In the Autumn of last year I read The Group by Mary McCarthy, a blistering condemnation of marriage and the status of women through the fictionalised account of a group of upper class friend’s lives in New York in the 1930s. In made me angry, and grateful, but gave me hope that things, in the eighty years since, have changed and getting married is no longer a prison.
This week I read Private Life, Jane Smiley’s thirteenth novel that has been sitting on my book shelves since 2011 when I bought it in a fit of only-books-can-save-me from WHSmith’s in the station on a two for one deal. This wasn’t really the book I should have read the week I decided that I’m better off alone, as it has made be so very very angry and determined to never experience the kind of life that Margaret, its protagonist, goes through.
Set from the 1880s through to the Second World War, the book is slow and steady and the climax is the second to last sentence, it’s more of a build up of rage than a plot and most of it is so either under or over detailed as to be an incredibly frustrating read-but these devices make the overall message that divorce should be easy, open and stigma free all the more poignant. The frustration that builds up over time until you either can’t stand it any more and throw the book across the room, or become so accepting of it you no longer notice the pain you’re going through reading the thing is so well done, afterwards I was left thinking about it for hours, trying to calm down.
Margaret Mayfield comes from a respectable family living in a farming community around St Louis in Missouri. When her doctor father shoots himself after the death of her brother, Margaret’s mother suddenly appears to wake up and take control of her life. Rather than recognising this lesson though, Lavinia is determined to marry her three daughters off and Margaret, the eldest, who is more than happy being left alone to read a book or ride her bicycle, is manoeuvred into a match with the town’s brightest star, Captain Andrew Early, who is a famous astrologer at the time.
Margaret and Andrew move to California near San Francisco and start off fairly well, but personal tragedy leads to them becoming more and more distant and Andrew’s increasing eccentricities and obsessions with his theories and his own growing self-importance has Margaret living not her own life, but merely an offshoot of him. By the time she is in her forties she privately hates her life and Andrew, but cannot divorce because she has no grounds and no one else does it, is lonely living a life with few friends apart from her knitting circle and a few characters who momentarily appear every five years. She is Andrew’s secretary, housekeeper, chauffeur, and listening post and has no support in being anything other.
I hated Andrew, even though I recognised a lot of his behaviours in some of the men I know. He is right, and when proved wrong cannot cope. If you’ve been brought up to believe you are brilliant when life doesn’t pan out to include the rest of the world in your devoted followers, you take your frustrations out on another, as Andrew does to Margaret. Andrew also may have mental health problems, though this is never fully disclosed. In a way, though I hated him, I also pitied him.
More than anything though I hated the situation these characters were in. The world changing so quickly all about them and them stuck in their own mould of what their place in the world was. Margaret’s ‘friend’ Dora, the New Woman who is shunned by her family but travels the world and has a career was the perfect mirror of how small a life Margaret was leading. Margaret becomes obsessed with a family of coots living in a nearby pond and this takes over nearly twenty pages of the book, brilliantly illustrating how the small things make a life, but how sad that statement actually is compared to the size of the world.
I wouldn’t read this book again, because it is emotionally draining to the point where I nearly put it down, but I’m glad I saw it through to the end and I really hope that somewhere there is an equally trapped woman who reads this and gains inspiration for escape from it. This would be the perfect reading companion to The Group and if you fancy an Angry Week I’d recommend giving the two of them a go.