Although she is rightfully revered for her groundbreaking novel Desert of the Heart, in which two women fall in love in Reno, Nevada, Rule has long been concerned with freedom of expression issues beyond sexuality. For decades she has been one of the most mature, humourous and responsible voices in British Columbia letters.
Born in New Jersey on March 28, 1931, Jane Rule grew up mainly in California, Illinois and Missouri. Six-feet tall at age 12 and unaccomplished at schoolwork, Rule was strongly supported by her parents who accepted her non-conformist tendencies. Her ‘outsiderism’ increased when she recognized her lesbianism at age 15. Rule later renounced her future as a scholar in order to explore her life more fully as a novelist.
Jane Rule came to Canada in 1956 and worked as assistant director of International House at UBC. She also intermittently taught English at UBC until 1976. Jane Rule and her partner of more than 40 years, retired UBC professor Helen Sonthoff, left Vancouver in 1976 to reside on Galiano Island. Helen Sonthoff died in 1999.
Jane Rule is now known throughout the world as one of Canada’s most forceful and articulate spokeswomen on issues pertaining to personal freedom and social responsibility. “Politics really are to clean up the house,” she said. “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.”
Widely known for her ground-breaking novel Desert of the Heart (made into a 1986 feature film, Desert Hearts, starring Helen Shaver), Rule was the subject of a Genie-awarding winning documentary, Fiction and Other Truths; A Film about Jane Rule, made by Aerlyn Weissman.
She 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 of letters from the University of British Columbia.
The move to live on Galiano Island was significant in her life and work. As a senior member of a closely-knit community, Rule became an integral, supportive figure for many of her fellow islanders, lending money, providing guidance, etc. A resolve to forge community and group connection is reflected in her fiction after 1976.
Memory Board and After the Fire are primarily concerned with divergent personalities who accept communitarian concerns, 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.
Jane Rule died on November 27, 2007. Her life touched, encouraged, changed, and empowered not only those directly surrounding her, but also her readers.
Books: Jane Rule’s works of fiction include Desert of the Heart (1964), This Is Not For You (1970), Against the Season (1971), Theme for Diverse Instruments (1975), The Young In One Another’s Arms (1977), Contract With The World (1980), Outlander (stories and essays, 1981), Inland Passage (1985), Memory Board (1987) and After the Fire (1989). Her works of non-fiction are Lesbian Images (1975) and A Hot-Eyed Moderate (1985). 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).