Elizabeth Bennet reads Mr Darcy’s letter

The account of his [Wickham’s] connection with the Pemberley family, was exactly what he had related himself; and the kindness of the late Mr. Darcy, though she had not before known its extent, agreed equally well with his own words. So far each recital confirmed the other: but when she came to the will, the difference was great. What Wickham had said of the living was fresh in her memory, and as she recalled his very words, it was impossible not to feel that there was gross duplicity on one side or the other; and, for a few moments, she flattered herself that her wishes did not err. But when she read, and re-read with the closest attention, the particulars immediately following of Wickham’s resigning all pretensions to the living, of his receiving in lieu, so considerable a sum as three thousand pounds, again was she forced to hesitate. She put down the letter, weighed every circumstance with what she meant to be impartiality – deliberated on the probability of each statement – but with little success. On both sides it was only assertion. Again she read on. But every line proved more clearly that the affair, which she had believed it impossible that any contrivance could so represent, as to render Mr. Darcy’s conduct in it less than infamous, was capable of a turn which must make him entirely blameless throughout the whole.

Jane Austen ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Oxford World’s Classics edition (1990) p. 182

firth and ehle

This passage represents a turning point in the narrative: first Darcy and then Elizabeth are forced to reassess their own embedded narratives (Palmer, 2004) in order to incorporate that of the other. Darcy has spent much of the night writing an explanatory letter to Elizabeth after she has given her reasons for refusing his proposal of marriage, and the excerpt under discussion shows Elizabeth’s reaction on reading this letter and learning a different sort of truth to the one she has previously upheld. The world-view of each character alters dramatically, and this change is reflected also in the situation of the reader, who is forced to revisit and reassess the novel’s events up to this point at the same time Elizabeth does so, and is therefore subject to the same reading experience as Elizabeth. Many of Elizabeth’s memories will tally with the reader’s recollection of events, and the reader, alongside Elizabeth, will revise formerly-created contextual frames (Emmott, 1997). It is now that the reader will realise that many of these memories were not, in fact, impartially formed, but were coloured by Elizabeth’s perception of events. She is the novel’s focaliser, and at this point she is also the focalised while she examines her recollections and even her conscience: this passage occurs shortly before Elizabeth famously cries out: ‘Till this moment, I never knew myself’ (185). It is at this moment in the novel that the difference between the narrator and focaliser is apparent, and once this difference is recognised, the reader is also cognisant of the extent to which the two were previously confused. The narrator has encouraged the deception of the reader through discreet use of the focaliser-character’s world-view to distort the creation of memory as the novel’s events occurred, thus enabling the narrator to administer a salutary corrective to both Elizabeth and the reader when Darcy’s letter is read and the ugly truth about Wickham’s character known.

The narrator states that Elizabeth has to collect herself before re-reading the letter, an activity described as a ‘mortifying perusal of all that related to Wickham’ (182). Although Darcy is not yet exonerated for his part in Bingley’s rejection of Jane, the narrator indicates here that he is in no way to be held accountable for Wickham’s misfortunes, and that Elizabeth knows this to be the case even before she embarks upon reading the letter for a second time. In writing the letter, Darcy has provided his own defence against Wickham’s aspersions, and Elizabeth is to judge between the two narratives. The passage under consideration shows Elizabeth weighing the evidence before passing judgement. Sections of Darcy’s letter reappear in paraphrase: for example, ‘Wickham’s resigning all pretensions to the living, of his receiving in lieu, so considerable a sum as three thousand pounds’; thus the reader receives the same information twice in quick succession having read Darcy’s letter in the chapter preceding, and these reiterations now serve as a makeshift summing-up. In addition, these paraphrases are iconic of Elizabeth’s own experience of re-reading Darcy’s words, as she also repeatedly encounters the same information in her several attempts to digest the contents of the letter.

