‘I like to avoid labels. It is American publishers who love them.’
– Patricia Highsmith
Originally titled The Price of Salt and published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, Carol was Patricia Highsmith’s second novel. Her first, the hugely successful Strangers on a Train, was published in 1950 when Highsmith was just thirty years old, and whose film rights were shortly after sold to Alfred Hitchcock.
Even by today’s standards, Carol was an unconventional choice of second novel for the rising star. Highsmith’s publisher, Harper & Bros, encouraged her to write another ‘Harper Novel of Suspense’, and unsurprisingly rejected her understated, elegant manuscript about the affair between a nineteen-year-old shop girl and a mid-thirties housewife and mother on the verge of divorce.
Undeterred, Highsmith found another house, and The Price of Salt was published in hardback to generally positive reviews and modest sales. But it was when the paperback edition was released a year later that it found a wide readership, selling over a million copies.
Highsmith describes the inspiration for the book, as well as some of this publication history, in the Afterword to the 1989 edition, the first time the book was published under her own name.
Like her protagonist Therese Belivet, she too had worked the depressing Christmas temp shifts at a New York department store, and this experience formed the basis for Carol’s plot. ‘One morning,’ she writes,
into this chaos of noise and commerce, there walked a blondish woman in a fur coat. She drifted towards the doll counter with a look of uncertainty – should she buy a doll or something else? – and I think she was slapping a pair of gloves absently into one hand. Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone, or because a mink was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light… It was a routine transaction…but I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.
This dreamlike vision animates one of the striking early moments of Todd Haynes’s ravishing adaptation, released in Australia today. Highsmith, who from Strangers on a Train to The Talented Mr Ripley charted the vicissitudes of the queer experience, is a writer Haynes seems born to adapt: for the past three decades, the director of films including Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven has been preoccupied with traces of emotion, forbidden love, and the timeless foundations of desire.
With the exception of a few small details, Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy have been faithful to Highsmith’s narrative. We meet Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) working at the toy counter of Manhattan department store Frankenberg’s in the lead up to Christmas. Therese is a young aspiring photographer, deliberating (with no great enthusiasm) over the invitation of her sort-of boyfriend, Richard, to travel with him to Europe.
From the moment she sees Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) from behind the counter, Therese’s infatuation is instant. What follows this first encounter is a simple yet exquisite love story. ‘Love was supposed to be a kind of blissful insanity,’ she reflects in the novel, and the film pulses with romantic longing.
Eroticism is found everywhere in Carol: in nail polish, in leather gloves, in the application of perfume, in the taupe Packard, which Blanchett smoothly glides through the film with her familiar, effortless movie-star glamour, a cigarette invariably brandished in one hand or dangling from her lips.
In the novel, Carol is somewhat oblique; her motivations, for large swathes of the story, uncertain. Haynes has successfully split the two women’s perspectives while honouring Therese’s point of view. We mostly see Carol through Therese – we see her elegance and self-possession, and the subtle cracks that start to form as the reality of her domestic crisis take hold. (Later, this erotic gaze is complicated, and violated, when the fledgling couple are surveilled by a private detective, a noirish twist to what is an otherwise conventional love story.)
We also see Therese through Carol’s eyes: from that first thrilling, painful rush of love to her own self-realisation and sexual awakening (‘Take me to bed,’ she says to Carol, part demand, part plea). By the film’s astonishing final scene, Therese has grown up, her childish tam-o’-shanter gone, and has come to know herself.
‘Carol is the rarest of stories,’ the blurb of my edition proclaims. ‘A gay love story with a happy ending.’ Such a statement begs mockery now, but the story was indeed rare in the early 1950s, and even well into the late 1980s.
For many years, lesbians in fiction were punished for their social transgressions. Highsmith’s literary antecedents ordinarily condemned their queer heroes to a life of solitude, insanity, feigned heterosexuality and/or suicide, a punishment portrayed in such classics as Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (widely considered the first English-language lesbian novel) or Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, whose protagonist Robin is, tellingly, in search of ‘secure torment’.
Radically, Carol portrays a lesbian love that doesn’t destroy or diminish its subjects, but enables them to transform, to grow and to be free. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Carol, battling with her ex-husband for custody of their daughter, makes a poignant appeal for the recognition and dignification of her love: ‘What use am I to anyone, to her, if I’m living against my grain?’ she asks.
Carol is an extraordinary film – beautiful, sensual and affirming. Nagy’s spare and perfectly syncopated screenplay is less reliant on dialogue than the novel is, but the film still somehow retains the essence of the many conversations Carol and Therese have on their road trip. One memorable scene, soon after they have confessed their love for one another, captures the courage and strength rendered from their relationship:
‘You’re about as weak as this match.’ Carol held it burning for a moment after she lighted her cigarette. ‘But given the right conditions, you could burn a house down, couldn’t you?’
‘Or a city.’
Carol is released nationally today, Thursday 14 January.