Dress Down Sunday -
what goes on under the clothes
The Group by Mary McCarthy
published 1963 chapter 6
[Norine is telling Helena about sexual problems with her husband Putnam. She has tried asking doctors for advice]
‘[The first doctor] told me I should consider myself lucky that my husband didn’t want intercourse. Sex wasn’t necessary for a woman, he said.’
‘Good Heavens!’ said Helena.
‘Yes!’ nodded Norine. ‘The second one was a GP with a few more modern ideas. Put’s partner, Bill Nickum, sent me to him. He was pretty much of a Behaviorist. When I explained Put’s sexual history, he advised me to buy some black chiffon underwear and long black silk stockings and some cheap perfume. So that Put would associate me with a whore. And to try to get him to take me that way, with all my clothes on, in the afternoon, when he got home from work.’
‘Mercy!’ said Helena. ‘What happened?’
‘It was almost a success. I went to Bloomingdale’s and got the underwear and the stockings.’ She pulled up her sweat shirt, and Helena had a glimpse of a black chiffon ‘shimmy’ with lace inserts. ‘Then I thought of that polar-bear rug. My mother had it in storage; it used to belong to my grandmother Schmittlapp, who was a rich old aristocrat. “Venus in Furs” – Sacher-Masoch. I arranged so that Put would find me on the rug when he got home from the office.’ Helena smiled and made a noise like a whistle. ‘Put ejaculated prematurely,’ said Norine somberly. ‘Then we had a fight about how much I’d spent at Bloomingdale’s. Put’s an ascetic about money.'
observations: The separate strands of this novel are all absorbing in their different ways, as Libby becomes more and more vile, and Harald and Kay’s marriage gets more unnervingly real and horrible. Norine is light relief: she is not one of the main cast – as she points out, she wasn’t one of the in-group at Vassar – but she certainly adds verve to the book.
For a book written in the 1960s about the 1930s, the themes are very modern: the problems with child-rearing and breast-feeding, the affairs with married men, the troubles with aging parents, the embarrassment of visiting the contraception clinic - all the same as today.
It is written in a clever style, as if almost by one of the girls (is it Libbys voice or, just whoever is the central figure in the section?), dipping into a 2nd person narration at points – ‘you found that you got obsessed with these petty details’.
The Group has featured before, and there’s a black lace dress here.
The picture is of a 1920s Ziegfeld girl Helen Lee Worthing and is from the Library of Congress collection. This is another Ziegfeld girl.