How much could Rubyfruit Jungle and The Well of Loneliness have in common, besides being novels about lesbians? After all, their basic stats are very different: They were published 45 years apart, Rubyfruit in 1973, The Well in 1928. The Well takes place between around the 1870s to the turn of the twentieth century; Rubyfruit, from the mid 1940s to the late 60s. Their physical settings, too, are quite different, as are their protagonists: Radclyffe’s Steven is a refined, reserved, horseback-riding, book-writing Englishwoman who divides her time between her beloved manor in the countryside and a community of lesbian expatriates in Paris; Brown’s Molly is a corn-fed American girl who, though very intelligent and motivated, comes from an impoverished, broken family and grew up in a tiny Pennsylvania farming community and a rural working-class Floridian town. What the hell could these protagonists and their stories have in common beside the fact, as mentioned, that they are both sapphic? Well, as it turns out, a hell of a lot.
Well, firstly, both of the novels are bioptic in scope, ranging from their heroines’ childhoods to developed adulthoods, and both of their childhoods contain such elements as isolation from their families and communities, especially their mothers; the desire to act “like a boy”; a close, empathetic bond with their fathers; strength of character with which their mothers disagree; the sudden death of said fathers who were among the only people in their lives to understand them; ill-fated childhood infatuations and adolescent affairs. In fact, as i was reading Rubyfruit, it felt a little like a condensed version of Well fast-forwarded sixty or so years and translated into folksy American dialect. One may wonder if Brown lifted some of her ideas from an invert author foremother. But it must be pointed out that Rubyfruit is a highly autobiographical novel—as is, indeed, The Well. So what do these similarities indicate?
I think they point largely to the commonalities shared between closeted lesbians as an oppressed group, similarities that span time and space—and also indicate how little changed for lesbians between Radclyffe and Brown’s lives—despite the arrival of radio, television, the microwave, and airplanes in the intervening years, it still was common for young lesbians to feel at odds with their mothers over their gender identities to the point of total alienation. And for adult lesbians to write novels based on their own troubled childhoods.
Plotwise, Rubyfruit is a textbook Bildungsroman, tracing Molly’s evolution from child to young woman. Like Radclyffe’s Steven, Molly encounters a tough relationship with her mother, the death of her father, gets cast out from her home, and makes a name for herself in a more glamorous place than from which she came (New York City). However, unlike Steven, Molly is consistently unashamed of her sexuality, revels in sex and having multiple partners, and is very open about her sexuality with others—and Rubyfruit, unlike The Well, contains somewhat (homo)sexually explicit scenes. As such, of course, it joins the ranks of The Well, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Go Ask Alice, and scads of other frequently banned books.
Like The Well, Rubyfruit Jungle is not a literary masterpiece. Its plot is somewhat predictable and its protagonist is static and flawless. However, it serves its purpose as a Great Lesbian Novel if nothing else, especially gaining weight as it is written by an author popular in the mainstream for her mystery novels. Perhaps Rubyfruit was to second-wave lesbians that The Well may have been to those of the turn of the century: a rallying point, a sliver of solidarity in a world where they were either ignored or hostilely rejected. And, highfalutin’ conjectures aside, it’s a fun, light summer read. (Ed. note: Because i did read this in the summer and am only just now posting it due to K College-induced time constraints on pleasure reading.)