Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Drabble’

The Group

November 25, 2013
  • 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.

Hannah Arendt film posterI 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 GroupThe 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.

Until:

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.

Poor Dottie!

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.

Mary McCarthy

Now on to The Bell Jar

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The Millstone

March 4, 2013

What can we do when words fail us?

What happens when we aren’t able to find the words to express ourselves? What can we do if we simply cannot say what we want to?

If someone can’t express themselves using language, perhaps it suggests that language won’t let them say it. Perhaps what they want to say is not allowed to be said. It is taboo, not permitted by society – the words aren’t there to be spoken. Or perhaps what needs to be said is felt so acutely, so deeply, that language seems like too superficial a tool for the job. Perhaps it’s both, in which case one might resort to the following:

I started to scream. I screamed very loudly, shutting my eyes to do it, and listening in amazement to the deafening shindy that filled my head. Once I had started, I could not stop; I stood there, motionless, screaming, whilst they shook me and yelled at me and told me that I was upsetting everybody in earshot. ‘I don’t care,’ I yelled, finding words for my inarticulate passion, ‘I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care about anyone, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care.’

Eventually they got me to sit down, but I went on screaming and moaning and keeping my eyes shut; through the noise I could hear things happening, people coming and going, someone slapped my face, someone tried to put a wet flannel on my head, and all the time I was thinking I must go on doing this until they let me see her. Inside my head it was red and black and very hot, I remember, and I remember also the clearness of my consciousness and the ferocity of my emotion, and myself enduring them, myself neither one nor the other, but enduring them, and not breaking in two.

This astonishing, heart-rending, passionate scream takes place at the heart of Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone. Rosamund Stacey, a young academic and our heroine, has had a baby, in spite of being a single woman. She suffers the indignities given to pregnant women in the sixties who were unmarried – a ‘U’ at the end of the hospital bed, being called ‘Mrs’ by the nurses as ‘a courtesy title’, and suffering people’s general puzzlement as to why she doesn’t ‘have something done about it’ instead. Rosamund, who is quiet but determined, intelligent but unworldly, and who tends to say things like ‘mildly’ and ask ‘whyever not’, somehow gets through her pregnancy and has a baby. But a few weeks later her baby has to return to hospital for an operation:

Possessed by the most fearful anguish, aware, as all must be on such occasions, that my state had changed in ten minutes from unknown bliss to known though undefined sorrow.

Thank God the operation is a success and the baby is said to be recovering well. Rosamund of course wants to go and see her daughter, but is told by the nurse that she can’t. Naturally inclined to do anything at all rather than make a fuss or cause trouble, she eventually agrees to go away, but is ‘out in the corridor before I heard her saying that perhaps in a fortnight or so I might be able to visit.’ Rosamund cannot bear to endure the separation from her baby, in part for herself, but moreover because of the thought of ‘my baby’s small lonely awakening’. She returns to the hospital and insists on seeing her baby, refusing to go away, or be pushed out the door, repeating again and again that she ‘must see’ her baby. Eventually, words evidently failing her, she resorts to this scream. It is made all the more powerful by Rosamund’s quietness, mildness, awkward shyness up to this point. It must be something truly awful to have made her resort to this.

I went to hear Margaret Drabble give a talk last week about women and the novel. She spoke about how she thought of writing as means of ‘creating a future’. I’ve so often thought of that all-too-common piece of advice to write about what you know, to use your experiences, i.e. your past, to inform your writing. I felt very inspired by Drabble’s idea to use writing as a tool to shape the future. Fiction, she said, could be a means of exploring the ‘frontiers and future of female experience’. Yes!

Claire Tomalin wrote that Drabble ‘is one of the few modern novelists who has actually changed government policy, by what she wrote in The Millstone about visiting children in hospital’. Now, thanks in part to Drabble, mothers will never have to scream like Rosamund in order to see their babies. To push at this frontier of experience, Drabble came to the frontier of language; she had to channel ‘inarticulate passion’, the base wordless power of a scream, to achieve change. Society had not allowed her words ‘I’ve come to see my baby’ to be heard or recognised. Only after Rosamund’s unforgettable scream could that bit of language function correctly.

The Millstone is a brilliant novel. It is compelling and deeply affecting, and its power is nicely set off by moments of humour, wry observation, and dry wit. It’s not often in literature that you come across a great and inspiring mother. All too often they’re awful, or dead (see this post I wrote for the Spectator last year on just this subject). With Mother’s Day this coming Sunday, I can’t think of a better novel to read about an unlikely and thoroughly heroic mum.