When I am dried up, a desert of words, feeling what I imagine it would be like to be an old woman in a time before any of the waves of feminism whetted her appetite for life, I always find myself reaching for a book called Carol. The copy I lovingly caress, in my hour of need, is a handy-sized hardback re-issued as a Bloomsbury Classic in 1993. First published in 1952 as The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, it was said to be the first gay novel with a happy ending. If you call being able to be with your lover at the expense of giving up your child a happy ending, in the world of 1950s gay fiction that is one definition of progress for women I suppose. Although truth be told it is not the subject matter – a tale of two women’s persecuted love – that I find myself going back to this book time and time again.
Of course I am rooting for anxious little Therese Belivet to stalk smug privileged Carol Aird successfully into loving her and for them to be happy. It is more the way Patricia Highsmith tells this story from beginning to end without a word, a metaphor, a character, a theme or an event out of place that inspires me as a woman a lesbian and a writer. Right from its lonely opening lines: The lunch hour in the co-workers’ cafeteria at Frankenberg’s had reached its peak. There was no room left at any of the long tables, and more and more people were arriving to wait back of the wood barricades by the cash register. To its warm welcoming last: Then as she was about to go to her, Carol saw her, seemed to stare at her incredulously a moment while Therese watched the slow smile growing, before her arm lifted suddenly, her had waved a quick, eager greeting that Therese had never seen before. Therese walked towards her. It has me. It is perfect.