Summer is the perfect time to read books that you’ve always been meaning to get to, and reading is often helped by chance encounters. It was late May when I came across a vintage 1960s paperback edition of Mary McCarthy’s bestselling novel The Group, its pages yellowed and brittle. I felt as though I were cracking the spine of a long-forgotten artifact. What I encountered within those pages, however, was nothing short of thrilling.
Mary McCarthy’s exploration of the lives of eight women, graduates of Vassar, as they step into their adult lives beyond academia, is as true to anything written today. My enthusiasm for the book, and particularly for McCarthy’s prose, came up while chatting with Lynn Crosbie. She shared my admiration and took it one step further, beginning to discuss one of her favourite books, Valley of the Dolls.
Lynn is a hugely talented writer and thinker (do yourself a favour and grab a copy of her newest novel, Chicken), and so I asked her if she would consider writing a piece examining The Group and Valley of the Dolls—and, for extra fun, she decided to throw in Sex and the City!
So, read Lynn’s fascinating explication, and then spend your last few weeks of summer reading these books!
Sarah MacLachlan, President and Publisher @ House of Anansi Press
“It would not even be amusing to rape you,” he said. —The Group
He pulled the robe off her. “Turn over,” he growled. She ground her teeth in agony as he tore into her. She felt his nails ripping down her back. Smile Jen, she told herself. You’ve made it. You’re Mrs. Tony Polar. —Valley of the Dolls
He raped my face. I’m never dating again. —Sex and the City
My name is Carrie Bradshaw.
I am a writer who likes the smell of books and the work of Erich Segal.
Many critics have written about me, comparing me and my relationship to my friends to everything from Mary Tyler Moore to Tales from the City to Girls, which we inspired.
But I can’t help but think that we are in line with Howl, with The Group and—
No, Carrie Bradshaw, no. One of the countless illuminating moments in Mary McCarthy’s earth-shaking 1963 novel, involves grammar of all things. Helena, the unsexed member of the titular group of eight Vassar graduates, points out at a party that one must never state “I cannot help but feel.” The only proper forms are “I cannot help feeling or I cannot but feel.”
And one cannot but feel that you and your friends kicked the feminist can backwards.
My yellowy, coverless copy of The Group blares on its first page: Everyone is talking about THE GROUP. In the 1950s, this referred to actual critical discourse, but public opinion of the novel ran feverishly high. This fawning statement however— written, appallingly—in the argot of gossip, is par for the course for the introduction of a female writer, especially one who has written what is, effectively, one of the first blockbuster commercial novels—hitting the New York Times bestseller list immediately and remaining there for two heady years.
And, to return to Ms. Bradshaw and friends: Sex and the City is based on a popular series of columns written for the New York Observer. They came into being because an editor at the paper asked that she write “the modern-day version of The Group.”
Bushnell agreed, noting, ungrammatically that “not much has really changed.”
It has: but one must often cast around in reverse for the true radicals.
The Group, with its fearless and brand-new inscription of sex and the female body, scandalized the polloi with its frank accounts of everything from pessaries to casual sex to domestic abuse and same-sex relationships.
McCarthy’s novel begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral, perfect bookends for her shrewdly political, and in its way, unprecedented, examination of women’s private lives—these women, with the exception of Norine, who marries a Jewish man, has a bizarre-looking child, and is iterated as filthy and an impoverished, earthy seductress—are privileged, rich, china-white Episcopalians.
But the largely unspoken and widespread, class-crossing nature of their dilemmas spoke to all women, one way or another.
It is tempting to some to valorize this book for speaking of scandalous, intimate things in the very year Barbara Billingsley, or June Cleaver, hung up her pearls and apron for good, but naive, to say the least.
The image of the 1950s as a wholesome, squeaky-clean decade is a myth perpetrated by 1970s nostalgia; Happy Days kicked off what would be an almost bulletproof revision of this era as a charming banality, one which persists to this day, having received massive infusions from films like Diner, Grease, American Graffiti, Peggy Sue Got Married and Back to the Future).
In truth, this block of time is better characterized by McCarthyism, the Korean War and cultural paranoia; by Cold War duck-and-covering and backyard atomic-fallout or bomb shelters designed to keep losers bleating helplessly at their doors; by the cultural genocide Allen Ginsberg inscribes in 1956’s Howl; by the persistence of “colored” water fountains, waiting rooms (et alia) and other abhorrent human rights violations against Black people; by the continued abuse of Indigenous persons (the termination policy was flourishing) and Hispanics—and by the time The Group is published, President Kennedy is sending troops to Vietnam and giddily spraying its land with Agent Orange. Not happy days.
Still, white women were not conventionally sharing information about their bodies, sexuality and domestic lives, and if they wanted to, faced enormous obstacles.
Mary McCarthy’s book did two things: it showed readers that even among the rich, dastardly husbands gave their wives black eyes and had them committed; that cads seduced and abandoned virgins; that women masturbated, full stop; that queer women could be astonishingly well-dressed femme fatales and that girlfriends—Listen up Carrie Bradshaw—are not all you need and may, indeed, be your undoing.
Certain scenes in the book still have the power to shock to the nerves, for their terrible candor and due to the author’s smooth yet erudite—a miracle in itself—prose style.