The written form of the chosen passage also mirrors the meaning in a more immediate sense. Vocabulary choices reflect both language of a legal character, and the act of comparing two differing accounts of the same events and weighing or measuring one account against the other: exactly, equally, confirmed, difference, on one side or the other, read and re-read, put down, weighed, deliberated, probability, each statement, both, assertion, every line proved, impossible, represent, entirely, the whole. On a syntactical level, Elizabeth’s mental gymnastics are encapsulated in the way in which her initial thoughts are each time balanced against another statement introduced with the co-ordinating conjunction ‘but’, which appears four times in this short excerpt. The ‘written’ nature of the passage reveals to the reader the presence of a narrator beyond Elizabeth’s consciousness, and if this were not enough, the narrator’s voice actively intrudes three times to make it clear to the reader that Elizabeth is mentally fighting against the information newly-received, and in the process is doing her best to retain her former mind-set: ‘for a few moments, she flattered herself that her wishes did not err’; ‘weighed every circumstance with what she meant to be impartiality’; and thirdly, the twisty final line of the passage contains a subordinate clause which comprises 23 words – exactly the same number as the main clause. Darcy is found to be ‘blameless’ in the more important main clause, but the lengthy subordinate clause represents the depth and rigidity of the opinion Elizabeth had willingly formed beforehand. She finds her previous opinion difficult to relinquish, as demonstrated here in the syntax of subordinate clause (former beliefs) versus main clause (new beliefs). While Elizabeth struggles hard to exonerate Wickham, in the end she cannot do so, and is therefore confronted not only with the downfall and disgrace of her former favourite, but also the humiliating knowledge that she herself has judged wrongly and has allowed her prejudice to blind her to the reality of the situation: ‘Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned’ (185). Elizabeth now joins the narrator in balancing her words: pleased/offended; preference/neglect; ignorance/reason.

Until this moment, the narrator has colluded with the focaliser-character to mislead the reader, and now the narrator takes a step back to uncover the deception. Elizabeth’s desire for Wickham to be innocent is clearly acknowledged by the narrator, tied as this circumstance is to Elizabeth’s self-respect, and her partiality is revealed. In staying close to Elizabeth, the narrator has before this moment presented her views as if they were the objective truth, but in retrospect, both the reader and Elizabeth can see that her emotional response at the time of previous meetings with the two men was instrumental in the formation of her memory of each event (Wiltshire, 2014). Darcy’s revelations force Elizabeth to confront the folly of her behaviour and she says in conversation with Jane: ‘ “the misfortune of speaking with bitterness, is a most natural consequence of the prejudices I had been encouraging” ’ (200). In accepting without question Elizabeth’s view of Darcy and Wickham before Darcy writes his letter, the reader has also been hoodwinked and is complicit in Elizabeth’s shame. Austen’s narrator is one who deceives in order to instruct, a very different approach to the didactic satirical method adopted by Swift in Gulliver’s Travels. Austen chooses to involve the reader instead of actively preaching and the linear character of the reading experience is very much taken into account by Austen’s wily narrator. Austen is well-known as an accomplished exponent of free indirect discourse, and it is through liberal use of such that voices of narrator, focaliser and character become intermingled and indistinguishable; thus when the rebuke comes for Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, the reader feels it just as keenly. Re-reading Austen is a very different experience to an initial reading of her novels because one can only be fooled by the likes of George Wickham and Frank Churchill once. The pleasure in re-reading is in retracing exactly how the deception was carried out.

In terms of the story, this is a moment when nothing is happening. Elizabeth is merely reading and re-reading Darcy’s letter while remembering and reassessing former events. Genette would refer to this as a pause in the story (1980), but this is not to say that the same is true of the narrative: in actual fact, there is an enormous amount of mental activity happening at this point which will determine how future events play themselves out. It is, as previously stated, a pivotal moment in the narrative. Elizabeth is made aware of her error and from this point onwards she begins to fall in love with Darcy. In Proppian terms, this is the moment when the hero is recognised and the false hero or villain exposed (Toolan, 2001: 19-20).

It is notable also that Elizabeth’s mental activity at this crucial juncture is linked to one of the much wider themes of the novel. Wiltshire argues that Pride and Prejudice is a novel about memory and how memories are created (2014: 51-71), and the whole of chapter thirteen of Austen’s novel, from which this extract is taken, is given over to Elizabeth’s musings on reading the letter. Elizabeth examines her memory of events and makes several corrections in the light of what she now knows. The reader is not strictly witnessing flashbacks, but the narrator actively points the reader to previous episodes where Elizabeth interprets events according to the background context entertained at the time, which leads to the creation of a memory coloured by an emotional response: the relevant parts of the text are ‘was exactly what he had related himself’; and ‘agreed equally well with his own words’; but then the vital difference emerges in relation to Darcy’s father’s will and ‘What Wickham had said of the living’.

List of references:

Austen, J. (1990 [1813]) Pride and Prejudice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Emmott, C. (1997) Narrative Comprehension: A Discourse Perspective. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Genette, G. (1980) Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Palmer, A. (2004) Fictional Minds. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Swift, J. (1967 [1726]) Gulliver’s Travels. J. Chalker & P. Dixon. Eds. London: Penguin.

