Tereska Torres: The reluctant queen of lesbian literature

Tereska Torres hates the fact that her most famous work is considered an erotic classic. So, at 89, she's going to rewrite it. John Lichfield reports

Friday 05 February 2010 01:00

Few authors are credited with creating an entirely new genre. One writer who can make that claim, to her great dismay, is the French novelist, Tereska Torres. In France, she is known as the author of 12 serious and well-regarded books. To the rest of the world, she is the mother of lesbian-erotic pulp fiction.

At the age of 89, Ms Torres is working hard to put the record straight. She has almost finished re-writing her most famous – or notorious – novel.

Women's Barracks, set in wartime London, first published with a lurid cover in America in 1950, sold 4,000,000 copies in the US alone. It went on to sell many more millions around the world.

It was reprinted, successfully, by the Feminist Press in New York six years ago as a "lost classic" and the "first lesbian-themed pulp novel".

The book tells of the life and loves of five young women in General Charles de Gaulle's Free French forces in London starting from 70 years ago this June. It is by far Tereska Torres' most commercially successful book but she detests it. Or rather she detests the way that it has always been marketed.

"I look on the internet and I learn that I am the literary queen of the lesbians, the person who wrote the first lesbian, erotic pulp novel. I hate it. I hate it," Ms Torres said. "If you look at Women's Barracks, there are five main characters. Only one and a half of them can be considered a lesbian."

Sixty years after she wrote Women's Barracks, Ms Torres has almost completed a rewrite. The new version, to be published in France later this year, will, she says, be "a more serious, more complete, better rounded book". It will have a "new character"– the British capital itself and how it responded "with exemplary courage" to the Blitz.

Ms Torres spent almost all the war, from the age of 19, as a Free French soldier in London. As she approaches her 90th birthday, she has tried to become, once again, the young woman in her late 20s who wrote Women's Barracks to "make a little money".

She says: "You know, that has really not been so hard. I don't feel cut off from the person that I was at that time. The London of 1940 to 1945 remains vivid and present to me.

"And don't worry. I have not taken out any of the steamy parts, which are in any case not so steamy as all that. I am just adding more context, more sense of what we young French women were doing, not just hopping from bed to bed."

The original Women's Barracks is, by modern standards, hardly a daring book and certainly not a prurient one. It is an often-beautifully written account of the compulsive lovemaking and self-deception of young men and women – especially women - thrust together in wartime.

"She didn't understand what was happening to her. Claude was not a man: then what was she doing to her? What strange movements! What could they mean? Claude unbuttoned the jacket of her pyjamas and enclosed one of Ursula's little breasts in her hand ..."

That is about as naughty as it gets.

In rewriting her book, Ms Torres is drawing heavily on her own wonderful diaries of wartime London, published so far only in French. They contain compelling descriptions of the "end of the world" atmosphere of London 70 years ago this autumn: "The vulgarity, the love, the vice, the alcohol, amidst the bombardments, the death, the strained nerves."

Older people and children take shelter in the Tube stations. The younger people pack into "sweat-smelling pubs", restaurants and clubs while high explosives fall in the next street.

In the new version of her novel, Ms Torres plans to reveal one or two secrets. With the passage of time, they are no longer the unexploded bombs that they once were.

In Women's Barracks, one of the five heroines has a passionate affair with a famous, married British man, described as a "conductor". The episode is based on a real-life love affair between one of Tereska's young, French female soldier friends and the actor Leslie Howard (Gone with the Wind et al).

Women's Barracks must be the most famous French novel never to have been published in French. Ms Torres lost the original French manuscript and has, until now, resisted requests to translate or rewrite it.

In 1948, after her first husband, Georges Torres, had been killed in the war, she married the American war correspondent and writer, Meyer Levin. One wet summer in Brittany, when they were short of money, she began to write Women's Barracks.

Meyer Levin translated the book into English and took it around the publishers in the US. Most ran a mile. A new pulp paperback house, Fawcett, accepted it eagerly but insisted on introducing a narrator to comment disapprovingly on what the young women were doing.

A couple of years ago, Tereska's French publisher, Phébus, finally persuaded her to translate the original English version back into French. She agreed, so long as she could ditch the moralising narrator, but then rapidly changed her mind about the whole project.

The French publisher was so insistent that Ms Torres agreed late last year radically to rewrite Women's Barracks as Jeunes Femmes en Uniforme (young women in uniform).

"You know, finally, I realised that this book was not so bad after all. The second half especially, when you get rid of the stupid narrator, is really quite good," she said.

This is what friends, and legions of unknown readers, have been trying to tell Ms Torres for years. Women's Barracks did not become a classic for nothing.

"Re-reading and working on this book," she mused, "I think the story my story of French women soldiers in London in wartime might make a very good film. Or even, why not, a musical ... "

Love in war: Extracts from 'Women's Barracks'

"A woman like Claude offered no interest either to Petit or to Ann. They rather disdained her, with the disdain of the true artist for the dilettante. They never considered her a lesbian. They said of her: "She's a pervert, a curiosity seeker." And as to Claude's lesbianism, this was true.

"We had known so little of these matters when we came to the barracks and now we were able to distinguish between the various grades. Through Ann, I realised that Claude made love with women not because of absolute physical necessity but through snobbism and in order to excite her masculine lovers. She also felt that she was revenging herself on them, through feeling that she was just as strong as they in winning women..."

* "After her first unnerving visit to a pub full of soldiers, she had hurried along a dark, alien street and found again at the end of it Claude – beautiful shining Claude – who at that moment must have seemed to her the very embodiment of warmth and safety and gentleness.

"Claude raised Ursula's chin with one hand, drawing her face closer, and suddenly... she kissed Ursula on the mouth. "

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