Dating in Alice Adams’s Superior Women & Tolstoy’s War & Peace

barbie queen of the prom 859b73499fc1bc9866aebc53112bb08cI often think of Barbie Queen of the Prom when I think of dating. In this Monopoly-like 1961 board game, you roll the dice to acquire, among other things, a date to the prom.  The possible dates are Ken, Bob, Tom, and Poindexter (pictured left).  Needless to say, Poindexter is the geek. Cards give you directions like:  “YOU ARE NOT READY WHEN HE CALLS. MISS 1 TURN.”

But the game is much more fun than dating.  Actual dating so often means getting stuck on a sailboat with a virtual stranger, or discovering he/she has no bookshelves.  Instead of “dating,” I hung out with bookish men I met at parties, at work, or in language classes.  Yes, I married one.

But would it work for Peg, the fat, plain character in a group of friends at Radcliffe in the 1940s in Alice Adams’s novel, Superior Women (1984)? This stunning  novel, reminiscent of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, follows a group of friends over four decades.  At Radcliffe, the maternal Peg plies her friends with cookies and tea and is much more intelligent than they think.    Lavinia, the beauty, is an aristocratic Southerner who wants total control:  she mourns a boyfriend who died in World War II, neglecting to say he dumped her before he shipped out. Plump, sexy Megan is irresistibly attractive to men, who tell her she is different because she likes sex (they don’t actually want to go on dates, though); Janet, a Jewish woman who criticizes Megan’s WASPy “technical virgin” friends, is in love with an  Irish Catholic whose  mother opposes the match.  Cathy, a smart Catholic, goes out with a flashily-dressed Catholic from Ohio (known as Flash by snobs) with whom she shares a taste for good steak.  Are they in love…?  Well…

You see Peg’s dilemma.

Alice Adams Superior Women 41xTsBHIaNLWhen her friends  learn Peg is going on a date with a Yale man she hasn’t seen since childhood, they humiliate her by helping her get ready.

Thus it works out that getting Peg ready for her date is a group project. With a variety of emotions that includes both genuine kindness and an incredulous condescension (Peg, on a date? what will he think when he sees her, no matter what she has on?), the three friends, her “best friends,” gather in her room; they watch and they make suggestions, helpful and otherwise. They make silly jokes. Megan and Cathy and Lavinia, all concentrated on poor Peg.

And not one of them has the slightest idea of what is going on in Peg’s mind. In close physical proximity to her, looking at her and talking, not one of them recognizes what is actually a serious anxiety attack; they do not feel Peg’s genuine panic.”

The Maude translation (Everyman)

The Maude translation (Everyman)

Adams, who graduated from high school at 15 and Radcliffe at 19, is very smart: the preparation-for-the-date scene is a homage to a scene in Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  In Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Princess  Mary,  a young, very kind, very plain  woman who lives in the country with her severe father, is excited because a suitor, Prince Anatole, is coming to meet her. Her  French companion, Mademoiselle Bourienne , and her pregnant sister-in-law, Princess Lise, help her prepare for the “date,: only to find that she actually looks worse in chic clothes and the new hairdo.  Here is a passage from the Maude translation.

It was not the dress, but the face and whole figure of Princess Mary that was not pretty, but neither Mademoiselle Bourienne nor the little princess felt this; they still thought that if a blue ribbon were placed in the hair, the hair combed up, and the blue scarf arranged lower on the best maroon dress, and so on, all would be well. They forgot that the frightened face and the figure could not be altered, and that however they might change the setting and adornment of that face, it would still remain piteous and plain. After two or three changes to which Princess Mary meekly submitted, just as her hair had been arranged on the top of her head (a style that quite altered and spoiled her looks) and she had put on a maroon dress with a pale-blue scarf, the little princess walked twice round her,

In neither Peg’s nor Mary’s case, does the date go well.  In Superior Women, the plain, red-faced Yale man, Cameron, gets drunk and almost rapes Peg, who fortunately is strong enough to shove him off her.   In War and Peace, Princess Mary is very shy and stilted, but Anatole will marry her for her money. But the next day, but after finding him making out with Mademoiselle Bourienne, she turns down the proposal.

Whether it is the nineteenth century or now, dating can be grueling.

3 thoughts on “Dating in Alice Adams’s Superior Women & Tolstoy’s War & Peace

  1. In my life as a young woman before marriage, the brief time between, and now as a widow I think I remember 2 “official” type dates — that’s in 69 years of life now.– both in my teens. He asked me out, there was a phone call, then I had to dress up; I remember how awkward the whole ritual was. Otherwise I seem just to have met men or boys naturally and we started going out casually — meeting one another. Truth to tell I’ve had very few boyfriends; so it must be either i hit it off intensely with the guy so none of this formality was there any more, or the conversation or whatever it was didn’t lead to more.

    I also have never been part of a “crowd” or group except tangentially — especially when younger. In graduate school I was part of a group of friends, a few of them with partners already. But never this situation so familiar in books like MacCarthy’s.

    So didn’t suffer these ways. Suffered in others of course 🙂 Poor Maria. The scene reminds me of Little Women where Meg is dressed up and looks so much worse for it. At first she preens, but then she realizes and is mortified. Maria is humiliated when she realizes the suitor is not attracted to her and after the governess. So she stops looking in order to cease the emotional pain of useless hope. Her father another barrier; after his death she does meet someone naturally.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, that scene with Princess Mary is so painful, but also very recognisable. On the one hand she knows in advance that Anatole is after her money and an idiot as well, her father makes that clear. And she thinks that her fortune is the only attractive thing about her. But she gets caught up in the excitement of Princess Lise and Mlle Bourienne. She wants so much to believe in the good of people that she falls in love with Anatole and even when she catches that scoundrel making out with Mlle Bourienne, she wants to help them, instead of becoming angry.
    After all the trouble of getting a date, getting ready for the date, all the anticipation and anxiety, we really want it to go well, so much so that we are unwilling to see that for the other person it’s not the same ‘big deal’.
    I’m certainly happy I’m past the dating stage!


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