The Triple Echo: a novella and a film
The Triple Echo was a novella written by H. E. Bates and published in installments in the Daily Telegraph magazine in 1969. (It was published in book form in 1970.) It is the story of an army deserter in war time England who finds refuge in the home of a married woman trying to run a farm while her husband is a prisoner of war in Japan. Her antipathy for the army overrules her initial suspicion of the deserter, a farm boy who loathes the rigid rules of army life. Though not at first inclined to share her home, she finds his company pleasant after the years of solitude she has endured and before long they share an intimate relationship.
One day the military knocks on her door, and fearing they are looking for her soldier the woman tells them she lives alone with her sister. After this narrow escape, the deserter gradually adopts female dress when working in the fields to avoid suspicion and arrest. This is the beginning of her awakening as a trans woman, something Bates chooses not to explain, but which he simply describes as a process that gradually overpowers her previous identity as a male.
Knowing that two women live there alone, the two members of the military keep returning to the farmhouse in an effort to convince them to come to the local dance. Their attempt to seduce the women are more harassment than love making, and Alice (the woman farmer) being familiar with male privilege shuns their advances. Her “sister”, however, who has adopted the name Kath, finds it flattering to her new found femininity, and soon makes the fatal mistake of accompanying one of the men to the dance.
Since it does not end well for our trans heroine, people have asked me why I chose Triple Echo for the title of the ‘zine. The novella is remarkable in that, during a period where trans people were at best pathologized and at worst vilified, it portrays without judgement the awakening of a trans woman. I’ve tried to determine how Bates was able to create such a plausible portrait at a time when the “research” about trans women was so toxic, but I’ve been unable to determine if he knew any trans women personally.
More than that, however, The Triple Echo is an interesting exploration of gender, gender roles, and an indictment of male privilege. Although it is clearly difficult to sustain her farm alone, Alice cherishes her new found independence and has “grown intensely, almost fiercely jealous about her few acres of land.” Before deserting, the soldier Barton visits the farm on leave and helps with the chores in a traditional male way, notably fixing and maintaining her broken tractor.
After he deserts and adopts a female identity, however, his role becomes restrictive. He first complains, “Do you think I like parading about as a woman?”, but it becomes clear later that it is his confinement he really objects to. The opportunity to get out of the house and go out in the world as a woman is impossible to resist. He delights in Alice’s pink chiffon dress – “It fits me a treat. I tried your green one but it doesn’t go” – and then with some pride challenges Alice: “With the dress on and all that, would you know I wasn’t a woman?”
(“I don’t know anything.” Alice replies. “I don’t know anything. Not any more.” This reaction reminded me of Ray Davies’ lyrics to Lola. “Girls will be boys and boys will be girls, It’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world.”)
Alice’s rage at Kath’s going out with the sergeant can be viewed more as jealousy than distaste for Kath’s adoption of a woman’s identity. Indeed, it is clear at this point that Alice has become the man in their relationship. It was she who encouraged Barton to adopt female dress, and “insisted he had a bust.” The appearance of an improvised, rolled up sweater “was false and clumsy and instead she took a bra of her own, sewed cotton wool into the cups and insisted he wear that instead.” When their relationship is under stress because of the sergeant’s repeated visits, and they reconcile and make love, she “stroked his hair. It’s extraordinary fineness, feminine as it looked, excited her further.” Alice wishes the snow that starts falling days before the dance would continue. “Again she felt herself and Barton to be cut off from the world…. This white imprisonment uplifted her. Paradoxically, wonderfully, she felt free.”
The Triple Echo was made into a movie in 1972. It was directed by Michael Apted and starred Glenda Jackson as Alice, Oliver Bates as the sexist sergeant, and Brian Deacon as the deserter Barton. (In the United States the title was dumbed down to “Soldier in Skirts”, a sorry attempt at titillation that thoroughly misinterprets Bates’s novella. I doubt very much that a thoughtful director like Michael Apted had any part in the renaming.) When it was released, critics gave the film mediocre reviews, but my interpretation of the reviews is that the critics simply didn’t understand it. Like the novella, the movie is primarily about Alice, but in my last viewing of the film I felt it put a greater emphasis on Alice’s experience of the male world. I particularly liked the symbol Apted employed of the male war machinery running roughshod over the woman’s fields. Glenda Jackson was a superb choice for Alice, and could there be a better actor to portray the boorish sergeant than Oliver Reed?
Both the novella and the film are disturbing stories, but the movie is the more frightening version in that it shows what happens at the dance, a scene that Bates leaves entirely to the reader’s imagination in the novella. The sergeant’s attempted sexual assault on Kath is difficult to watch, and while the endings to both versions are ambiguous, the movie version is the darker of the two. In the movie version, Alice seems to be shooting at the sergeant, but shoots Barton instead as he is jostled in front at the last moment. However, Alice does not appear especially shocked by whom she’s shot and she never shoots the sergeant, as she does in the novella. I don’t understand this revised ending.
In the novella, she “took a long, level aim on the sergeant. Then she fired.” This makes more sense, as in both the film and novella there is a tender domestic scene between Alice and Barton in the moments before, and Alice tries to save him by sending him out to hide in the larder. It’s implied she shoots Barton in error, although because the two men are handcuffed he may have simply staggered forward. Unlike the film, she shoots the sergeant when she fires again. “The sound of shots hit the hillside, ricocheted back, and seemed finally to create, as when she had shot the hare, a triple echo.”
So no, the Triple Echo is not a particularly happy story. However, while watching the film it occurred to me there could have been a happier ending. At one point, Kath, delighted that she was able to pass as a woman after her first encounter with the soldiers, suggests to Alice that she can now go to the village with Alice and live openly as her sister, a suggestion Alice quashes without consideration. Throughout the book there are repeated references to Alice trying to shut out the war and the world outside, trying to create a cocoon around herself and Kath, but she creates a trap for them instead. Alice loves Kath, however, and had she been able to overcome her possessiveness and her own fears she may have realized that Kath’s release from confinement would have also released the tension in their relationship and allowed both of them to live as they desired. Despite its unhappy ending, there are positive lessons to be taken from the story.