Writer, teacher, cultural nationalist and lesbian role model, Jane Rule died last night of complications from liver cancer at her home on Galiano Island, British Columbia. She was 76.
The author of a dozen books, including the novels Desert of the Heart, This is not for You and Memory Board, and the non-fiction essays Lesbian Images, Ms. Rule brought the idea of women loving women into the quotidian world both in her personal life, which was lived openly for nearly 50 years with her partner Helen Sonthoff, and in her writing.
She explored the conflict between desire and convention and the constriction that fear can extol on intimacy, joyfulness and freedom. Her fiction falls into the category of social realism, but it was always driven by character rather than polemics. Typically an ensemble of homosexual and heterosexual characters interact, often communally, to represent the position of the artist in society or to confront bureaucratic oppression of difference.
As she herself grew older, Ms. Rule became more concerned in her writing about aging and the social webs that single women form as an emotional and physical counterpoint to traditional family networks.
Ms. Rule, who was tall and lanky, wore outsize, often owl-shaped, dark-rimmed glasses and cut her hair in a Louise Brooks' bob. During her lifetime, she was part of two huge social and cultural revolutions: the decriminalization of homosexuality and the international ascendancy of Canadian literature.
When Ms. Rule immigrated to Vancouver in the middle 1950s, the state still had the legal right to intrude into the bedrooms of the nation and consenting adults could be charged under the Criminal Code and imprisoned for five years for engaging in homosexual activity. As for Canadian literature, it barely existed as a subject in schools, a discipline in universities or a vocation for aspiring writers. Novelists and poets, if they had any ambition, offered their work to New York or London publishers.
Although not overtly political, Ms. Rule actively supported the Writers' Union, the gay liberation magazine The Body Politic, where she wrote essays and a regular column, "So's Your Grandmother" from 1979 through 1985, and defended Little Sister's Book and Art Emporium in its 15 year legal dispute with Canadian Customs Officials for regularly impounding shipments of gay and lesbian erotica. She believed ferociously in freedom of expression and the innate ability of ordinary Canadians to define their own literary tastes.
Jane Vance Rule was born on March 28, 1931 in Plainfield, New Jersey, the middle child and elder daughter of Carlotta Jane (née Hink) and Arthur Richards Rule Jr. She was a tomboyish five before she discovered that being a girl had serious drawbacks, six before she realized that being left-handed indicated a school behaviour problem in need of modification, and ten before her myopia was corrected with glasses. She was "entranced" by being able to see "individual leaves on tree," read "assignments on the blackboard" and "judge a teacher's mood by her frown as well as by her tone of voice" and delighted that she could, if she chose to take off her glasses, retreat into "that soft, vague world of the nearsighted where other people's concerns and even identities were blurred."
Gangly and awkward, she grew to her full height of 6 feet by the time she was 12, and suffered in school from a husky voice, dyslexia and from being the perpetual new kid because her parents moved from New Jersey to California, Illinois, Missouri and back to California where the family lived while her father served in the Pacific during the Second World War. At 15, she read Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness and "suddenly discovered that I was a freak, a genetic monster, a member of a third sex..." as she wrote later in Lesbian Images.
She earned a bachelor of arts in English in 1952 from Mills College, "studying the great liars in order to learn to tell the truth...But the curriculum at a women's college in the late 1940s and early 1950s offered very little which could give me any insight into my own life or the world I lived in," she wrote many years later in an autobiographical essay. That fall, she followed a female lover to England where she was "an occasional student" at University College, London, reading Shakespeare and other 17th century writers and working on her first novel. Through lectures and student events, she met and became very close friends with John Hulcoop (the literary critic and professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia), who was doing a doctorate at the UC.
After a year, she went back to the U.S. because she had been admitted to the Writing Department at Stanford University after Wallace Stegner read the draft of her unpublished novel. Even so, she says he asked: "Why is a nice girl like you writing about decadent stuff like this?" She hated "the competitive, commercial atmosphere of the school, the condescending attitude toward women students." After a few months, she quit and went back to her parents' house in California and "marked time" until the fall of 1954 when she accepted a teaching position at Concord Academy, a private girls school in Massachusetts.
At Concord, she met and fell in love with Helen Sonthoff, a creative writing and literature teacher, who was the wife of Herbert Sonthoff, a political dissident who had fled his native Germany for the U.S. in the middle of World War II. Ms. Rule's passion for Ms. Sonthoff and the twitchy times - The Cold War and Senator Joseph McCarthy's virulent anti-Communist witch hunts of the early 1950s made all sorts of people, including gays and lesbians, suspect - combined with the lack of privacy or free time for her own writing made life untenable at Concord Academy.
