Our Vassar education made it tough for me to accept my womanly role
Since I have always been one of those shameless people who cannot visit a second-hand bookshop – or any bookshop, library, domestic shelf, in fact – without leafing to the very navel of the most yellowed tome (actually, mine isn’t a particularly discriminatory habit, and as such extends even to brand new textbooks), diving nose-first into the cradle of the volume, and filling my insatiable lungs with its unique bouquet before finally grabbing my nearest companion and inviting them to do the same in ecstatic staccato – ‘SNIFF IT!’ – I am perpetually surprised by how few of my friends and family present me with books for my birthday or Christmas. Then again, buying a book for someone is always a risky business, like promising your best friend that you have found them the most perfect romantic partner but, upon introducing them to one another, you find said friend eyeing your choice with contempt and fiercely contemplating the merits of severing all contact with you for having so dreadfully misjudged their taste. As Queen Austen has shown us, matchmaking is never easy…
Regardless of the potential strain upon our friendship, however, one of my dearest friends took the plunge and gave me Mary McCarthy’s The Group for my 24th birthday back in February of this year. Having no prior knowledge of the novel or its author, my first impressions were formed by the cover alone which, unfortunately, filled me with dread as it conjured preconceptions of lacklustre mummy-porn of the most pedestrian style (no offence, of course, to Virago Press, of whom I am an ardent admirer). Off to a shaky start… Fortunately, not only am I very aware that one should never judge a book by its you-know-what, but my friend apparently knows me inside out, so once I finally got around to reading it this week I was pleasantly surprised.
More than that, I loved it, and can absolutely see why this novel – McCarthy’s most popular – hit the New York Times Best Seller List in 1963, and remained there for close to two years. Set in 1933, The Group follows eight female graduates of the exclusive Vassar College, detailing their post-graduation exploits and various struggles – including sexual relationships and marriage, contraception, sexism, child-rearing, and financial hardship to name but a few.
Considering the political landscape of 1930s America, I found it refreshing to see a group of young women striving, however successfully, for their own autonomy independent of their fathers’ or husbands’ wealth, when the role of women was still largely limited to almost nineteenth century-esque ideals of domesticity and dependence – after all, the Angel of the House was good for nothing but marriage and childbirth. But, then again, should I really have been surprised at their aspirations of freedom when the novel was written in a decade that ushered in the second wave of feminism with the introduction of The Pill? Regardless, McCarthy’s frank examination of the sexual mores of the 1930s was particularly enthralling, and I found myself utterly drawn in by Harald Petersen’s narrative of the sexual politics encapsulated by the pessary (for Harald, it functioned as the proverbial key to a good woman’s chastity belt, and even in Dottie’s – to whom the narrative was addressed – own naïve inner reflections the pessary represented nothing less than the marriage ring. Thus, what should be, in my eyes, the symbol of female sexual liberation, the pessary re-inscribed the regressive cultural attitude that women’s sexuality should be fanatically policed; it was, paradoxically, a symbol of masculine ownership over the feminine). Truly thrilling stuff, if you ask me.
To be perfectly honest, aside from minor stylistic niggles that I shan’t bore you with (occasional clunky sentences, but if I were to get hung up on this I should ask you all to call me a hypocrite), I cannot fault the book. The narrative voice, adapted so perfectly to capture each of the girls’ psychological intricacies and nuances, was beautiful, and I believed every single character. Witty as anything, I couldn’t stop reading – even after the small-hour-eye-burn had absolutely set in. And… it smelt delicious to boot.