I buy my books and most of my clothes from charity shops these days, and I picked up Mary McCarthy’s The Group from the Oxfam bookshop in Reading. It came complete with a handwritten letter, which I read with absolutely no compunction whatsoever and then used as a bookmark. The letter was written by a girl, using silly turquoise ink and a proliferation of exclamation marks, to thank the recipients for their wonderful house-warming party. McCarthy’s book was returned with the letter, because apparently the boyfriend of the letter-writer had already read it. The letter is interesting for the following reasons:
- The writer doesn’t really have much to say, so keeps returning to the subject of the party: ‘I have told so many people about the party…all their parties sounded extremely dull in comparison’. But this is a thank-you letter after all, and it amply fulfils its function.
- The writer has recently moved and now occupies a room in a terraced Edwardian house in Hereford. The house is not very sanitary because the two other occupants both have ME, so don’t do any cleaning. (The letter is dated 1995, and I remember ME being the debilitating condition du jour back then.)
- The writer’s boyfriend is ‘very keen’ at the moment, which seems to be rather more than one can say for the writer. Boyfriend is shelling out his hard-earned to take Ms Turquoise Ink skiing in Cyprus in February, and she happily invites the recipients of the letter to come along too, presumably so as not to be left alone with Boyfriend.
- The writer wants her own house and openly admits to being jealous of the house-warming pair.
It seems a very fitting letter to be supplied – albeit accidentally – with a copy of The Group. The writer is clearly quite young and still finding her feet. She needs to communicate her anxieties about the pushy boyfriend. She wants a home of her own. She doesn’t want to wash in a bathtub that has a ring of grease around it. All very similar to the protagonists of McCarthy’s story, who have just graduated from Vassar – which was still a women-only college in 1933, when the story begins – and they too are about to begin making their own way in the world.
The book tells you about the United States as it was back then. In following the group members as they set about building their lives, McCarthy explores various issues along the way: mental illness and its treatment (sadly very relevant at the time of putting this blog together), psychoanalysis, sex education, female sexuality and contraception, careers available to women at the time, financial hardship and how those less well-off were perceived, and parenthood. It’s quite a long book, and accustomed as I am to the shorter novels of Muriel Spark, it took me a little while to get used to the feel of a longer narrative again. I did enjoy it though, in spite of its story-that’s-not-really-a-story set-up: the book is actually a mixture of autobiographical material, fictional group biography, and socio-historical data mixed with political commentary. The end result is that I learnt quite a lot about the States in the pre-war years. An English equivalent in terms of the novel’s form is Margaret Drabble’s The Radiant Way, in which the central figures are a group of female Cambridge graduates: these young women are fictional vehicles through which the narrator can discuss and explore 1980s England.
In McCarthy’s novel, the rotten marriage of Kay Strong and Harald forms the larger framing narrative for the rest of the group’s stories: the book begins with one ceremony, the marriage, and ends with another, Kay’s funeral. Harald, unfortunately, turns out to be A Bad Lot, and he is the key figure in one of the most frightening episodes in the book: after a nasty domestic fight, he succeeds in persuading Kay that she needs to go to hospital for ‘a rest’ and, without her knowledge, he has her committed. If he hadn’t regretted his actions the next day, Kay might have been stuck in a mental institution for good.
Pokey Protheroe is fairly incidental to the novel. She is plump and stupid, and cushioned by wealth. Other members of the group get a chapter or two to themselves, but when it is Pokey’s turn, it is the family’s butler, Hatton, who takes centre stage.
Dottie Renfrew’s function in the novel is to show us that the Vassar girls have learned what they know of sex and sexuality from Kraft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, the saucier parts of which were written in Latin. Kraft-Ebbing died in 1902 and his theories had already been superseded by those of Sigmund Freud by the time of Kay’s marriage; in a later chapter, Norine Schmittlapp declares Freud also to be out of date (but we have to be slightly wary of Norine’s view, because a few paragraphs later she claims that Kay suffers from penis-envy). The point is that Dottie has learnt about sex from a text-book written partly in the language of the educated few by a man who believed that women were essentially passive sexually and that masturbation led to homosexuality in men. Dottie herself turns out to be highly sexed, and is roused to orgasm the very first time she sleeps with a man. Dottie’s adventures in procuring a ‘pessary’ (or diaphragm) are recounted in detail, so the reader is made aware of the etiquette and social pitfalls surrounding the whole area of contraception in the States at this time.