Toolan, M. (2001) Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Wiltshire, J. (2014) The Hidden Jane Austen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Focalisation in Chaucer and Swift

In the following exercise, I’ve made use of a focalisation framework to examine passages from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The passages are reproduced in full below.

Text 1: Geoffrey Chaucer The Canterbury Tales

General Prologue lines 309-330: The Sergeant of the Law

309 A Sergeant of the Lawe, war and wys,

310 That often hadde been at the Parvys,

311 Ther was also, ful riche of excellence.

312 Discreet he was and of greet reverence –

313 He semed swich, his wordes were so wise.

314 Justice he was ful often in assise,

315 By patente and by pleyn commissioun.

316 For his science and for his heigh renoun,

317 Of fees and robes hadde he many oon.

318 So greet a purchasour was nowher noon:

319 Al was fee symple to hym in effect;

320 His purchasyng myghte nat been infect.

321 Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas,

322 And yet he semed bisier than he was.

323 In termes hadde he caas and doomes alle

324 That from the tyme of kyng William were falle.

325 Therto he koude endite and make a thyng,

326 Ther koude no wight pynche at his writyng;

327 And every statut koude he pleyn by rote.

328 He rood but hoomly in a medlee cote,

329 Girt with a ceint of silk, with barres smale;

330 Of his array telle I no lenger tale.

Chaucer’s portrait of the lawyer is traditionally viewed as satirical. The editor of The Riverside Chaucer notes one or two exceptions to this trend (Benson, 1988: 811), but my personal inclination is towards the less favourable picture of this particular pilgrim.

On first reading this passage, I divided up the description into four sections as follows: 1) the lawyer’s wisdom and professional reputation; 2) his activities as a buyer of land; 3) how his learning enables and facilitates his land-buying activities; 4) his relatively humble attire. I considered also the placing of the lawyer in between the Clerk (or university student) and the Franklin. The Clerk has devoted his life to study and possesses very little; the Franklin is a landowner and an Epicurean. The lawyer shares traits with both these characters: he is learned, like the Clerk, but he uses his learning to facilitate the purchase of land thereby consolidating his wealth and position. The lawyer is a landowner like the Franklin, but while the Franklin enjoys a reputation as a bon viveur, the lawyer appears avaricious and miserly in his ‘medlee cote’. The lawyer’s reputation is that of a ‘greet…purchasour’ (land-buyer), contrasted with the Franklin who is known as a ‘worthy vavasour’ (feudal landholder).

Lawyers had equal status to knights in Chaucer’s time (Benson, 1988: 811) and the Sergeant of the Law’s position is entrenched by his knowledge of existing legislation and precedence dating back to the days of King William, approximately 350 years before The Canterbury Tales appeared. The lawyer represents a societal stratum which reinforces and perpetuates the status quo out of self-interest, and he acquires land apparently without restraint: ‘Al was fee symple to hym in effect’. His belt with its stripes (‘barres’) serves as a metaphor for the system the lawyer serves, a system that is impregnable, unimpeachable, which both debars those not learned from entry and protects those it encompasses.

manoflawbigIn considering the presence of irony in this passage, I came to the following conclusions. It seems unlikely that the lawyer would have presented his land-buying activities in this way and it is not clear how the narrator has gained his knowledge, unless it be by former acquaintance with the lawyer and his reputation (‘So greet a purchasour was nowher noon’). A conversation between the narrator and the lawyer could be imagined, but the reporting of the lawyer’s character and the conclusions drawn would seem to belong entirely to the narrator. There is a throwaway observation in ‘And yet he semed bisier than he was’ which undermines and corrodes the portrait painted so far, as does the reference to the lawyer’s ‘purchasyng’ which interrupts the description of his work as a ‘Justice’. The statements made in relation to the lawyer’s land-buying activities are unproven and could be based purely on hypothetical imaginings on the narrator’s part, but the reader takes it on trust that these statements are true. A pilgrimage is evidently a democratic activity, but the lawyer does not represent a democratic order and the ironic tone of the narrator perhaps highlights this. The lawyer’s words are reported as ‘wise’, but the reader is not allowed to hear the lawyer speak in the passage under consideration. His story, when he tells it, is one of justice being meted out by the gods and, given the evidence in the narrator’s portrait, the reader may be inclined to wonder whether this is how the lawyer imagines his own position in society. The use of irony or satire means taking a stance in relation to the character and it does seem that the narrator is setting himself up as a moral judge. The pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales represent sections of Chaucer’s society and they all come under the scrutiny of a narrator who is a long way from being impartial.

