The Group – Mary McCarthy

The GroupI read this book in the name of researching my own novel. It was one of many books banned for sale in Australia when it was published in 1963. Arthur Rylah, chief secretary to the conservative Bolte government in Victoria in the 1960s famously said it was a book he wouldn’t let his teenage daughter read, although he didn’t actually have a teenage daughter.

So I was intrigued to see what manner of salacious and corruptible things it might contain and predictably, by modern standards, its pretty tame. One of the most graphic scenes in the book is one where one a character loses her virginity. Perhaps its the fact that she has an orgasm for the first time and enjoys it that so disgusted those guardians of moral decency in 60s Australia. But I suspect its more the references to homosexual activity and the gay character that did it for them.

Its fitting that Candace Bushnell, author of the stories that spawned ‘Sex and the City’ introduces the modern edition of The Group. It is a story about seven women, all recent graduates of prestigious Vassar college, living in New York in the 1930s.

Dated it may be, but the themes that were relevant in the 1930s and the 1960s are still important to women now. McCarthy looks at how women try to disentangle sex from love, the etiquette of contraception between men and women and how to have a career and get married. Dottie, losing her virginity for the first time, grapples with her shame over how much she’s enjoyed it.  ‘What are you frowning over now, Boston?’ Dottie gave a start. ‘To be highly sexed, he said gently, ‘is an excellent thing in a woman. You mustn’t be ashamed.’ He stimulates her with his hand and but to her it seems almost perverted.

The talk of how to manage contraception I also found interesting, as I’m still trying to work this one out for 1960s Australia. I once again in this book came across the odd notion of condoms being ‘vulgar’ in the common sense of the word, that is, working class. For a child of the 1980s and the AIDS crisis, this is hard to understand. As Kay’s odious husband Harald says – ‘the lower classes for instance, almost never transferred the burden of contraception to the woman; this was a discovery of the middle class.’ Then follows an excruciatingly sad scene where Dottie gets fitted for a diaphragm and is left stranded waiting for the man who never arrives.

Many of the characters in this book are not very likeable. Its a brave move because I think most authors want to create characters that readers will like or at least feel sympathy for. The story is told from multiple third person point of view, with each girl given her own chapter. McCarthy does a brilliant job of keeping the character’s voices distinct, a challenge when they all come from similar backgrounds but it shows how characters can be delineated. And she’s a master at writing volumes of detail to flesh each one out, sometimes with hilarious effect. I can’t forget the image in my head of the awful Harald doing multiplication tables in bed to stop himself ejaculating. And the politically active ‘Put’, who keeps track of every penny he and Norine spend, totting them up at the end of each day and graphing the results so she know how many cents she can spend the next day.

But my favourite comedy moment is when, at the end of pages of detail on how accomplished Helena is, she ends with ‘and she had learned to cut her own quills from feathers.’

But the grimness of the women’s existence takes over most of the story, with men treating them badly. One is sectioned unnecessarily by her husband and another is almost raped by a boyfriend. The women can’t even be nice to each other. The flawless Helena tells the unforunate Norine not to worry about her impotent husband, who can’t get an erection because his wife is too decent and clean – ‘And have him take a look at this apartment. And at the ring around your neck. If a man slept with you, you’d leave a ring around him. Like your bathtub.’

Despite strong characterisation, I felt that the characters lacked any clear trajectory. Few of them had grown and changed over the course of the story and the plot is very thin. But Mary McCarthy understands human responses well. Like this example of how Kay feels as she’s courted by Harald – ‘The letter, Kay thought, was awfully well written, like everything Harald did, yet reading it had left her with the queerest stricken feeling. There was nothing in it that she did not already know in a sense, but to know in a sense, apparently, was not the same as knowing.’

There’s flashes of great prose, but generally its easy to read rather than awe-inspiring – ‘Her small hand shook with borrowed guilt as she struck the big sulphur match and held it out for the actor to take a light from.’ and ‘Libby played basketball (centre) and had a big following among the dimmer bulbs of the class. and again, ‘Libby’s red open mouth, continually gabbling, was like a running wound in the middle of her empty face.’

There’s a lot about the New Deal and class consciousness among these priviledged women, such as ‘Turning off the coffee (Maxwell House), Kay made a face. She had a ruthless hatred of poor people, which not even Harald suspected and which sometimes scared her by its violence, as when she was waiting on some indigent in the store.’ We also get some interesting insights into the prevailing attitudes to childbirth, breast-feeding and psychiatric theories of the time.

These Vassar women set out to live independent lives in New York City, but ultimately they are dependent on men or their family money and none really manage to break out of the bonds imposed on them by their sex. As Norine, who has given up her social ideals and job for marriage to a wealthy man, reflects towards the end, was their prestigious education all a waste?

I enjoyed this book, mainly for the strong characterisation, even though it at times threatened to take over the story.