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Jane Rule Wrote of 'Jailable' Love

Pioneering lesbian voice was Galiano's lifeguard, too.

By Grant Shilling 7 Dec 2007 |

Grant Shilling is the author of The Cedar Surf: An Informal History of Surfing in British Columbia.

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Jane Rule: 'I chose Canada'

This Sunday at Galiano Island's South End Community Hall a memorial service will be held to honour beloved Galianoite Jane Rule who passed away last week at age 76. Somewhere Jane is chuckling, for as she put it when she called me last month to give the heartbreaking news of her diagnosis of liver cancer, "I've already had two living wakes."

Her most recent "living wake" was this past July at the South End Hall where in front of an adoring crowd she received the Order of Canada from then Lt.-Gov. Iona Campaognolo. Rule won the award for being a pioneering writer whose novels explored lesbian love at a time when Canada was as crusty as stale bread.

Jane however considered herself retired as a writer and stated she would prefer to be known for her brownies. For those who lived on Galiano, Jane served as an island den mother, a voice of courage, comfort and common sense, a lifeguard, a banker and just plain fun.

A classic revived

In 2005 Jane had her first "living wake" also at the South End Community Hall. The occasion was the reprinting of her 1977 novel The Young in One Another’s Arms. Little Sister's Classics, a series of books from Arsenal Pulp Press reviving lost and out-of-print gay and lesbian literature, chose to inaugurate their collection with her book. Jane was clearly thrilled.

The Young in One Another’s Arms is set at the end of the Vietnam War in and around a boarding house in the Kitsilano neighborhood of Vancouver.

That novel was my introduction to Jane's work at a time when I was living in Kitsilano in 1982. I felt that if I were to step out onto Fourth Avenue I could meet the people that Jane was writing about. Rule's fiction often explored community and interpersonal connections.

Jane Rule came to Vancouver in 1956 with her life partner and soul mate Helen Sonthoff (who died in 2000). She instantly fell in love with the city and decided she wanted to stay. She taught an English course at the University of British Columbia where Sonthoff worked as a professor until 1976.

In 1976 Jane and Helen purchased a home on Galiano, a lush ribbon of green 50 ferry minutes and worlds away from the mainland, initially as a getaway and chance to socialize with a group of artists and writer friends. Their home's walls bear the work of good friend and renowned B.C. painter Tak Tanabe.

"I came here to write and lead a private life," Jane said about her life on Galiano Island. "But gradually you get involved in the community."

A lender in good faith

Jane's involvement has included serving as the unofficial Bank of Galiano. "When I was teaching at UBC I was investing in stocks and I thought why am I doing this? I don't even know where my money is going. I decided it would be better to invest in my community."

There have been very few defaults. "People understand that it is a community trust."

As a lapsed Galianoite (my sweetie and I lived there from 1997 to 2002) I was graciously helped by Jane when no banker would. She gave us the loan to help purchase the home I currently write from. Even more touching was Jane providing us with a sweet short story (her last published fiction) for The GIG-Gulf Islands Gazette newspaper that my partner Mary Alice and I published.

Just outside Jane's simple pan-abode home is a swimming pool. For 15 years Jane, an avid swimmer, served as a lifeguard at the pool seven days a week, two hours a day for Galianoites who wanted to swim. "On an island we are more dependent on each other and more aware of what people are having to live through," Jane told me.

Community relations and social networks are a reoccurring theme in Rule's work. "One of the experiences of our time is we don't stay in the community we were born in. We don't experience extended family like we used to. What we do is invent it. I am fascinated by the different ways we invent community to support each other. That is what I have been writing about."

'Canada's only visible lesbian'

Jane has often stated "I came out as a lesbian long before I came out as a writer."

At the age of 15 she was aware that she was a lesbian. "There wasn't even a name for it. It was sex -- and sex was something you didn't talk about."

In 1964, when her first published novel Desert of the Heart appeared in England, Rule was out. With the appearance of Desert of the Heart in her words she was "jailable." Canada's laws banning homosexuality were not changed until 1969.

"Canada's only visible lesbian," as she was dubbed in the press, now risked losing her job at the University of British Columbia. The "old saw" argument made in her defense was that not every author of a murder mystery novel is necessarily a murderer.

The novel is a real charmer, set in 1958 in Reno, Nevada. Vivian, an English professor, has come to Nevada to apply for a divorce -- which will be granted if she can establish residency for six weeks. A local ranch girl immediately falls for Vivian, who is intrigued, but somewhat uptight. After all it is 1958.

In 1985 Desert of the Heart was made into a popular movie reviewed by Vincent Canby in the New York Times as "a simple story of a lesbian love affair . . . that makes a strong impression".

'Proud to claim the label Canadian'

Born in New Jersey in 1931, Jane had a peripatetic childhood growing up in California, Illinois and Missouri. Six-feet tall at age 12, dyslexic and the perpetual new kid on the block, Jane understood what it was to be an outsider. This sense only increased when she recognized her lesbianism at age 15. "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 traveling in Europe for the first time before I had to apologize for being an American," she told me over the phone, now describing herself as "proud and relieved to claim the label Canadian."

Jane drank a can of Coke every morning. "It's my southern heritage," she would say. "Only there, it's Dr. Pepper." Until shortly before her death she swam 50 laps a day in her pool. She also thoroughly enjoyed scotch and cigarettes. Her appearance was distinct. The haircut ("a long time ago someone said 'you have a Beatle cut -- and I said no the Beatles have a Jane cut"). The glasses, which look plucked off Superman and put on Lois Lane. And her basketball-friendly height.

When Jane turned 60, having produced more than ten novels, she stopped writing fiction. "I didn't want to repeat myself. Helen was 75 and I wanted to give more of my time to her."

Jane Rule continued to write the occasional essay and non-fiction piece however. She was surprised to discover recently that she had written 46 essays, which she'd typed out the old fashioned way, with plans to publish a collection.

'An elegant way to die'

Jane voiced her opposition to gay marriage, "and the gay community is mad at me as a result." She felt gay marriage is part of a growing conservative movement in the gay community -- a desire to be just like everybody else as a way of being accepted. "To be forced back into the heterosexual cage of coupledom is not a step forward but a step back into state imposed definitions of relationships," she wrote.

Like Trudeau, she believed the state has no place in its citizen's bedrooms. After the state had given her an award how did Rule feel about it?

"For a long time I had been dubious about awards," Jane told me. "I often felt that they were given and withheld for the wrong reasons. But I have come to realize that too few women, too few artists and too few lesbians have won these awards, so they are important to accept politically."

With regard to the Order of Canada Jane was very touched. "I chose Canada over 50 years ago. So it is very nice to have Canada choose me."

And what of her impending death? Jane was very at peace about it.

"I have had my living wakes," she told me with a giggle. "This is an elegant way to die, surrounded by my friends here at my home in the world on Galiano."