I reconsidered the same passage using a focalisation/point of view framework and some interesting points emerged. There is a conflict between the narrator’s position as pilgrim and the extent of knowledge possessed about his fellow travellers, as is clearly demonstrated in the passage describing the lawyer. I understood the focaliser to be the voice of Chaucer’s pilgrim, and the narrator to be the voice who presents all the information not available to the focaliser. This is one and the same voice, however: what is presented here is an internal focaliser with the attributes of an external focaliser who can penetrate the consciousness of the focalised. The pilgrim is one of the characters and therefore should be limited to external observations and restricted knowledge of the other characters, but this is not the case. The focalised is both internal and external which means that Chaucer’s pilgrim can provide the reader with the same kind of information that would be available to an omniscient narrator. Rimmon-Kenan notes that focalisation and narration are separate in first-person retrospective narratives (2002: 74), which could account for the stance presented here if the time of narration could be confidently asserted, but The Canterbury Tales remains unfinished and without an ending, the reader cannot know whether or not the relation of this pilgrimage is synchronous with events as they unfold.

In the pilgrim’s description of the lawyer it is possible that what is presented is two separate views of the lawyer’s reputation, because there certainly seems to be the expression of a collective voice in line 318: ‘So greet a purchasour was nowher noon’. Lines 309-317 show the lawyer as a professional man and a wise judge, whereas lines 318-327 paint a different picture – the lawyer as land-grabbing opportunist who makes use of his legal knowledge to ensure that no protest against his large-scale purchase of land is possible. If this view were accepted, it may be possible to argue for two different focalisers: an internal focaliser for lines 309-317 and an external focaliser for lines 318-327. The portrait ends with an external focaliser who describes the details of the lawyer’s dress in lines 328-330, but this placing of such a description is calculated. It does not come at the beginning of the portrait as one might have expected, but appears after the reader has learned of the lawyer’s acquisition of land through his legal know-how, and in the light of this knowledge, the reader may feel inclined to consider this modest dress as a disguise or a mask rather than a mark of humility on the lawyer’s part; as previously stated, the lawyer’s silk belt decorated with stripes functions symbolically as the bars which exclude others not of the same status from an impenetrable ‘club’. It is strange that the narrating pilgrim should so decidedly clam up over the lawyer’s appearance (‘Of his array telle I no lenger tale’) when he has previously made some very pointed insinuations about his methods of buying land. It is notable also that the lawyer does not wear his purse on his belt as many of the other pilgrims do; his wealth does not lie in coinage, but in the knowledge of legal cases and judicial decisions that allows him to manipulate the law for his own purposes.

The voice of the focaliser intrudes into this short portrait at three points: in lines 313, 322 and 330. The use of ‘semed’ in lines 313 and 322 suggests that the inner state of the focalised is implicit by external behaviour (Rimmon-Kenan, 2002: 82), and the modality of these two lines casts doubt on the portrait painted: the lawyer only seems to be wise and his apparent busyness is flatly contradicted. In sum, there is a very clear ideological stance from which the lawyer is assessed. The modality of the pilgrim’s interjections suggests that there is reason to doubt the lawyer’s integrity, and the structure of the portrait places the lawyer’s professional work in direct juxtaposition with his activities as a ‘purchasour’; these activities fall no doubt within the law, but it is clearly intimated in the assertion that no man would stand a chance of questioning these land-purchases that there is something distasteful or perhaps immoral about the way in which the transactions are performed. The focalisation/point of view framework was very useful in that its application threw up a great number of questions, not all of which could be answered confidently. The spatiotemporal orientation is fairly easy to pinpoint – that of Chaucer’s pilgrim – but the source of the psychological and ideological orientation is much more complicated. In recognising this, however, the reader becomes more attuned to the satire of The Canterbury Tales and is far less likely to take the text at face value without question.

Text 2: Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels (excerpt)

I lay down on the Grass, which was very short and soft, where I slept sounder than ever I remember to have done in my Life, and as I reckoned, above nine Hours; for when I awaked, it was just Day-light. I attempted to rise, but was not able to stir: For as I happen’d to lye on my Back, I found my Arms and Legs were strongly fastened on each side to the Ground; and my Hair, which was long and thick, tied down in the same manner. I likewise felt several slender Ligatures across my Body, from my Armpits to my Thighs. I could only look upwards, the Sun began to grow hot, and the Light offended mine Eyes. I heard a confused Noise about me, but in the Posture I lay, could see nothing except the Sky. In a little Time I felt something alive moving on my left Leg, which advancing gently forward over my Breast, came almost up to my Chin; when bending mine Eyes downwards as much as I could, I perceived it to be a human Creature not six Inches high, with a Bow and Arrow in his Hands, and a Quiver at his Back. In the mean time, I felt at least forty more of the same kind (as I conjectured) following the first. I was in the utmost Astonishment, and roared so loud, that they all ran back in a Fright; and some of them, as I was afterwards told, were hurt with the Falls they got by leaping from my Sides upon the Ground.

