This is not the sort of book that I normally read and it didn’t hold my attention but I was glad to read it, because our group chose it, as something different to broaden my horizons.
It is more about falling in love than about having sex.
The opening scene, where they meet in the department store, is ‘quite electric’, said one member.
The detached and sparse way in which she writes, said another, translates well into film.
The writer, who normally writes crime novels, couldn’t hold back the sense of threat, always making is feel on edge.
The moving, vivid road trip made one member get out his atlas to follow the route.
The power dynamics change as Therese grows in confidence. We get a hint of this early on when Carol discovers that she isn’t just a shop assistant but she does set design.
Compare this with the depressing The Well of Loneliness which was written 23 years earlier. Here we get a happy ending, which was still unusual for its time. It covers ground that hasn’t been dealt with much before and the women wouldn’t know how to make the moves.
We see the murky world of private detectives which was so much to the fore in those days. Also, who gets custody of the children – than still happens now, as does the notion many men have that this is just a ‘phase’.
This was written back in 1952 under a different title and a pseudonym, The price of Salt.
“She tried to keep her voice steady, but it was pretense, like pretending self-control when something you loved was dead in front of your eyes. They would have to separate here.”
“It was easy, after all, simply to open the door and escape. It was easy, she thought, because she was not really escaping at all.”
“I think friendships are the result of certain needs that can be completely hidden from both people, sometimes hidden forever.”
“Carol raised her hand slowly and brushed her hair back, once on either side, and Therese smiled because the gesture was Carol, and it was Carol she loved and would always love. Oh, in a different way now, because she was a different person, and it was like meeting Carol all over again, but it was still Carol and no one else. It would be Carol, in a thousand cities, a thousand houses, in foreign lands where they would go together, in heaven and in hell.”
“She was conscious of the moments passing like irrevocable time, irrevocable happiness, for in these last seconds she might turn and see the face she would never see again.”
“My little orphan,” Carol said.
Therese smiled. There was nothing dismal, no sting in the word when Carol said it.”
“Don’t you know I love you?’ Carol said.”
“Kick me out, she thought. What was in or out? How did one kick out an emotion?”
“She knew what bothered her at the store. It was the sort of thing she wouldn’t try to tell Richard. It was that the store intensified things that had always bothered her, as long as she could remember. It was the waste actions, the meaningless chores that seemed to keep her from doing what she wanted to do, might have done—and here it was the complicated procedures with money bags, coat checkings, and time clocks that kept people even from serving the store as efficiently as they might—the sense that everyone was incommunicado with everyone else and living on an entirely wrong plane, so that the meaning, the message, the love, or whatever it was that each life contained, never could find its expression. It reminded her of conversations at tables, on sofas, with people whose words seemed to hover over dead, unstirrable things, who never touched a string that played. And when one tried to touch a live string, looked at one with faces as masked as ever, making a remark so perfect in its banality that one could not even believe it might be subterfuge. And the loneliness, augmented by the fact one saw within the store the same faces day after day, the few faces one might have spoken to and never did, or never could. Not like the face on the passing bus that seems to speak, that is seen once and at least is gone forever.”
“Therese had read about that special pleasure people got from the fact that someone they loved was attractive in the eyes of other people, too. She simply didn’t have it.”
“Then Carol slipped her arm under her neck, and all the length of their bodies touched fitting as if something had prearranged it. Happiness was like a green vine spreading through her, stretching fine tendrils, bearing flowers through her flesh. She had a vision of a pale white flower, shimmering as if seen in darkness, or through water. Why did people talk of heaven, she wondered”
“Carol looked at her, as if really seeing her for the first time that evening, and under her eyes that went from her face to her hands in her lap, Therese felt like a puppy Carol had bought at a roadside kennel, that Carol had just remembered was riding beside her.”
“She envied him. She envied him his faith there would always be a place, a home, a job, someone else for him. She envied him that attitude.”
“One’s just supposed to conform. I know what they’d like, they’d like a blank they could fill in. A person already filled in disturbs them terribly.”