Meanwhile Mr. Hulcoop had completed his doctorate and accepted a job in the English dept. at UBC. Ms. Rule (then 25) left her job in Concord, moved to Vancouver in the fall of 1956 and began sharing a four room flat with him in the home of a B.C. longshoreman. She spent her days working on fiction at a roll top oak desk in a room with a view of the sea and the mountains and supplemented her "otherwise frugal fare" with bounty, "from coffee and tea to caviar and rock lobster tails" that her landlord brought home from the docks.
Although initially friends, Prof. Hulcoop says that he and Ms. Rule eventually became lovers. Their ill-fated coupling was soon crowded, not to mention complicated, by the arrival of Sally, the woman Prof. Hulcoop would soon marry and the appearance of Ms. Sonthoff (then 40). She came to Vancouver for a holiday with Ms. Rule that extended into a life long commitment - after an "amicable" divorce from her husband. Ms. Sonthoff was hired as a teaching assistant at the University of British Columbia in 1957, the beginning of a long university career. Ms. Rule held a variety of jobs to buy herself time to write - she read scripts, did freelance broadcasting, served as the inaugural assistant director of UBC's International House in 1958-59 and also worked periodically as a lecturer in English literature or creative writing. They both became Canadian citizens in the early 1960s.
As a couple, Jane and Helen, as they were invariably called, had their share of spats, infidelities and illnesses, but they were bound by a deep and abiding love. They loved travel, conversation, food, friendship and drinking and smoking - one friend said that Ms. Rule "smoked like a furnace and drank like a fish and enjoyed every minute of it." Their lives incorporated an expansive circle of friends, including many poets who embraced the avant-garde Black Mountain and Tish poetry movement around Warren and Ellen Tallman at UBC. For decades they also operated an unofficial welcome wagon service for newcomers to Vancouver.
Before Margaret Atwood arrived as a sessional lecturer at UBC in the fall of 1964, she had been told by the poet D.G. Jones to look up Jane and Helen. And she did. "They were the first people I met. They helped me rent an apartment, they lent me a card table - I wrote The Edible Woman on it - they lent me plates, they invited me to parties. They were just terrific and they were like that with tons of people."
Shelagh Day arrived at UBC at the same time and had the same experience. She was 20 years old, had a master's degree from Harvard, no teaching experience and had never been in Vancouver before, so she went to the head of the English department and asked for help. He immediately phoned Jane and Helen and asked them to put her up until Ms. Day was able to find accommodation. That was the beginning of a friendship lasting nearly half a century, even though Ms. Day has long since left the academy to work as a human rights advocate.
Ms. Rule published a dozen books beginning with the novel Desert of the Heart in 1964 and ending with After the Fire in 1989. Desert of the Heart, about two women (an English literature professor seeking a quick divorce and a change girl in a casino) who meet in a boarding house in Reno and fall in love, was actually Ms. Rule's third work of fiction. Even after accepting the novel in 1961, Macmillan demanded many changes, including deleting dates to avoid possible libel suits from casino employees who might claiming to be implicated as lesbians. The novel didn't appear until 1964 and was received by Ms. Rule's academic colleagues and some critics with wariness and fear. Years later, Ms. Rule liked to comment that her more liberal colleagues defended her against the hoary question of moral turpitude by comparing her to a writer of crime fiction and arguing that if writing about murders, doesn't make you a murderer, then ....
Despite a chilly reception officially, the book generated a flood of "very unhappy, even desperate" letters, according to Ms. Rule from closeted lesbians who wrote to her about their own lives because they sensed she was the only person in the world who might understand them.
" Desert of the Heart - coming as it did just before the late 60s women's movement - and containing as it did two lovers who were women - made Jane and Helen very famous in those circles," commented Margaret Atwood. "Her novels were never tracts, however. What interested her was character, in all its forms. The human-ness of human beings. The richness and unpredictability of life."
As for journalists, Ms. Rule quickly became the "go to" spokesperson for any and all issues involving homosexuality. "I became for the media, the only lesbian in Canada," she wrote in an autobiographical essay, "a role I gradually and very reluctantly accepted and used to educate people as I could." She was not above editing her own life to suit the cause, according to her friend Prof. Hulcoop, the literary critic who had drawn her to Vancouver in 1956. "After the publication of Desert of the Heart, she became a figurehead for lesbians so it didn't fit the picture that she had come to Canada to live with me and so I have been excised from all interviews," he said in a telephone conversation.
