Thursday, April 13, 2023

The Group by Mary McCarthy

Source of book: I own this.


The Group was my selection for Women’s History Month this year. You can read the rest of my selections here


I actually finished the book during March, but immediately before I set off on our annual spring break camping trip, and haven’t had enough time to actually write it up until now. 


The Group was, believe it or not, a best seller when it came out. However, it has since faded into relative obscurity, with very few people my age or younger having heard of it. Indeed, I wasn’t really familiar with it until about five years ago, when I ran across a description of it in an article somewhere, and decided it would be a good one for my exploration of feminist works. 


Mary McCarthy, like the women she writes about in this book, attended Vasser College in the early 1930s. Orphaned by the 1918 flu epidemic, she was raised by relatives, before finding herself in a far richer set at Vassar. The book is not exactly biographical, but it does draw from McCarthy’s life, from her own disastrous first marriage to incidents with various lovers. 


The book is episodic rather than having a specific plot arc. It follows the lives of the eight members of “The Group” - a clique at Vassar that revolved around the rich and charming Eleanor Eastlake - aka “Lakey” - as well as another ‘33 Vassar graduate who was never quite part of the group but still acquainted with them. 


The book begins with the marriage of Kay to the unsuccessful playwright Harald, who is pretty much the main villain of the story. (There are others - the men in this book are mostly terrible, although not intentionally so much as because of the way society raised them - but Harald is the most horrible of them all.) The book ends with (sorry about the spoiler) Kay’s funeral, after she falls (either accidentally or intentionally) from a window. 


In the interim, the Group members live their lives. Most marry, some have children, all of them try to find their way in a world that has not yet shifted to make room for educated women. 


As I said, it is episodic in that each chapter focuses on a particular incident and is mostly about a particular character. Kay probably gets the most space on the page, but calling her the central character may be a stretch. She is entirely absent from a number of chapters, for example. However, her fate is intertwined with the others to a significant degree. 


Throughout the book, McCarthy takes an unflinching look at the compromises and sacrifices demanded of women by society, in ways that men still rarely have to experience. Kay, for example, is the primary breadwinner because Harald is floundering at his career. And yet, she is still expected to do the cooking and the cleaning and entertaining. Meanwhile, Harald sleeps around constantly, while maintaining his vision of Kay as pure and innocent and a virgin when he married her. (More on that later.)


Or, when Polly’s parents divorce after losing their fortune, she has to take in her father, who has no way of supporting himself, combined with a tendency to overspend. At one point, she is forced to sell her blood to keep a roof over their heads. She eventually “solves” the issue by marrying a doctor, who it is not at all clear she loves. (Although he is at least one of the few men in this book who isn’t a jerk, so there’s that.) 


Or, the way the women are treated as lesser by employers, never given the respect - or pay - that men get. 


One of the most harrowing scenes in the book where Priss, married to a pediatrician, has her body discussed and analyzed by everyone, while she undergoes a horrifying experiment to “prove” that even small breasted women can breastfeed. 


Background here: in the 1930s, breastfeeding had fallen out of style, initially for rich women. The invention of formula had eliminated the need for a wet nurse. But then, everyone wanted to act like the rich, so even when the science caught up and doctors started to encourage women to breast feed, there was resistance on the basis of class snobbery.


Priss is essentially on the cutting edge of the return to breastfeeding, but the way her husband and the other medical professionals go about it, insisting on a strict schedule, and making her feel inadequate, she is unsuccessful. (Not at ALL surprising…) And then feels like a failure when she switches to formula. 


And, even more than that, she spends weeks - months even! - terrified that she might do something wrong, afraid to even bond with her baby. 


This hit a bit close to home for me, honestly. My mom was, back in the day, a bit of a hippie, so we were all born at home, breastfed for over a year, and all that. That didn’t work for my wife, though, who inherited struggles with maintaining milk supply after 6 months. (And also, our kids were very close together at first, so probably a hormonal disruption to supply.) Unfortunately, just as poor Priss got nothing but blame for everything that didn’t go “according to the book,” my wife got a lot of disapproval and judgmentalism from my family when the kids ended up on formula. 


I wanted to scream at the characters in the book: “There is no ONE TRUE WAY to raise babies or children! And for heaven’s sake, if the child cries, feed or comfort it!” But I guess I am of a very different era. 


For those not aware, I had each of our kids alone overnight starting at three months old when my wife went back to part time night shift. I am very experienced at midnight feedings, both of pumped breast milk and formula. I know a thing or six about comforting babies, caring for sick kids, and so on. And there is no one right way to do it. 


As the book puts it, once poor Priss finally gets over her fears, thanks to one pragmatic and compassionate nurse:


What impressed her, she said to herself, was the empirical spirit here, the willingness to try without prejudice different methods and mixtures of methods till they found one that worked, which was often a compromise, like the New Deal. 


