I can’t remember what first made me want to read Mary McCarthy; a recommendation somewhere – a newspaper perhaps? no, I can’t be sure – and it’s taken me a long time to finally get around to her. Her books are impossible to come by in the UK, and I was forced in the end to order them, in a way that seriously infringed the code of book buying conduct laid down by the domestic board, directly from the US. Although in retrospect, I wonder whether McCarthy wouldn’t have approved of her novels being sought covertly, for if The Group proves one thing, it’s that McCarthy had a piercingly sharp eye for all that goes unsaid in the great institution of marriage.
The Group follows the fortunes of eight Vassar graduates in the years between 1933 and 1940. It is essentially a slice of women’s social history as each of the friends carves out a post-collegiate life for herself, tackling or being confronted with the sexual, social and political issues of the times. The timid mouse of the group allows herself to be seduced by a man she knows is ‘no good’, the most extrovert member marries a clever, artistic but damaging man, and the struggle of their marriage seems destined to break them both, another uses every feminine wile at her disposal to work her way into a career in publishing, the most ‘colourless’ personality in the group submits to her doctor husband’s ‘experimental’ approach to breast-feeding a baby. I have to say I found this all completely and utterly fascinating. McCarthy has an eye parallel to Balzac’s for taking the material surroundings of a life and conjuring up reams of cleverly implied significance out of them. The level of description in this book is amazing; I felt I had been transported back to America in the 30s, and could see so clearly in my mind’s eye all the different kinds of houses and rented rooms that her protagonists inhabit. I felt I lived with her characters for a while, and for all that they may have been silly, or shallow, or conflicted, or class-bound on occasion, McCarthy breathes such vitality, such intense longing into each of them, that they had my unreserved sympathy and engagement.
I suppose one of the greatest strengths for me in this novel was the way that McCarthy depicted her young women just at the point where they felt their lives were really beginning. The novel is infused from start to finish with the authentic taste of women taking that first, huge, bite out of life…. and then discovering they have bitten off more than they can chew. There’s a certain vividness to the situations they find themselves in, a real avidity that enlivens their desires and their torments, that speaks of the energy of youth, unleashed on an unsuspecting world, impatient to make things happen, and stricken with a stubborn confusion when it all goes wrong. There’s a fascinating subtext running all the way through, questioning the usefulness of educating women when the life ahead is still devoted to domesticity. Although Vassar is what joins them, it is only ever evoked as a distant citadel, a place of illusory comfort, compared to the school of hard knocks they now find themselves in. In an age where women were still supposed to be submissive to their husbands, and where in fact, as some of the more shocking scenes in the novel show, men had the power to destroy a woman’s life, where a man could still commit his wife to a mental institution after a domestic argument, then it must have seemed an oddly ineffectual privilege to give them.
I was also deeply intrigued by the representation of parents in this novel, a representation which was fundamentally kind and loving, but which portrayed with great subtlety an altogether different generation. One that had made its peace with the world, having suffered its own crises of war, economic disaster and the quotidian disappointments of life, but that had emerged from the violent learning curve of early adulthood and was now prepared to support their own young along a depressingly similar journey. What I loved so much about this novel was purely and simply the quality of the writing. I know I’ve spoken before about a certain ‘American’ tendency towards character portraits at the expense of plot. This novel is entirely in the same model, and yet the witty brilliance of McCarthy’s writing, and the spotlit clarity of her characterisation, and the warmth and energy that power the narrative kept me enthralled. Who could fail to be charmed by Helena’s party piece speech on her mother’s eccentric trait of being ‘morally offended by impure English.’
‘ “Like what?” encouraged Kay. “Dangling modifiers. Improper propositions. ‘Aggravating’ to mean ‘annoying,’ ‘demean’ to mean ‘lower,’ ‘sinister.’” “’Sinister’?” echoed the publisher’s reader. “Mother says it only means left-handed or done with the left hand. If you tell her a person is sinister, all she will infer, she says, is that he’s left-handed. A deed, she allows, may be sinister, if it’s done sidewise or ‘under the robe’ or ‘on the wrong side of the blanket.’” “I never heard that!” cried Pokey, as if indignant. The group around Helena had grown larger and was forming into a circle. “’Infer,’ ‘imply,’” prompted Libby, eager to be heard. “Ummhum,” said Helena. “But that’s too commonplace to be under Mother’s special protection.”’
Or there’s the father of Polly Andrews who lost all his money in the Depression and followed it up with a nervous breakdown. He comes to live with his daughter for a while, and enjoys being caught up in the swirl of international politics, engaging himself with joyful abandon to the Trotskyite cause. Polly, we are told, ‘did not approve of revolutions, unless they were absolutely necessary, and she thought it peculiar, to say the least, that her father and his friends were eager to make revolutions in democratic countries like France and the United states instead of concentrating on Hitler and Mussolini, who ought to be overthrown. Of course, as her father said, it was pretty hopeless to make a revolution against Hitler for the time being, since the workers’ parties had all been suppressed; still, it seemed rather unfair to penalize Roosevelt and Blum for not being Hitler. Fair play, replied her father, was a bourgeois concept and did not apply against the class enemy. Polly would have been horrified to hear her parent talk this way if she had thought he believed what he was saying.’
I just love the supply grace of McCarthy’s prose, and her effortlessly entertaining mix of social satire, painfully sharp insight and youthful naivety. She amply provides the kind of narrative I cannot resist, one that presents a whole and complete world, rich in detail, provocative in its blindness and its intuitions, intelligent and disarming and wonderfully funny. It makes me wish I could borrow McCarthy’s eyes in order to view the contemporary world with the same kind of detached, comprehending and compassionate perspective. There aren’t many authors whose entire oeuvre I’d like to read, but McCarthy’s name is near the top of that list, and The Group is justly lauded as one of the great novels of its time.