“It was the pointless actions, the meaningless chores that seemed to keep her from doing what she wanted to do, might have done – and here it was the complicated procedures with moneybags, coat checkings, and time clocks that kept people even from serving the store as efficiently as they might – the sense that everyone was incommunicado with everyone else and living on an entirely wrong plane, so that the meaning, the message, the love, or whatever it was that each life contained, never could find its expression. It reminded her of conversations at tables, on sofas, with people whose words seemed to hover over dead, unstirrable things, who never touched a string that played. And when one tried to touch a live string, looked at one with faces as masked as ever, making a remark so perfect in its banality that one could not even believe it might be subterfuge. And the loneliness, augmented by the fact one saw within the store the same faces day after day, the few faces one might have spoken to and never did, or never could. Not like the face on the passing bus that seems to speak, that is seen once and at least is gone for ever. She”
“The headwaiter said something to her in the foyer, and she told him, “I’m looking for somebody,” and went on to the doorway. She stood in the doorway, looking over the people at the tables in the room where a piano played.”
“How indifferent he was to Carol after, all, Therese thought. She felt he didn’t see her, as he sometimes hadn’t seen figures in rock or cloud formations when she had tried to point them out to him.”
“What was it to love someone, what was love exactly, and why did it end or not end? Those were the real questions, and who could answer them.”
“Finally, Carol said in a tone of hopelessness, “Darling, can I ask you to forgive me?”
The tone hurt Therese more than the question. “I love you, Carol.”
“But do you see what it means?”
“Though all we have known is only a beginning.”
“and wished with all her power to wish anything, that the woman would simply continue her last words and say, “Are you really so glad to have met me? Then why can’t we see each other again? Why can’t we even have lunch together today?” Her voice was so casual, and she might have said it so easily.”
“When she stood up, the woman was looking at her with the calm gray eyes that Therese could neither quite face nor look away from.”
“Was life, were human relations like this always, Therese wondered. Never solid ground underfoot. Always like gravel, a little yielding, noisy so the whole world could hear, so one always listened, too, for the loud, harsh step of the intruder’s foot.”
“She envied him. She envied him his faith that there would always be a place, a home, a job, someone else for him. She envied him that attitude. She almost resented his having it.”
“world comes to realize what I felt going up the hill, then there’ll be a kind of right economy of living and of using and using up. Do you know what I mean?” Dannie had clenched his fist, but his eyes were bright as if he still laughed at himself. “Did you ever wear out a sweater”
The Daily Telegraph gives some background.
When Highsmith’s book was published in 1952, it was considered to be one of the first novels with a gay theme that had a happy ending. At the time, homosexuals in fiction, Highsmith wrote, “had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality … or by collapsing – alone and miserable and shunned – into a depression equal to hell.”
Highsmith – who was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921, and also wrote The Talented Mr Ripley (published 1955) – took many of the novel’s key elements from her own life. In December 1948, two years before the publication of her first novel, Strangers on a Train, the writer found herself so hard up she had to take a temporary job in the toy department of Bloomingdale’s (the model for the depressing fictional department store Frankenberg’s).
One day, a stunning older woman dressed in a mink coat walked into the shop and bought a doll for one of her daughters, leaving behind her name and delivery details. That night, in a white heat of inspiration, Highsmith went home and wrote out the plot for the novel.
“I see her the same instant she sees me, and instantly, I love her,” she wrote in her journal. “Instantly, I am terrified, because I know she knows I am terrified and that I love her.”
As she worked on the novel, she relived one of her most passionate love affairs, with the wealthy American socialite Virginia Kent Catherwood, whom she had first met in New York in 1944. The daughter of A. Atwater Kent, the inventor and radio manufacturer, Virginia had led a gilded life of finishing schools and high society parties. Her debutante ball, in December 1933, was said to be the most lavish party
Philadelphia had seen since since the Depression. Her wedding to the rich banker Cummins Catherwood in Bryn Mawr was extensively covered by the newspapers, and on return from honeymoon the couple lived in a 20-room mansion equipped with garaging for four cars and a swimming pool. Although the couple had a daughter, the romance was short lived, and they divorced in April 1941.
It seems Cummins discovered – and was appalled by – his wife’s homosexuality. As Ann Clark, one of Highsmith’s other lovers, wrote to me when I was researching my biography, “Pat only told me the story once, but apparently Virginia lost custody of her child after a recording made in a hotel room and exposing a lesbian affair was played in court. Of course there is something of this tale in The Price of Salt.”
