- The Group by Mary McCarthy
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
- The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing.
When I went to hear Margaret Drabble give a talk a little while ago, she cited these three books, all published in the sixties, which helped her to know how to live her life. She talked about how she trusted the reports of life written in these novels, and how invaluable they’d been.
I’m ashamed to say that while I knew these novels by reputation to be brilliant and important, I’d not read any of them. So I resolved to read them right away, but of course you know what life is like, other books surface and then you decide to read The Luminaries and lo and behold several months have passed and you’re no closer to having read whatever it was you intended.
I was given another prompt a few weeks ago when I went to see the completely amazing, thought-provoking, brilliant film Hannah Arendt, which focuses on the German philosopher’s coverage of the Eichmann trial in 1961. When Arendt published her report in the New Yorker, in which she wrote that what was so shocking was that Eichmann was really just another bureaucrat, and the horrific things he’d done showed the very ‘banality of evil’, she came under fierce attack. Throughout the film, she has a close and supportive friendship with a certain American novelist called Mary. Hummm… I wondered, could it be Mary McCarthy? Indeed, I later gathered that they did indeed have a very close friendship and their correspondence, published in the nineties but now out of print (might some clever publisher like to reprint it?), is apparently wonderful.
This film, coupled with the sad news of Doris Lessing’s death, made me feel beyond any shadow of a procrastinating doubt that now is the time to read these three novels, no excuses, and so, as soon as I put down the colossal weight of The Luminaries, I picked up The Group.
The Group begins in 1933, when a set of young women, newly graduated from Vassar, gather together for one of their member’s rather unorthodox New York wedding. We follow their different trajectories over the coming years, until the novel comes to a close in the early years of the Second World War. The structure of the novel, with the long time lags between chapters, reminded me a little of One Day. Similarly, I loved watching how this group of friends, who all burst out of college more-or-less on the same footing, drift apart, their lives carrying them in different directions, and then chance to come together again.
Published in 1963, The Group caused a great furore over McCarthy’s frank observations and descriptions of sex, contraception and breastfeeding. There’s a brilliant bit in the second chapter when Dottie loses her virginity:
But the group would never believe, never in a million years, that Dottie Renfrew would come here, to this attic room that smelled of cooking fat, with a man she hardly knew, who made no secret of his intentions, who had been drinking heavily, and who was evidently not in love with her. When she put it that way, crudely, she could scarcely believe it herself, and the side of her that wanted to talk was still hoping, probably, to gain a little time, the way, she had noticed, she always started a discussion of current events with the dentist to keep him from turning on the drill. Dottie’s dimple twinkled. What an odd comparison! If the group could hear that!
So far, so conventional, albeit rather endearing and funny too. But then, just a couple of pages later we get it all in very graphic detail:
Then she felt it the thing she feared … surprisingly warm and smooth, but it hurt terribly, pushing and stabbing.
Then, all of a sudden, she seemed to explode in a series of long, uncontrollable contractions that embarrassed her, like the hiccups, the moment they were over…
The next chapter begins with her lover telling her to:
‘Get yourself a pessary.’
Dottie goes off and gets herself fitted out with some contraception, only to find herself stranded in the park, waiting to meet him:
In the dark, she began quietly to cry and decided to count to a hundred before going. She had reached a hundred for the fifth time when she recognized that it was no use; even if he got her message, he would never come tonight. There seemed to be only one thing left to do. Hoping that she was unobserved, she slipped the contraceptive equipment under the bench she was sitting on and began to walk as swiftly as she could, without attracting attention, to Fifth Avenue.
These two chapters encapsulate exactly what is so brilliant about the novel. Mary McCarthy manages to get inside the heads of each of her characters, telling us what is happening, as focalised through their point of view. So we learn that Dottie is about to go to bed with a man, and that his flat smells of ‘cooking fat’ – what a thing to notice! – and then we are also taken off on her own funny tangent of thought about going to the dentist, and imagining what on earth would the group think. Her orgasm reminds her of having the hiccups! We see the scene as Dottie sees it and swiftly empathise with her, so that when she is left deserted on the bench, it is hard not to share her despondency.