Gulliver’s Travels is another satirical work, but by way of contrast, the narrator-focaliser is very much internal. In fact, this text is perhaps one of those for which ‘it is debatable whether we need to posit a focaliser position distinct from the narratorial one’ (Toolan, 2001: 63). Gulliver’s point of view is represented throughout, and the satirical intent of the work is therefore displaced up a level – the satirist is Swift, the author, not Gulliver, the narrator-focaliser. The focaliser is internal, and the focalised external. Everything is rendered from Gulliver’s viewpoint as and when he encounters each new event, and as such, he is the spatiotemporal ‘zero point’. In terms of Rimmon-Kennan’s analysis, the perceptual facets of space and time are both internal (limited and synchronous); the cognitive element of the psychological facet is internal (restricted); and the emotive element of the psychological facet is also internal (subjective and involved). The ideological facet is more complicated: the text functions as a satire on another text (Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe) and as a blistering attack on humankind in general. Gulliver’s Travels is not to be read in the same way as Robinson Crusoe, because the story related could not possibly be true. Defoe’s novel stretches credibility, but it is not the fantasy that Swift’s work represents. For Swift, Gulliver’s voyages are a way of exploring the true subject: the shortcomings of human beings and human society.

In analysing this short passage from Swift’s novel, I found Emmott’s contextual frame theory to be rather more profitable than the analysis based on focalisation and point of view, and Emmott’s theory threw up a very intriguing question in relation to a proleptic statement which I shall discuss shortly.

gulliver

As is the case in Robinson Crusoe, the distance travelled by the hero and the time taken to do so are carefully documented, thereby suggesting a kind of map and a hint that the reader may be able to mimic the journey undertaken if inclined to do so. When Gulliver awakes after the shipwreck, he is quite literally bound into the frame. He can only see the sky, but the reader can see him and the ‘Ligatures’ that bind him to the ground. (Gulliver’s hair is also tied down, and according to Emmott’s framework, the statement that Gulliver’s hair is long and thick is the only piece of non-episodic information throughout the passage; the remainder is specific to the frame in question and is therefore episodic in nature.) At this point, and consistent with the internal narrator-focaliser, the contents of the frame are limited entirely to what Gulliver himself can see, feel and hear. The Lilliputian who first climbs onto Gulliver’s left leg is bound into the frame when Gulliver becomes aware of him, but because Gulliver cannot see the Lilliputian, the reader’s first assumption may well be that the small man is some kind of insect. When the other Lilliputians follow, the reader accepts Gulliver’s conjecture that these beings are more of the same and binds them into the frame accordingly. Gulliver does the only thing he can do and shouts aloud, which startles the Lilliputians and causes them to jump off. This leads to a proleptic moment in the text: ‘and some of them, as I was afterwards told, were hurt with the Falls they got by leaping from my Sides upon the Ground’ (my emphasis). In the context of Emmott’s framework, this prolepsis is extremely interesting. The reader will create a frame, but personal expectations will dictate what frame is created. Clearly Gulliver survives the current episode, but what does the reader imagine will happen next? If Gulliver is being reprimanded for hurting the Lilliputians who fell, is he still in danger? Is he still in shackles? The ‘telling’ of ‘as I was afterwards told’ is reported in the passive voice, so the reader does not know who is doing the telling and in what context. This allows for many imaginative possibilities. Any frame that the reader forms of Gulliver’s future at this point must be integral to that particular reader’s narrative expectations and perhaps also their hopes concerning the character of Lemuel Gulliver.

List of references

Chaucer, G. (1988) The Riverside Chaucer. L. Benson. Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Emmott, C. (1997) Narrative Comprehension: A Discourse Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rimmon-Kenan, S. (2002) Narrative Fiction. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Swift, J. (1967, 1726) Gulliver’s Travels. J. Chalker & P. Dixon. Eds. London: Penguin.

Toolan, M. (2001) Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

 

Book review: Mary McCarthy’s ‘The Group’

(Beware: *spoilers*)

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.