My reading group has a few loose “rules” for choosing our reads, but one of the more rigid ones is that each year we like to read at least one classic. This year’s first classic – yes, another is coming – was Mary McCarthy’s The group. As I wrote in last week’s Monday Musings, it was published in 1963 and became a New York Times best-seller. I was initially uncertain about this choice, because I had read it and there are so many classics I still haven’t read, but, as it turned out, I was glad to read it again. This is because it is a true classic, by which I mean it’s a book that you can read again, at a different time in your life, and find new richness.
For those of you who don’t know the story, it centres on the lives of eight women from Vassar College’s Class of ’33 (of which McCarthy herself was a member, so she knew whereof she wrote – Bill!) The novel follows their lives for the next seven years as they, variously, marry, divorce, have children, find jobs, and in the case of one, die. In doing so, it also evokes their era beautifully. This was a time when America was coming out of the Depression, when women’s expectations about their lives were starting to change, when medicine was starting to assert its authoritarian self, when Trotskyism was attracting the radical intelligentsia, and when Europe was moving into World War 2. Our eight women – Kay, Lakey, Polly, Dottie, Priss, Libby, Pokey and Helena – having received a liberal Vassar-style education, are engaged in the issues of their day. Indeed, the role of education is one of the themes of the novel. Early in the novel, Kay recognises that:
That was the big thing they taught you at Vassar: keep your mind open and always ask for the evidence, even from your own side.
Late in the novel, Norine, a friend of the group, and also Vassar ’33, voices the challenge their education has posed for them: “our Vassar education made it tough for me to accept my womanly role”. Some, of course, found it easier to accept than others.
[SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT FOR THE NEXT PARAGRAPH ONLY, BUT THIS IS A CLASSIC SO I’M INCLUDING IT]
I loved the novel – the satire, the writing, the details, the individuation of the characters. What was not to like? Well, there are flaws for some readers. It doesn’t have a strong plot, and the structure is episodic, so that just as you get into one person’s story, you leave her to move onto another. This can be alienating for readers who love to emotionally engage with their characters. I can see all this but, for me, they are not overriding issues. Firstly, while there isn’t a strong plot, there is a narrative trajectory that sees relationships develop and change over time as the girls mature from new graduates to experienced women. Also, the novel commences with the wedding of a character, who recurs more frequently than do others as the book progresses, and it neatly concludes with her funeral. Secondly, despite the episodic approach, I engaged with the lives of each character as she came into focus for a chapter or so. Of course, some engaged me more than others, and, in fact, McCarthy gives some more time than others. What made McCarthy’s approach work for me were the ideas being explored through the various characters, and the writing used to do this. Evocative and/or witty writing expressing interesting ideas or viewpoints will get me every time.
So, for example, the book contains wonderful set pieces that seem to just keep coming, including Dottie’s deflowering and the sociology of the “pessary”, Priss’s (shock! horror!) breast-feeding in hospital under the instruction of her paediatrician husband, Priss versus Norine on child-rearing, Hatton the butler’s management of “his” family, Kay’s time in a mental hospital, to name just a few. These vignettes – which provide such insight into the lifestyles, the political interests, health and medicine, and so on, of these women – make the novel a rich source for social history of the times. Being educated, and generally of a liberal bent, most of the group are actively engaged in the political issues of their day. Some support Roosevelt’s New Deal, while those more radical become involved in socialism, Trotskyism in particular. There are references to World War 2, and the tensions between the America Firsters (sound familiar?) and those who thought America should join the war.
Gender is also an issue. Educated they may be, but these women find themselves, more often than not, controlled by men in what was still a patriarchal society. The women believe that:
It was very important … for a woman to preserve her individuality; otherwise she might not hold her husband.
But the truth is somewhat different. Kay is mischievously committed to a mental hospital by her husband, without her knowledge, and finds she needs his agreement to be discharged, while Priss
did not recommend sacrifice, having meekly given up her job and her social ideals for Sloan’s sake. It was now too late, because of Stephen [her son], but she was convinced she had made a mistake.
And then, as you expect from a classic, these more temporal concerns are wrapped up in bigger, more universal themes, such as juggling love and friendship, managing relationships and work, balancing theory versus practice, or navigating the gap between appearance and reality. Our characters reflect the gamut of human nature, being, variously, conservative, radical, idealistic, pragmatic, confident, kind, empathetic, proud, manipulating, ambitious, pompous, opinionated, naive. You name it, you are likely to find it amongst the eight.
Besides its rich content is the writing. It’s so sly and satiric that it carries you on regardless of the story:
Now, in the chapel, they rearranged their fur pieces and smiled at each other, noddingly, like mature little martens and sables: they had been right, the hardness was only a phase; it was certainly a point for their side that the iconoclast and scoffer was the first of the little band to get married.
Moreover, McCarthy can skewer character with just a few words. Candace Bushnell, in her Introduction to my edition, writes that “Readers who desire ‘likeable characters’ in their fiction above all else may be disturbed to find that every one of her characters is flawed.” This is true, and is, in a way, what I liked best. There’s no perfection here, there’s just young women struggling to make lives for themselves with an education that didn’t always make it easy for them to live in the world they found themselves. Here are couple of McCarthy’s character descriptions:
she had an image of herself as a high-bred, tempestuous creature, a sort of Arab steed in an English sporting primitive. (Libby)
fat cheerful New York society girl with big red cheeks and yellow hair, who talked like a jolly beau of the McKinley period, in imitation of her yachtsman father. (Pokey)
a solemn, ashy-haired little girl who looked like a gopher and who felt it her duty to absorb every bit of word-of-mouth information that pertained to consumer problems. (Priss)
In the last chapter, Polly, the most sympathetic of the women, thinks “how young and superstitious they had all been … and how little they had changed.” Perhaps, though I think she’s being a bit hard and that some wisdom had been achieved. Regardless, the ending, when a certain male character gets his comeuppance, is delicious – and was loved by the members of my group!
London: Virago (Hachette Digital), 2009 (Orig. ed. 1963)