Remembering Jane Rule
September 22nd, 2012
For six decades, Jane Vance “Jinx” Rule was one of the most mature, humourous and responsible voices in Canadian letters, and for twenty years she was a close friend to this publication.
Although she is admired for her ground-breaking 1964 novel Desert of the Heart, in which two women fall in love in Reno, Nevada, Jane Rule was long concerned with issues of truth and freedom beyond the realms of sexuality. Profiles invariably begin by mentioning her six-foot frame and her husky voice, but she was much more than a human lighthouse signalling the way for increased tolerance and self-acceptance.
A vibrant conversationalist who loved to laugh, drink and smoke, she was revered in the Gulf Islands as ‘the Bank of Galiano’ because she provided low interest loans to the disadvantaged. Equally important, literally dozens of youngsters learned to swim in her backyard pool were she and her partner Helen Sonthoff doting lifeguards with a great supply of pop-up books.
Jane Rule was also one of the first writers I ever interviewed. I first met her thirty years ago when Talonbooks publishers David Robinson and Karl Siegler reprinted her non-erotic love story, Desert of the Heart. She was the funniest and sanest person I had ever met.
Nine years later, after we started BC BookWorld, Rule agreed to be one of three writers on the board of directors for Pacific BookWorld News Society. [The others were Howard White and George Woodcock.]
Jane Rule received the second Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award for an Outstanding Literary Career in British Columbia in 1996. She was awarded the Order of British Columbia in 1998 and the Order of Canada in 2006.
Her reputation continues to grow.
Born in New Jersey on March 28, 1931, Jane Rule was the middle child and oldest daughter of Carlotta Jane (Hink) and Arthur Richards Rule, a free-thinker who graduated from the naval academy at Annapolis and rose to the rank of lieutenant-commander during World War II. His favourite expression was, “I’d rather be right than president.”
She passed her first four years at Wynchwood, a family farm in New Jersey where her paternal grandfather built a replica of Robbie Burns’ cottage and filled it with children’s books. After the family moved to California, she spent summers on a remote, 240-acre ranch among the redwoods that belonged to her mother’s parents. In California, her best friends were Chinese and Japanese American children, and she was baffled by the concept of racism.
From a tender age, Jane Rule was notoriously rebellious against authority figures, particularly teachers. She and her beloved older brother Art changed schools constantly, as much as three times per year. In one class of 14 girls, there were five Janes so she willingly adopted her nickname Jinx and it stuck ever after. At age ten, her myopia was corrected by glasses but her family moved frequently and she was hampered by dyslexia. Six-feet tall at age 12 and unaccomplished at schoolwork, Rule was strongly supported by her parents who accepted her non-conformist tendencies. If her teacher complained that she had fallen asleep in German class again, her mother would calmly reply, “Well, you’re boring her again.” By age 15 Jane Rule decided she ought to be a writer. “I felt that most of the books I was reading were lies,” she later recalled. “I was morally superior and quite obnoxious. That set me against the monstrous patriotic stupidity that was everywhere, the lack of trust, the sense of hatred and the false discipline.”
That same year she was expelled, five months short of graduation, for an article she wrote in her school paper protesting the allocation of school funds for ‘charm school’ classes. In particular, Rule took objection to being shown how to walk. When the instructor told the class to imitate her, Rule did—cheekily— and was tossed from the class. Consequently she wrote an article expressing her opinion that girls should be taught how to walk to the nearest college. The principal expelled her for insubordination. Her reputation as a ‘moral hazard’ would make it difficult for her to gain acceptance to college.
Also at age 15, Jane Rule’s outsiderism increased when she read Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. Although she began to recognize her own lesbian nature, her enthusiasm for the once-banned novel was hesitant, at best. “It was a polemic by a famous English lesbian pleading for an understanding of homosexuals and lesbians, whom it described as men trapped in women’s bodies!” Rule recalled. “It was a very brave book but also a very bad book. The main character was six feet tall and had a deep voice. I thought, ‘That can’t be who I am! Will I have to live in some ghetto in Paris and be a freak?’ It was such a scary thing.” Rule later described Radclyffe as “about the biggest male chauvinist pig you could find. Gradually Rule developed a theory that one chiefly makes progress by learning from the bad examples of others. “I was five before I discovered that being a girl had serious drawbacks, six before I discovered being left-handed was unacceptable and nineteen and travelling in Europe for the first time before I had to apologize for being an American,” she later wrote. In the 1960s she became “proud and relieved to claim the label Canadian.”
