Saturday, 28 April 2012

Killing off the McCarthy heroine

"Mary McCarthy’s best and most satiric novel, A Charmed Life (1955), centers
on her autobiographical heroine, Martha Sinnott, and Martha’s ex-husband Miles
Murphy, who meet again in a sharply observed group of old friends.

A Charmed Life is based on actual events.  In the summer of 1954, McCarthy,
with her third husband, Bowden Broadwater, returned to Wellfleet, Massachusetts,
on Cape Cod, where her previous husband, Edmund Wilsohis fourth wife, Elena.  In the novel, Martha and John Sinnott unwisely return to
New Leeds (a name that suggests new leads in life and new leashes and restraints).
Their house is near the village where her brilliant, physically unattractive, harddrinking, short-tempered, difficult and domineering ex-husband Miles lives with
his current and quite worshipful wife, Helen.  During his marriage to Martha,
Miles liked to make love on the beach, despite her protests that “somebody would
come and catch them” (73).  But she had to admit that she’d always enjoyed the
risky sex.  Their marriage had ended scandalously when, after a violent argument
in the middle of the night, she fled in her nightgown and his car, and sought refuge
with John Sinnott.  Martha and Miles meet for the first time since their messy
divorce—inevitably, awkwardly and drunkenly—at the reading of Bérénice, when
her husband is in Boston and his wife is at home with their sick child."  Jeffrey Meyers

McCarthy and her third husband, Bowden Broadwater

RL. Did you kill off Martha because you’d become tired of the McCarthy heroine?

MM. Well, I think Martha’s death is justified by the novel’s development, in the sense that she makes a logical choice, out of step with the illogical world she’s part of, but her death was never intended as anything symbolic or sacrificial. But it is true, I was becoming bored of my heroines, for technical reasons really - no matter how I tried to disguise characters like Martha and Meg, or even Katy Norell and Domna Rejnev, in terms of their appearance and profession and so on, they always turned out to be too close to me, despite the surface differences. Also, in terms of viewpoint, the fictional stand- in was becoming far too limiting. After ‘A Charmed Life’, I really wanted to explore less direct forms, without any obvious representative. ‘The Group’ was my first attempt at this – so, for the reader, it becomes a matter of deciding which characters could be trusted and which couldn’t. Take Kay’s death, for instance – was it suicide or just an accident?  To my mind, I provided enough evidence in the book to suggest that it was clearly an accident. The fact that characters like Harald and Libby – who are shown to be completely conceited and self-deluded – believe it was suicide should be enough to convince anyone of the exact opposite.