Candid novel about a relationship between two women during the Second World War
Dola de Jong spent most of her life in America, where she enjoyed great success with her novel And the Field is the World. It was discovered by the legendary editor Max Perkins. No less beautiful is The Tree and the Vine, set during the Nazi occupation of Europe. Following several rejections, this ‘shameless’ lesbian classic finally appeared in 1954, and in response the author received piles of fanmail from married women who felt at odds with themselves.
In The Tree and the Vine, compliant secretary Bea tells of her meeting in 1938 with the reckless journalist Erica. She immediately feels attracted to her. After a month they move into an apartment together. Their friendship is complicated, not only as a result of their very different characters but because it develops into an ‘unnatural’ love. When they first start living together, Erica does not have a bed. Bea buys one for her. This sets the tone: Bea is the caring guardian of the home for the capricious Erica, who works through an inheritance in just a few months. Bea is put in charge of the last 500 guilders. Bea starts a relationship with Bas, who thinks the affection between the two friends is based on ‘unhealthy emotions’. Bea and Erica behave like lovers who cannot live together, nor live apart. The physical side of their love is subtly described (‘When the door fell shut behind her I took a bath, scrubbed away the caresses of those authoritarian hands and her compelling mouth, washed off the scent of lavender and cigarettes that I could smell on my own skin.’)
Even after the relationship with Erica ends, she remains at the centre of Bea’s life. Bea does not succeed in developing a serious relationship with anyone else.
When the persecution of the Jews intensifies, Bea’s loyalty is put to the sternest of tests. Erica believes herself to be half-Jewish, so her friends try to get enough money together for her to flee to America. But Erica wastes the opportunity, having fallen in love with a cellist. Bea is torn between the desire to keep Erica near her and the fear that Erica will be deported. In the end it turns out Erica is not Jewish at all, but by then it is too late. She is arrested and dies in the Dutch concentration camp at Vught.
The Tree and the Vine laconically describes a love doomed to fail, not only because of the taboo on lesbian love and the threat of the Holocaust but because of the huge differences between the lovers. Dola de Jong is a master at dissecting complex relationships, making this classic still feel topical today.