At 16, her first sexual experience was a lesbian relationship, but given her moralistic upbringing and the forbidding climate for homosexuality in the early 1950s, she says she remained celibate during her attendance at Mills College, a posh women’s school in Oakland. She had wanted to study English at Stanford but she was repeatedly rejected by numerous schools until a trustee at Mills College enabled her to be enrolled on a probationary basis. Because her test results were higher in science and math, she was initially not allowed to major in English. Eventually she got her way, but the head of the English department warned her about pursuing a literary career, telling her she could either become a first-rate scholar or a third-rate writer. Rule replied that she much preferred the latter. Rule subsequently sent that discouraging professor every book she published and dedicated a book to her. “I guess I’m still not a very nice person,” she once noted.
After she received a bachelor’s degree in English from Mills in 1952, Rule began working on her first novel when she was living in England and taking some classes at University College, London. Having gone to England to pursue a relationship with a female lover, she nonetheless became friends with John Hulcoop, a doctoral candidate at UC who later accepted a teaching job with the English faculty at the University of British Columbia. Returning to the United States, Jane Rule was soon disenchanted with the competitive and demeaning atmosphere of writing classes at Stanford University. When she opted for a teaching job with a private school for girl in Massachusetts, Concord Academy, she fell in love with Helen Sonthoff, a creative writing instructor who was married to Herbert Sonthoff, a German who had fled the Nazi regime during World War II.
McCarthyism was rampant in the United States and extramarital lesbian relationships were simply not to be tolerated, so Jane Rule moved to Vancouver in the fall of 1956, taking refuge in a four-room flat rented by John Hulcoop. According to Sandra Martin’s obituary of Rule for The Globe & Mail, Hulcoop and Rule briefly became lovers. At age 40, Helen Sonthoff came to Vancouver to visit Rule, at age 25, and they resumed their intimate relationship. They would remain living as a couple until Helen Sonthoff died in 2000, at age 83. Rule was deeply disheartened by her partner’s death, as she had been when her father died at age 88 in 1994.
While Helen Sonthoff gained a foothold in the UBC English department as a teaching assistant, Rule pursued her fledgling writing career, read scripts and became the assistant directorate the university’s new International House for foreign students. Even though Rule had only a bachelor’s degree, she also intermittently taught lower-level English courses at UBC until 1976 when she and Sonthoff relocated to Galiano Island on a permanent basis. “I arranged my life so that I taught every other year at UBC,” Rule said. “It took 25 years to get there as a full-time writer.” She stopped teaching at age 43. She sometimes said she came out as a lesbian long before she came out as a writer.
In 1964, Macmillan in England published Desert of the Heart after it was rejected 22 times in the United States. Jane Rule immediately became “Canada’s only visible lesbian” and risked losingher job at the university. She often noted that one argument made in her defence at the time was that not every author of a murder mystery novel is necessarily a murderer. Canada’s laws were changed to no longer prohibit homosexual acts between consenting adults that same year but prior to the appearance of Desert of the Heart, in her words, “we were jailable.”
The novel had been completed by 1961, just prior to Rule’s 30th birthday. Although Macmillan was concerned about the possibility of an adverse reaction by Nevada casino employees, very little substantive editing was done on the manuscript. Rule never resided in Reno, Nevada, but her parents did, enabling her to get to know the city during several visits during which her younger sister took her to various sites. Rule only worked in a casino for six nights as a change girl, from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., and she had little interest in gambling.
Jane Rule moved to Galiano Island in 1976, coincidental with her first attack of chronic and crippling arthritis in her spine. As a senior member of a closely-knit community, she soon became an integral, supportive figure, lending money, providing guidance, etc., and gaining the nickname “the bank of Galiano.”
A resolve to forge community and group connections was reflected in her fiction, dating back to This Is Not For You, a novel about college friendships. Memory Board and After the Fire are primarily concerned with divergent personalities who accept community bonds, incorporating the elderly as central characters. The Young In One Another’s Arms and Contract with the World are similarly concerned with mutual compassion and love born of strength, not weakness. The latter concerns the difficulties faced by a variety of artists as they approach middle age without having gained much outward success.
Admired and befriended by the likes of Kate Millet and Margaret Atwood, Rule became known throughout the world as one of Canada’s most articulate spokeswomen on issues pertaining to personal freedom and social responsibility, but she never clamoured for the limelight.
“Politics really are to clean up the house,” she says. “You have to do it every week. I don’t find it interesting, just as I don’t find sweeping the floor every week interesting. I do it. I vote… I prefer to work wherever there’s a possibility of changing things… I really believe through the counter-movements in society change can be made. We’re living witnesses of it.”
As someone who views marriage as problematic because individuals should not require permission from the state in order to cohabit, Rule looked askance at the eagerness of gay colleagues to gain the legal right to marry. “A lot of us old guard feel very dubious about it,” she said.
