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Jane Rule

Jane Rule was a writer and though she disliked the categorization of her profession--woman, feminist, lesbian writer as she was undoubtedly classified--the one label she more readily accepted was that of Canadian writer. Born on the East Coast of the United States in 1931 and passing away on one of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands 76 years later, Rule’s life, her work and character serve as meaningful pieces of the province’s literary and social history.


The child of a military family, Rule spent her adolescence in different pockets of the U.S.A., including New Jersey, Illinois, Missouri and California. By the time she was twelve-years-old, she stood six feet tall. A dyslexic tomboy, she felt herself to be an outsider. Further still, she was discovering her own sexuality in a time when homophobia was rampant and at the dawn of McCarthyism when gay men and lesbians were aggressively persecuted for their so-called perversion.


Following high school, she would obtain a Bachelor of Arts in English from Mills College, a women’s liberal arts institution in California. The years that followed saw Rule undertake travel, study and explore relationships. Upon following a girlfriend to England, where she would take intermittent classes at the University College of London, she would meet British literary critic, John Hulcoop, a man connected to her later years in Vancouver, B.C. After a year, Jane would return to the United States and study briefly at Stanford before taking a job at Concord Academy in Massachusetts. There, she would fall in love with the woman with whom she would spend the rest of her life; English teacher Helen Sonthoff.


At their meeting, Sonthoff, fifteen years Rule’s senior, was married to Herbert Sonthoff, a German political dissident who had fled his home country for America during World War II. Their eventual divorce was civil and Helen would ultimately join Jane in Vancouver who had gone to the seaside city with John Hulcoop to find a place to live. The women would carve out a life for themselves there, living as partners in an era when homosexuality was criminal in Canada.


In the early 1960s, they would become Canadian citizens and, along with Hulcoop, teach at the University of British Columbia. Rule alternated teaching one year with writing the next. This arrangement, paired with smart investment skills allowed Jane financial security later in life and, of course, gave her precious time to work on her novels, stories and articles. 


Within their academic, literary and social circles, Jane and Helen became important figures, oftentimes welcoming and helping to establish newcomers to the city. When Margaret Atwood came to Vancouver to take a sessional position at UBC, she was told to get in touch with Rule and Sonthoff. The two helped Atwood find an apartment, invited her to parties and even lent her a card table on which she would write the now-classic work of CanLit, The Edible Woman. 


Jane Rule’s role within her community became even more important with the release of her novel, Desert of the Heart. Rejected over twenty times before being published in 1964, the story follows the relationship between a married woman seeking a divorce and a younger woman who works as a change operator in a Nevada casino. The book and the movie it spawned over twenty years later, Desert Hearts, are still considered important works in queer culture for their portrayal and examination of lesbian identities and lives. 


The novel’s success and Rule’s subsequent celebrity made her a role model and somewhat of a spokesperson for the gay and lesbian community. Still, her new status seemed to overwhelm her in ways--from the letters she received from people struggling with their identities to feeling like the sole lesbian in the country due to the media’s constant interest in her opinion. This was juxtaposed against the question of her being openly out at the time of the book’s release. In an interview with NPR, she revealed that her friends and family knew, but that in her department at the university, things were more ambiguous, with the defence being akin to, “You don’t have to be a murderer to write murder mysteries.”


But above all else, Jane Rule seemed to be a woman who knew her own mind, who knew herself intimately. She held what may have been controversial or taboo opinions, but nonetheless ones that were well-examined and considered. For instance, she was opposed to the legalization of same-sex marriage, believing not that same-sex couples did not deserve to be married, but that the institution of marriage, itself, was archaic and welcomed government intrusion into people’s personal lives. She questioned sexual fidelity and the act of giving oneself to another person for a lifetime. Of course, she spent nearly a lifetime with Helen Sonthoff, but their relationship, at least from afar, seemed to be one in which her ideas about identity and freedom would have been accepted, explored and respected.


In 1976, Jane and Helen would purchase a house on Galiano Island as an escape from the hubbub of their lives in Vancouver. But what was intended to be a vacation home quickly became their permanent residence, with the women living on the Gulf Island for the remainder of their lives. Well-loved figures, they were known to have local children over to swim in their backyard pool and with the wealth Jane amassed in earlier years, she and Helen would provide loans to other islanders in need.


Retiring largely from writing in the early 1990s due to chronic arthritis, Rule would ultimately receive both the Order of British Columbia and the Order of Canada. At her request, both ceremonies would take place on her beloved Galiano Island. In 2000, Helen would pass away from complications related to a hospital stay, while Jane, herself, would die in 2007 of cancer. The pair are interred together in the island’s cemetery.


Jane Rule’s life is not only a meaningful part of B.C. history for her contributions to Canadian literature and her activism on behalf of her community. Though these are true gifts to the story of the province and its people, it seems that the sheer living of her life--her love for Helen, her kindness to others and her spirit of thought--is equally important for it celebrates what it means to be human and honours what it is to be an individual.



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