So, firstly, we identify with the characters. Secondly, McCarthy does not shy away from the gory details. Everything is written about with a certain clinical detachment. Here it is sex, then it is getting her diaphragm fitted, later it is the ins and outs of breast-feeding and potty training. If, in the sixties, you were a young woman new to the adult world without a clue what to do and not knowing who to ask, The Group would be a very useful instruction manual. I can see why Margaret Drabble found it so invaluable.
Thirdly, McCarthy makes the – I think – feminist point of how, in spite of the education of these women, their talents, intelligence, money and energy, they are still utterly subject to men. Dottie thinks she knows what she is getting into, having no qualms about losing her virginity to a drunk man who doesn’t love her. She is efficient and organised, going to get herself fitted with contraception so quickly. Then, alas, all this independence crumbles to nothing as she sits on the bench in the park, waiting in vain for her man, and feeling utterly wretched.
It would be too simple to write a novel set in the thirties about a young woman who takes the world by storm. McCarthy’s point in The Group, emphasised by having so many protagonists, is that in spite of these women having every asset, it is a man’s world and no woman can succeed in it.
Dottie, heartbroken by this rejection, ends up marrying someone else, in spite of knowing that she doesn’t really love him. Marriage is the only thing to which these women can really aspire.
Another protagonist, Polly, has a long affair with a married man. When he eventually leaves her to return to his wife, it coincides with her parents divorcing and her father coming to stay. Her father is financially dependent on her and rather profligate with money. Polly soon gets into debt and worries about how they can stay afloat, casting about for a means of supplementing her pay:
She thought of needlework or of marketing her herbal jellies and pomander balls through the Woman’s Exchange. She and her father could make plum puddings of fruit cakes. But when she figured out one day at lunch the profit on a jar of rosemary jelly that would retail, say, at twenty cents a jar, she saw that with the cost of the jars, the sugar, the labels and the shipping, she would have to make five hundred jars to earn $25, and this on the assumption that the fruit and herbs and cooking gas were free … It would be the same with needlework. For the first time she understood the charms of mass production. Her conclusion was that it was idle to think that a person could make money by using her hands in her spare time: you would have to be an invalid or blind to show a profit.
Her father, a manic-depressive, sees the solution and tells her:
‘I intend to find you a husband. For purely selfish reasons. I need a son-in-law to support me in my old age.’
In spite of all Polly’s lateral thinking, this is, in the end of course what happens.
Marriage is not, however, shown to be a bed of roses.
Kay, whose wedding opens the novel, is soon seen to be in a dreadful plight. She gets a job at Macy’s but her marriage is dreadfully unhappy as her husband is a smug, drunk philanderer, who ends up beating her. Grim already, it takes a very sinister turn towards the end when Kay’s husband has her committed to a mental asylum, and she, faced with the choice of going home with him or staying there, decides to stay.
Another character marries a man who sleeps with their baby’s nurse and then blames the wife for letting it happen. Another marries a pediatrician, and is bullied into letting their baby be little more than a case for his career.
Time and again, these enterprising women come up against an obstacle which highlights their dependence on men and the severe limitations of marriage being the only solution. (There is one other solution which is posited, but I don’t want to give a plot spoiler here as it is revealed right at the end. Let it be said, however, that one character manages to sidestep the marriage problem rather neatly, and even gets the better of Kay’s horrible philandering husband.)
Having said all this, The Group doesn’t read like an angry feminist book. McCarthy makes her point, but does so through a very enjoyable narrative, peppered with humour and wry observations. It is not just the plight of women that is portrayed, but New York in the thirties – its literary scene with book-review editors ‘like kings … holding levees, surrounded by their courtiers, while petitioners waited eagerly in the anteroom and footmen trotted back and forth’, its political idealists, its enthusiasm for psychoanalysis, its children of the Depression, and the worries of the impending war in Europe.
The Group manages to be both enjoyable and political, plot-driven and ideologically persuasive. One wonders how Mary McCarthy achieved such a feat. Moreover, one wonders why its publishers today so diminish it by marketing it as little more than the inspiration for Sex and the City.
Now on to The Bell Jar…