We certainly found this to be true in our family. What worked for one didn’t necessarily work for another, and any family of seven has to get used to compromises. There was no way that a rigid formula, whether Gothard or Ezzo or any of the other charlatans promising perfect childrearing results if you follow their rules, would have worked for us. 


I think one of the best things we could all do for young parents is to just stop all of the judgment and advice and control, and just do the things to relieve the burden. Lectures and demands and even well-meaning advice aren’t really helpful, in my experience. Encouragement and support, on the other hand? Very much yes. 


Unfortunately, Priss is never really able to fully loosen up, and her poor kid suffers through a rather rigid and frigid upbringing. 


And then, of course, there is the horrifying episode where Harald beats Kay, then has her committed to a mental institution to cover his violence up. Yeah, you could do that back then. If you were a male. 


I could talk about the loveless marriages, the weird obsession with kids as compensation for boring lives, the casual misogyny of so many of the men. I know this hasn’t exactly gone away, but some things have definitely improved. 


I should also mention that the book is quite frank about a number of taboo subjects. Sex in general, adultery, abortions, contraception, mental illness, and so on. I can think of plenty of men my age and older who would freak out about some of the stuff in here - particularly since it acknowledges female sexual desire, which, well, Americans still have a LOT of hangups about that. 


One of the things we tend to forget is that the original sexual revolution didn’t happen in the 1960s. It happened in the 1920s. The big shift was that middle-class males shifted from having their first sexual experiences with sex workers, to having them with their female peers. It is difficult to overstate the social earthquake that this was. Even now, I think most people who want to “return to the sexual mores of the past” have no idea what they are talking about. They seem to have this assumption that back in the day, both men and women kept their pants on until marriage. 




Men statistically had their first sexual experiences earlier in the past, and they had it in the context of a financial transaction with a sex worker. 


But in the 1920s, that first shift occurred. We now live with that expectation, that sex is with a peer, not a prostitute, and there are still a lot of issues that haven’t really been resolved as a result. (Not least of which is the way religious folk gloss over the fact that the Bible doesn’t actually regulate male sexual behavior that much - prostitutes and sex slaves are, well, pretty much okay…) 


Very early in the book, McCarthy notes that at places like Vassar, women themselves were recommending “premarital experiment.” And by women, I don’t just mean students, but their parents. Dottie’s mother had talked with her, and agreed that “if you were in love and engaged to a nice young man you perhaps ought to have relations once to make sure of a happy adjustment.” 


This has actually come to be my own viewpoint on the matter. (It has been decades since I believed that the conservative religious rules about sex were either supported by experience or even based in scripture at all - and scripture sure seems to resemble the cultures it was written in when it comes to sex.) For women in particular, there is a huge risk that they might end up with a partner who will not be willing or able to satisfy her. The orgasm gap is proof enough that too many men are unwilling to take the time and effort to be a good lover, and it isn’t always possible to know what a person’s hangups are until you are naked with them. Also, sexual compatibility is a thing, no matter how much conservatives try to deny it. 


Suffice it to say that in this book, the women do indeed have sex, and not all of it is after marriage with their spouses. 


I noticed that some of the slang in the book is stuff I thought was younger. “Who would have thunk it?” for example. I assume McCarthy knew what was in style in 1933 well enough, but I didn’t know that. (Generally, I think I have a weird collection of slang from the past that I use, probably because of reading older books.) 


Another interesting cultural touchstone was the “add-a-pearl necklace.” My wife and her sister had these from their grandparents. 


In addition to the sex, there is also plenty of politics. This was, after all, the heady times when socialism and communism were still relatively young, and Stalin’s purges had not yet come to light. McCarthy herself was a Trotsyite in her younger years, before becoming disillusioned with communism and switching (as many thoughtful people did in the 1960s) to a less ideological liberalism and commitment to social democracy. 


The Group themselves are concerned that they not allow themselves to lose their idealism, to become, as they say, “like Mother and Dad, stuffy and frightened.” Oh yes, this sounds familiar to me too. My once idealistic parents now fit that description far too well. Whatever shifted in my teen years, when they embraced Gothardism, it has now cascaded to the point where I think it defines them. “Stuffy,” meaning a combination of adverse to change and embracing bigotry. And, of course, frightened. So very frightened of change, of people outside the tribe, of science, of government, of vaccines - the whole gamut of usual suspects. I truly hope I do not get old like that. Whether the Group succeeds is up for debate. Some do indeed marry “brokers and bankers,” but others seem to find a different way forward.


I have kind of noted some lines, but I have some others I should quite in full. Keeping in mind that 1933 was during the Great Depression, this one is interesting. 


Great wealth was a frightful handicap; it insulated you from living. The depression, whatever else you could say about it, had been a truly wonderful thing for the propertied classes; it had waked a lot of them up to the things that really counted. 


This also ties in with the political dilemma many of the characters face. Should they support the New Deal, or insist on a full socialist revolution? (The question was not easy at the time.) The question was one of effectiveness. 