Indeed, as Highsmith wrote the book, she became increasingly anxious there were too many parallels between Virginia and the character Carol Aird. “I worry that Ginnie may feel Carol’s case too similar to her own,” she noted in her diary in 1950.
Highsmith’s relationship with Virginia only lasted for a year, between 1946 and 1947, but the liaison was intense. The rich, glamorous woman gave her a “oneness” and a “timelessness” that allowed her to enter into a fertile state of creativity, she said. She was, Highsmith wrote in her journals, the “other half of the universe”, and “together we make a whole.”
However, when the relationship broke down – Virginia was an even heavier drinker than Pat and would sometimes attack her with her fists – Highsmith was left feeling psychologically disturbed. “I am troubled by a sense of being several people,” she wrote. “Should not be at all surprised if I become a dangerous schizophrenic in my middle years.”
For six months from November 1948, Highsmith underwent a course of therapy to “get myself into a condition to be married,” as she had started a relationship with the novelist Marc Brandel, son of the British writer John Davys Beresford. The therapy – destined to failure – cost $30 a week, about half the total she was earning from her job penning comic books, and so she had to take a position at Bloomingdale’s in New York.
It was here that Highsmith glimpsed a glamorous married woman, Kathleen Senn, who also inspired the character of Carol. The writer became so obsessed with this mysterious figure that she took a train out to the woman’s house in New Jersey. “For the curious thing yesterday, I felt quite close to murder too,” she wrote, “as I went to see the woman who almost made me love her when I saw her a moment in December, 1948.”
In June 1949, after the breakdown of the relationship with Brandel, Highsmith travelled to Europe to stay at the London home of her British publisher Dennis Cohen, founder of the Cresset Press. Here, Pat fell in love with Dennis’s beautiful wife, Kathryn, who worked as a doctor at St George’s Hospital. Sophisticated and intelligent, Kathryn had been born in America and had worked both as an actress and, briefly, as Aneurin Bevan’s secretary.
During a two-week stay at the Cohens’ house in Old Church Street, Chelsea, Highsmith confessed to her about her tumultuous emotional life and her perceived hormonal problems. “If you were added up,” Kathryn told her, “I think you’d have a little more on the male side – from your reactions to men I mean.”
From London, Highsmith travelled to Paris, and then Italy, from where she wired Kathryn begging for her to join her. The two women met in Naples in September 1949, where they embarked on a short affair. “I feel I am in love with her, really,” Highsmith wrote in her diary after she had returned to America, “as I have not been with anyone, anything like this, since Ginnie.” The relationship, she knew, was doomed – Kathryn returned to her husband, and later, in early 1960, the 54-year-old woman killed herself by taking an overdose of barbiturates.
Suicide and premature death haunted Highsmith’s life like a dark spectre. One lover, Allela Cornell, drank nitric acid, suffering a long and painful death in 1946. In 1953, Highsmith left another lover, Ellen Hill, to attempt suicide after a blazing row (Hill lapsed into a coma but survived).
Following sporadic treatment for her alcoholism, Virginia Kent Catherwood died in 1966 at the age of 51. And, perhaps most poignantly of all, Kathleen Senn – the woman whom Highsmith glimpsed in Bloomingdale’s – killed herself by carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage of her home in October 1951.
Initially, Highsmith envisioned the ending of The Price of Salt to be tragic, with Therese and Carol parting and leading separate lives. But then she showed her agent a more positive version and was persuaded to go with the alternative, in which the women get back together.
Highsmith was conscious of the irony that, while in fiction she could imagine a positive ending for her characters, in real life she had no such luck herself. As she wrote in her diary in early 1951, “Oh, I write a book with a happy ending, but what happens when I find the right person?”
The author – who died in 1995, at the age of 74 – continued to enjoy relationships with a number of women, some of whom were married, throughout her life. Yet these liaisons were defined as much by their underlying tensions and sense of psychological unease as by their passions. “O who am I?” she wrote in her notebook in 1951. “Reflections only in the eyes of those who love me.”