I’d like a world without guilt or goodness. It might seem very empty.”
“Like the desert?”
“Yes,” Evelyn said.
Secondary characters such as Ann’s stepmother Frances and her son Walter are both surprisingly queer-friendly; when Walter hears that Ann’s ex and boss Bill is threatened enough about Ann and Evelyn’s relationship to threaten going to Evelyn’s ex-husband’s lawyer, he pulls out the knightly armour and goes to confront him. Frances tells Ann of Bill’s potentially deadly plan, with qualms not about the fact that Evelyn and Ann are lovers, but about how a nasty court case could hurt them both. This is a far cry from the Frances in the film version—which is beautiful but substantially different from the book—who actually kicks Evelyn out of the ranch after finding out about her and Ann’s relationship. This is only one of many significant changes made in the film version Desert Hearts, which presents a much more conventional, sentimental love story; if you think that you don’t need to read the book because you’ve seen the film, or are worried it would be too repetitive, I would definitely urge you to pick up the novel. Desert Hearts even changes the first names of the main characters, while still retaining a similar feel: Evelyn becomes Vivian, Ann becomes Cay.
Desert of the Heart is a beautifully understated novel with a quiet power. I’ve written about Rule’s writing style at length in my review of Memory Board, and I have to say while I still feel frustrated sometimes at her emotional distance, her voice is definitely growing on me. I think I have enough of a sense of this pioneering woman and her work to finally dive into her posthumous autobiography Taking My Life.