To be a socialist, she [Priss] thought, was a sort of luxury, when the world itself was changing so fast and there was so much that had to be done here and now. You could not sit down and wait for the millennium, any more than you could turn the clock back. 


There are a couple of entire chapters I want to mention. The first is Chapter 2, which is all about Dottie’s one night stand with Dick, a dentist who is estranged from his wife. The sex isn’t terrible, actually. She unexpectedly orgasms (which he has to explain to her), he pulls out to ejaculate so she doesn’t get pregnant, and he seems interested in having a longer relationship. He recommends that she get a diaphragm so he doesn’t have to be responsible for contraception, which she does. Unfortunately, he ghosts her after that. Which is a bit of a, well, dick move. Unfortunately, Dottie never really pursues him, despite her mother’s advice that she do so, at least to decide if she is in love with him or not. Instead, she marries a rich guy she definitely does not love, and is soon pregnant. 


One scene that stood out was the one where Dottie talks with the female doctor who gives her the diaphragm. Dottie is worried that there is something icky or abnormal about her orgasm. The doctor, thankfully, is able to inject some sense into the discussion.


“Perhaps I can help you, Dorothy. Any techniques that give both partners pleasure are perfectly allowable and natural. There are no practices, oral or manual, that are wrong in love-making, as long as both partners enjoy them.” 


Yes indeed. After centuries of church interference in what ways of touching would be officially sanctioned, this view is finally becoming mainstream. 


Chapter 7 is about Pokey’s family, and specifically about their very English butler. Hatton is a total caricature, and that is his intent. He is more English than any butler in England would be, and he exaggerates all the traits that the family admires him for. It is a definite bit of humor in a book that can be very serious most of the time. 


Another amusing bit is in the discussion (see above) between Dottie and her mother over whether she should try to contact Dick. Dottie wants to see him, but doesn’t want to actually take any step to do so. Her mother quips back that “you want to have your cake and eat it too, Dottie. You’d like God to arrange for you to have something that you know would be wrong for you to have if you chose it of your own free will.” 


That was a laugh out loud moment. Yeah, I think most of us humans kinda have that way of thinking. If the fates would just do it for us, we wouldn’t have to take responsibility. But, of course, part of being a real grownup is to take responsibility for one’s own choices, without blaming a divine being for them. 


Harald for reasons I will never understand, manages to fascinate multiple members of the Group. He sleeps with multiple members of the Group, both before and after his marriage. I guess I will never entirely get the fascination that horndog assholes have for many women. 


While she is in the mental ward, Kay herself finally realizes she does not love Harald anymore. Yet she finds she is grieving. She eventually understands that she isn’t grieving for the real Harald, the person he actually is. She is grieving for a “Harald-That-Never-Was” - that is, her fantasy of what he was. The genius playwright who loved and respected her - who wasn’t actually a genius after all, and definitely did not love and respect her. 


At the risk of spoilers, I have to comment on the final scene in the book. Lakey has finally come back from Europe, and has come with a German duchess, who Kay realizes is her lover. The opinion of the Group is divided about Lakey’s lesbianism, although they come to accept it. 


After Kay’s death, though, Harald shows up at her funeral, to the general disapproval of the Group. After all, he abused her, she finally divorced him, but was never quite right thereafter. 


Harald catches a ride to the graveside with Lakey, and, in a fit of narcissistic pique, claims that Kay committed suicide just to spite him. (Yeah, he really is such a piece of shit.) But Lakey bides her time, because she knows what is coming. 


Harald, of course, cannot possibly avoid asking Lakey if she slept with Kay. After nibbling at the issue, and being deflected, he finally demands to know. Lakey tells him he should have asked Kay, because she was so honest she would have told him. 


The whole exchange is filled with references to Hamlet, including Harald’s accusation that she was fighting with a poisoned rapier. Lakey resists reminding him that he, like Laertes, is the one who poisoned it. 


This then, is the truth about Harald. More than anything, he cannot handle even the thought that he got sloppy seconds. Not even now that Kay is dead, having left his sorry ass previously. His ego cannot abide not having the conquest of a virgin. One wonders how McCarthy’s first husband felt reading this - and how much he resembled Harald. 


The Group is definitely a unique and interesting book. It describes a particular era, a particular subculture that isn’t the most familiar to me. (Actually, my wife’s late grandmother might have recognized it given her educated New York upbringing.) McCarthy examines the issues facing women of the era without being preachy, but with compelling descriptions and emotional depth. Her writing is excellent, and the book is definitely deserving of better than it’s current obscurity. 


Just a final note: I could also have read this book for Banned Books Week. It was not banned in the US, as far as I can tell - but it did stay two years on the NYT bestseller list. 


It WAS banned in Italy and Ireland (presumably because of its frank discussion of contraception and abortion), but more surprisingly in Australia. What’s up with that? Anyway, it clearly struck a nerve with the Fundie/Fascist sorts, just like it would today in, say, Florida or Texas. Some things never change.


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