Happy December Folks!
For today’s Queer History 101, we’re talking about the history of this month’s (vintage!) book club selection: The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith.
The 1952 novel is written from the perspective of Therese Belivet, an aspiring stage designer who works a monotonous job as a department store sales clerk to make ends meet. Her banal routine is upended by the appearance of Carol, a striking woman in a fur coat, who buys a doll as a Christmas present for her daughter. The two women begin an impassioned affair, abandoning their discontented relationships with the men in their lives to embark on a road trip across the country together. Unbeknownst to them, they are followed by a private investigator.
The story is plucked from the real life of Highsmith herself, who was working at a Bloomingdale’s in December of 1948 when she noticed Mrs. E.R. Senn. “Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone,” Highsmith later recounted in an interview, “or because a mink coat was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light.” Infatuated by this sight of this woman, Highsmith returned home that night and feverishly jotted down an eight-page outline for a new novel that would become The Price of Salt.
The novel came in the wake of Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, a wildly successful suspense thriller. Her publishers rejected the idea of a romance novel between two women, encouraging her to stay in the thriller genre instead. Highsmith, who had a vexed relationship with her own sexuality, was careful not to brand herself as a “lesbian author,” so she published the book under a pseudonym, “Claire Morgan.” Though the book was a success, selling over a million copies in its original paperback edition, she never wrote explicitly about love between women again.
Highsmith is a complicated figure whose life is riddled with paradoxes, many of which came to light when her personal diary was discovered after her death in 1995. She loved women, but she also viewed homosexuality as a mental illness that she tried to correct with psychoanalysis. She was a known antisemite, who would caustically espouse anti-semitic remarks at dinner parties, but three of her most substantial relationships were with Jewish women.
Highsmith was by no means a moralist. Her writing was interested in just the opposite – exploring the murky depths of the human soul, and reveling in the darkness of desire, possession, and infatuation. Her novels explored the moral ambiguity of her protagonists, a group that included Tom Ripley, the infamous queer serial killer from The Talented Mr. Ripley series. The Price of Salt is in fact an outlier, the only novel of Highsmith’s that doesn’t have violence or murder at its center.
Despite her controversial demeanor, Highsmith’s novel provided ground-breaking representation for women who loved women. It subverted the butch-femme paradigm, which had been an undisputed cliche of lesbian literature up until that point, and suggested that queer people could meet and associate in a time when mainstream society would say that was unfathomable. More notably, it was one of the only “lesbian novels” that didn’t end in suicide or conversion. Its hopeful ending was seen as a defiant act of queer counterculture.
After it was published in 1952, The Price of Salt became a cult classic. Letters addressed to Claire Morgan flooded into her publisher, praising the book for being one of the few pieces of literature that authentically represented lesbian relationships. Still, Highsmith refused to release a version of the book with her actual name on it until 1990, when it was republished as Carol.
In 2015, it was adapted into a feature film of the same name, directed by Todd Haynes. It garnered six Academy Awards nominations, including one for Cate Blanchett in the titular role. I highly recommend reading the book: getting transported by Highsmith’s spell-binding prose to a time when queer relationships were both more dangerous but also remarkably casual.
Then, I recommend cozying up on the couch to watch the film, even if only to see Rooney Mara in a Santa hat!