The attempted rape of the mauvaise fille, Libby, is terrifyingly inscribed as the end of a date with a sexy ski-jumper and Norwegian Baron who, to his detriment, tried to seduce the brainy girl by reading what to her is a sad “chestnut,” Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.”
It is when she responds with Raleigh’s answer-poem, “The Shepherdess Replies,” that he attacks.
A Vassar education, respectable job and upright social standing is useless, ultimately. As is the ability to parry with just the right poem.
The Baron learns she is a virgin and stops his assault; then, repulsively, he relieves himself with the door open as she sits in her shredded dress and mist of panic and shame.
Of pivotal importance is the fact that the novel popularized the notion of the intimacies of female life; of their flesh and their minds—the former being parlously absent from the Bushnell essays and resultant series.
Yet as we turn to the group in awe, we must remember two things: women’s literature had long since revealed the tortured lives of women. Roll the last century back and look at Harriet Wilson, a freed slave and arguably the first novelist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sarah Winnemucca, Kate Chopin and fast-forward a little bit to Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes: that women have been often intolerably oppressed is no news to someone who does more than smell books.
And that another great writer was hard at work in 1963 on a similar novel about women, one that went further, appalled more, and outsold everybody.
That would be, of course, Jacqueline Susann, the author of Valley of the Dolls, a book alleged to have been pushed forward by the wife of a squeamish editor, who felt the galley read like great dish.
The story of Susann and her novels has long been the property of her idolaters, who venerate and laugh through camp stories of the flamboyant author—whom Truman Capote referred to on national television as a “truck driver in drag”—and her heroines whose predicaments read, culturally, as fabulous disasters.
It is true that Valley of the Dolls, published in 1966 and also set in New York, is loaded with the fantastically mad extravagances of its celebrity protagonists—the most stunning in this roman à clef is the Judy Garland figure, Neely O’Hara’s tempest, who, having stumbled to her LA swimming pool, bombed on pills, and wearing a slip, lanolin and face oil, while brandishing a bottle of Scotch, screeches at finding her husband with a showgirl: “Having a good time kiddies? Fucking in my pool? Be sure you drain it out,” she informs her bisexual husband. “Remember—your children go wading in it every morning.”
Susan Sontag’s now-legendary definition of camp includes the vital litany “travesty, impersonation, theatricality,” three crucial components of Neely’s poolside performance.
Still, the book exists beyond its camp fascia: it is after all about theater and film people, agents and models and showgirls—how could they not behave like Kardashians-in-waiting?
And speaking of camp in The Group: when Nils, the ski-jumper, is attempting to rape Libby, she is thinking of her torn frock, “her brand-new dress bought at Bendel’s spring sale!”
Susann’s heroines are, in picaresque form, violently raped, fully orgasmic, spurned, attacked and beaten down—in the end, one is a full-blown needle-addict, one has killed herself to preserve her perfect body in the face of a mastectomy, and the other has given up on love, preferring her “dolls,” the pills each dine on throughout the book, the pills that act as babies, love, as Sylvia Plath’s “sweet Lethe.”
Significantly, while Susann’s girls are all rich and glam, all but one come from working class backgrounds: they talk tough, calling women “broads” and “dames,” they smoke and eat pills to be full, and they won’t leave a sexual encounter without an orgasm, something the patrician Anne connects to “function[ing],” to being “a woman.”
They speak to a bigger world than McCarthy’s, and the world clapped back: having sold thirty-one million copies—a figure that ignores the innumerable purloined books—Valley of the Dolls is still one of the bestselling books of all time.
Based very clearly on Theodore Dreiser’s fin de siècle novel Sister Carrie, Valley of the Dolls is a no-holds-barred cautionary tale for women wanting to find the “two Ls” in New York City, a tale that McCarthy tells too.
But where modern Carrie states that girls flock to New York in search of the “two Ls: love and labels,” McCarthy and Susann’s protagonists seek love and an uncompromised life that is pillaged from them, man by man.
Sex and the City was forward-thinking in its rough chopping of consensual sex, below the foreskin.
Yet it fails women by ignoring their intellects—in one episode, Miranda, a lawyer, objects that the aging women’s relentless man talk is not only tedious, it erases them.
Later, she announces that she is a “jerk” and the “man talk” resumes.
In this show’s many interstices lies girl-on-girl cruelty, sexual assault, anguish, and fully realized “travesty, impersonation, theatricality.”
Muriel Rukeyser asked, in the 1960s, what would happen if one woman told the truth about her life.
“The world would split open,” she said.
Grittier, more revelatory and inclusive women’s work—Sojourner Truth may have been speaking to Miss Bradshaw when she asked, “Ain’t I a woman?”—in every art would follow McCarthy’s, Susann’s and Bushnell’s respective atom bombs.
As we move forward, however, and like Camille Paglia kissing the ground before Stonewall, we must remember the women who fought tooth and shapely nail to be heard, lest they be pounded to glitter, to stray feathers, to the scrap heap of a strange camp where drug-railing starlets and aloof debutantes share close quarters.
The problem with camp is that when it’s over, hardly anyone keeps in touch.
Fellow dolls and shellac-haired girls-with-glasses: let us remember always our track-laying sisters,
And with love.
Note: Sylvia Plath’s “sweet Lethe” is from “Amnesiac,” written in October 1962. It is Danny Bonaduce who said he ate pills to be full.