Jane Rule’s testimony in the Supreme Court of B.C. on behalf of Little Sister’s Book and Art Emporium on October 24, 1994, during a constitutional challenge to Canada Customs’ practice of seizing materials destined specifically for a gay and lesbian bookstore, was published as Detained at Customs: Jane Rule Testifies at the Little Sister’s Trial (Lazara Press, 1995). Specifically, Rule was responding to the seizure by Canada Customs officials of her novels The Young In One Another’s Arms and Contract With the World, as well as the movie version of Desert of the Heart—a 1985 feature film directed by Donna Deitch and starring Helen Shaver, Patricia Charbonneau and Audra Lindley.
Interviewed by Xtra West magazine, Little Sister’s co-owner Jim Deva recalled the importance of Rule’s galvanizing testimony that day: “She was in a wheelchair at that time and I got the honour of wheeling her up to the stand. As I was rolling her up and looking at the judge it was like, ‘You know this is a very important person. You listen to this person.’ That’s what I was trying to project. ‘This is the best we have. If you cannot understand our community, listen to this woman and she’ll explain our community to you.’ She spoke very quietly, very eloquently. I think her testimony really did help make that judge realize that we really were talking about our community and how censorship is so offensive, so deeply offensive. Before that, I don’t think he really understood it.”
Having written for mainstream magazines such as Chatelaine and Redbook, as well as the lesbian journal The Ladder back in the 1960s, Rule began writing a column called So’s Your Grandmother for the Toronto-based gay newspaper The Body Politic after its offices were raided in December of 1977 by Operation P, an anti-pornography unit that charged the publication for its series on intergenerational relationships, specifically a piece called Men Loving Boys Loving Men. During her ten years of contributing to the paper, she maintained a lively correspondence with editor Rick Bebout.
Still widely known for her ground-breaking novel Desert of the Heart, Rule is the subject of a Genie-awarding winning documentary, Fiction and Other Truths: A Film about Jane Rule, made by Aerlyn Weissman and Lynne Ferney in 1995. She has also received the Canadian Authors Association best novel and best short story awards, the American Gay Academic Literature Award, the U.S. Fund for Human Dignity Award of Merit, the CNIB’s Talking Book of the Year Award and an honorary doctorate from UBC.
Rule consistently encouraged and supported other artists and would-be artists, including students from the nearby Galiano Island Film and Television School. During her illness, Rule offered her final collection of short essays, Loving the Difficult, to Hedgerow Press, the imprint of neophyte publisher Joan Coldwell.
A heavy smoker and avid drinker, Jane Rule died, with strength and dignity, of liver cancer complications on November 27, 2007, in the same room in which she and Helen Sonthoff had first slept when they came to Galliano in the mid-1970s. Initially she had wanted to leave the island for palliative care in Vancouver, alleviating others of the task of caring for her, but she was persuaded to remain on Galiano where local physician Dr. David Beaver oversaw the round-the-clock care that was provided by Rule’s niece and her gay partner—both named Allison— who inherited the house.
“I have no ambition to live to a great age,” she told Douglas Todd in 1994. “I think old age is for the pits. I’ve seen it. To outlive your usefulness is not to me a great thing.”
Many of her comments during her final illness were typically funny. She staunchly avoided all malarkey about life after death. “Don’t say I ‘passed away’ or ‘passed on,’” she joked, “or I’ll come back and haunt you.”
A jam-packed memorial gathering was held at the Galiano Community Hall on Sunday, December 9, 2007 during which friends, relatives and admirers recalled her personality. Her literary executor and close friend Shelagh Day praised her “enormous social appetite.” Svend Robinson sent condolences from France; former Lieutenant Governor Iona Campagnolo, whose grandfather had helped build the hall, sent a message praising Rule as “a remarkably courageous role model.” Other comments included:
“Jinx was the most generous, wise, quick-witted and loving person I’ve ever met.”—Libby Walker, Jane Rule’s younger sister
“What a wonderful, wonderful woman. Wow.” —The Reverend Margaret Edgar
“Jane made an excellent boss. She made me feel important and respected. To clean the pool, she paid $10 an hour for 15 minutes of work at age 11.” —Zack Morrison, local youth
“She taught me how to live a life that mattered. Jane Rule is the tallest tree on Galiano Island.”— Judy Baca, artist
“What she most believed in was freedom—freedom of speech and freedom to love who you liked. Jane is a beacon in dark times. She was generous. She had quite an insight into human nature. I would like to thank you, Jane, for all the laughter.” —Margaret Griffiths
“She asked the important questions and let people hear their own answers.” Ken Bebout, Body Politic editor
“There’s dinosaurs. There’s the Romans. And there’s Jane and Helen. The times we shared are priceless.” —Eli, Jane Rule’s nephew
“Jane’s gift was her enormous human curiosity. Jane loved many people. She loved each of us freely and uniquely.” —Shelagh Day
Above the stage for the memorial gathering, Rule’s own words were posted for all to see: “I hope I’m remembered for being lusty and feisty and full of life.”
Essay Date: 2008