Libby MacAusland is the character we can’t really warm to, even before Elinor Eastlake condemns her as a ‘mauvaise fille’. Another member of the group, Polly Andrews, categorises Kay and Libby together as ‘assured, aggressive girls’: Polly deals with her instinctive dislike by feeling sorry for them. Libby is a writer who tries to make a career in publishing, but her education has not equipped her for the job: she works hard, but inefficiently. She is told to marry a man in publishing and be his hostess instead, which is more or less what she does.
Polly Andrews is the kindest member of the group, although she has the stigma of being a poor scholarship girl: at one point in the narrative, Polly is reduced to selling her own blood in order to support her father, whose mental condition is rather unstable. She has an affair with Libby’s publishing acquaintance Gus LeRoy, who is undergoing analysis. Polly is dubious of the value of this exercise, especially given its cost – every week, Gus spends the equivalent of Kay’s weekly wage from Macy’s on his visits to the analyst, and we later learn that he does not even say anything during these visits. On one occasion, he falls asleep, but still faithfully pays his $5 at the end of the session. Gus leaves Polly because he considers himself ‘blocked’ by their relationship, and he returns to his unfaithful wife instead.
Helena Davison’s mother, fixated as she is on not having been college-educated, seems to be more of a character than the androgynous Helena. Helena’s role is in providing an opportunity for Norine, the girl who was never accepted into the group, to spill the beans about her affair with Harald.
Priss Hartshorn is also given a scene with Norine in which Norine does most of the talking, but this time the subject is child-rearing. Priss marries Sloan, a paediatrician. After a series of miscarriages, she finally goes full-term and becomes a mother, a role for which she is essentially unsuited, because prissy Priss shies away in terror from the physical side of human existence. She doesn’t like sex. She won’t clean her son’s penis properly for fear that he should become aroused. She doesn’t like her husband to touch her breasts, but allows herself to be bullied into breastfeeding her child because she hopes to conquer this aversion. It doesn’t work. Priss fears that her child will suffer because his father is a paediatrician and he views Stephen, the baby, as an ideal means of testing his theories of parenthood. As a baby, Stephen is left to cry in a cold room in the hospital – often for two or more hours straight – because the nurses are not allowed to pick him up and Priss has been given instructions not to do so. We meet Stephen again when he is two-and-a-half and although he is generally well-behaved, Priss has not managed to toilet-train him and she considers Stephen’s crap-filled pants to be a sign of rebellion. What’s more, it is clear to the reader that Stephen will end up being enormously overweight, because on both occasions when he makes a grab for something Priss doesn’t want him to touch – a dummy, or ‘pacifier’ in the first instance and Norine’s maid’s breasts in the second – she distracts him by giving him something sweet to eat.
Finally, there is Lakey, Elinor Eastlake, who is largely absent from the narrative, yet presides over it: she reminds me of Geraldine in Muriel Spark’s The Abbess of Crewe, absent and yet somehow present. Lakey spends most of the novel in Europe, but she returns to the States when WWII breaks out, with her titled lesbian lover in tow. Lakey and Harald share the final scene…and Lakey emerges triumphant.
Just one final reference to Muriel Spark before I turn this in…to a Spark reader, McCarthy’s novel can’t help but bring to mind the Brodie set: a group of girls who are singled out for special attention, and whose education, extensive though it is, proves to be more of a hindrance than a help. Dottie is ludicrously unprepared for her first sexual encounter; Kay works in Macy’s to support the hopeless theatrical career of Hopeless Harald, a career Kay had once wanted for herself; Priss is made to give up her work with the National Recovery Administration to focus on child-rearing and her paediatrician husband dictates her every move even in this; Helena’s father doesn’t want her to take a job because she is over-qualified for it; Libby’s high ideals make her unsuited for publishing as a profession; Pokey’s education doesn’t matter because she’s rich and she never really took an awful lot of notice of it anyway; as a nurse, Polly seems to be pursuing a career acceptable for women in 1933, but she can’t make enough money to support herself and her father. The beautiful and inscrutable Lakey is the one who takes her education further by studying art history – and her own sexuality – in Europe.
I wonder which member of the group Ms Turquoise Ink, the letter-writer whose letter I so shamelessly read, most identified with? If I were in a catty mood, my guess would be Libby.