Saturday, November 09, 2013

Subject to the profoundest doubt

Written in 1963, The Group, by Mary McCarthy, follows the intertwined lives of a set of Vassar graduates, class of '33.

I only became aware of this book because in season 3 of Mad Men, Betty slips into the bath with it. Generally regarded as an early feminist novel, The Group this year celebrated the 50th anniversary of its publication, though it is set several decades earlier still.

The book could equally be regarded as a set of intertwined short stories. Each chapter focuses on one member of the group, and we hear about the rest of the group from that perspective. The chapters could for the most part stand on their own, but they are more powerful within the context of the group.

She had been amazingly altered, they felt, by a course in Animal Behaviour she taken with old Miss Washburn who had left her brain in her will to Science) during their junior year. This and her work with Hallie Flanagan in Dramatic Production had changed her from a shy, pretty, somewhat heavy Western girl with black lustrous curly hair and a wild-rose complexion, active in hockey, in the choir, given to large tight brassieres and copious menstruations, into a thin, hard-driving, authoritative young woman, dressed in dungarees, sweat shirt, and sneakers, with smears of paint in her unwashed hair, tobacco stains on her fingers, talking airily of "Hallie" and "Lester," Hallie's assistant, of flats and stippling, of oestrum and nymphomania, calling her friends by their last names loudly — "Eastlake," "Renfrew," "MacAusland" — counseling premarital experiment and the scientific choice of a mate. Love, she said, was an illusion.

Her mother's habit of stressing and underlining her words had undergone an odd mutation in being transmitted to Helena. Where Mrs. Davison stresses and emphasized, Helena inserted her words carefully between inverted commas, so that clauses, phrases, and even proper names, inflected, by her light voice, had the sound of being ironical quotations. While everything Mrs. Davison said seemed to carry with it a guarantee of authority, everything Helena said seems subject to the profoundest doubt.

Norine is an outsider, not a member of the group, but after graduation she is a neighbour of Kay's and her life also becomes caught up in the group's fate:
"All I knew that night was that I believed I something and couldn't express it, while your team believed in nothing but knew how to say it — in other men's words."

Watching her, Helena granted Norine a certain animal vitality, and "earthiness" that was underscored, as if deliberately, by the dirt and squalor of the apartment. Bedding with her, Helena imagined, must be like rolling in a rich moldy compost of autumn leaves, crackling on the surface, like her voice, and underneath warm and sultry from the chemical process of decay.

Chapter two covers Dottie's deflowering, and even while I was thinking, "Dottie, don't do it," and "The dialogue is ridiculous," and "Girls in 1933, huh", and "You're overthinking it," there was some laughing too, it also managed to make me blush. I may not have read 50 Shades, but I'm no prude, and this event was unabashedly, genuinely, beautifully female.

Is this book still relevant today? I want to say yes, but if I'm to be honest with you, I'll have to stammer that, well, it's not irrelevant, anyway. Certainly it was noteworthy on its release in 1963, but women have changed. Society and social expectations have not changed as much as they ought, and I fear today's women may neither recognize nor heed the warnings — about love, marriage, motherhood, parenting, career, gender equality, life — carried in The Group's gentle observations of what becomes of college girls.

See also:
Vassar, Unzipped!, by Laura Jacobs, Vanity Fair, July 2013.
The Mary McCarthy Case, by Norman Mailer, The New York Review of Books, October 1963.

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