Journalist Gerald Hannon, who had been part of the TBP collective almost from its beginning in 1971, remembers showing up at the house that Ms. Rule and Ms. Sonthoff shared in Vancouver, with his late lover Robert Trow, probably in 1975 to interview her for a profile in the magazine. "We were so intimidated. We were meeting a real writer with real books and we were just nobodies with a small paper in Toronto ... and I can still remember the terrors with which we approached your house in Kitsilano. We left happily drunk, on scotch, I believe, some hours later ... in the grip of the thrilling sensation that maybe we were journalists after all and that maybe what we were trying to do wasn't crazy - that it was graceful and kind and opened doors and windows and let in air and light."
After director Donna Deitch made Desert of the Heart into the film, Desert Hearts in 1986, it became a cult classic. Starring Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau, the film is one of the first and most highly regarded works in which a lesbian relationship is depicted favourably. The film gave the novel a new life, selling thousands of copies and securing translation rights from several European countries.
This heightened celebrity began after Ms. Rule and Ms. Sonthoff had been living on Galiano Island for nearly a decade. They had moved a 50-minute ferry ride away from the hurlyburly that was their life in Vancouver in 1976, when Ms. Sonthoff, then 60, retired from her tenured position at UBC. By then Ms. Rule had suffered her first attack of the chronic and severe arthritis in her spine and neck that would plague her for the rest of her life. For some weeks before the move to Galiano she could hardly move and she was told she would soon be in a wheelchair. Instead she kept swimming, the physical activity she has loved since childhood. In 1979 the two women built a lap pool on their island property and Ms. Rule began a daily swimming regime. As a bonus, the children of Galiano enjoyed free swimming lessons in the summers with Ms. Rule as the volunteer life guard, even as many of their parents benefited from preferential mortgage rates from the Bank of Galiano, as Ms. Rule was affectionately called because of her largesse with the money she had inherited and grown through canny investments in the stock market.
Arthritis meant that she had to change her writing habits. Instead of sitting hunched over a typewriter for hours at a time, she had to learn to write a first draft in long hand lying on a couch with a board in her lap and then quickly type what she had written at the end of each day. In 1989 she had to begin taking anti-inflammatory drugs. Two years later, Ms. Rule announced she "no longer felt driven to write," at least in part because of the dulling effects of the medication she was taking for her arthritis. Ms. Sonthoff, who may have been suffering from osteoporosis, broke her hip in 1999 and was sent to hospital in Victoria for surgery and rehabilitation. She subsequently dislocated it three or four times, requiring repeated surgeries, which eventually culminated in her death from hospital-based complications on Jan. 3, 2000. She was 83.
Although they had been a couple for more than 45 years, Ms. Rule and Ms. Sonthoff had never wanted to marry. Ms. Sonthoff had been dead for more than five years when same sex marriage was legalized in Canada with the passage of the Civil Marriage Act in July 2005. Nevertheless, Ms. Rule had made her objections to gay marriage clear in an essay in the Spring 2001 issue of BC Bookworld. "To be forced back into the heterosexual cage of coupledom is not a step forward but a step back into state-imposed definitions of relationship," she wrote. "With all that we have learned, we should be helping our heterosexual brothers and sisters out of their state-defined prisons, not volunteering to join them there."
She was given the Order of British Columbia in 1998 and the Order of Canada in 2007.
In September, 2007 Ms. Rule was diagnosed with cancer in her liver and probably other parts of her body. Declining further diagnostic tests, she also refused any radical treatment that would involve leaving Galiano. Instead, she kept swimming as long as she could in an effort to resist the inroads of the inexorable arthritis, and gradually accepted a walker and finally a wheelchair to get about. "She was not afraid of dying. She thinks she has had a gorgeous life," said her friend human rights activist Shelagh Day.
In fact, Ms. Rule seemed relieved to have her life foreshortened by cancer because she was becoming increasingly disabled by arthritis. "She had watched her grandmother confined to bed for ten years and she was feeling apprehensive that that was going to happen to her," said Ms. Day. Instead, Ms. Rule retreated to her bed in the middle of November with a bottle of Queen Anne whisky and a bar of good chocolate on her bedside table, hundreds of love letters from friends and admirers and a circle of friends and family who cared for her physical needs.
A celebration of her life is being planned.