A Pop-Literary Wallow: Nancy Hale’s The Prodigal Women

If you know my blog, you know I am a great rereader.

My mother and I shared a propensity for rereading.  She wallowed in Gone with the Wind, her favorite book:   it was her fount of personal wisdom.  She advised me when I was breaking up with a boyfriend “not to let him go!  There must be some way!”  It wasn’t bad advice: it is a quotation from Scarlett O’Hara.

Nancy Hale’s 1942 bestseller, The Prodigal Women, has become my favorite pop wallow.  After reading a short story by Nancy Hale in an old volume of Best Stories from The New Yorker, I went on a Hale bender.  A few years ago I described  The Prodigal Women  as “a fusion of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, and Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls.”   Set between 1922 and 1940, it is the story of three women whose interests diverge as the years go by but whose lives remain entwined.  And though it is melodramatic, I certainly recognized these characters.

The first part of the novel is the most readable, because it is so resonant of women’s lives:  we  have a literary language to describe the problems of loneliness and friendship. Leda March, the intellectual daughter of a well-to-do Boston family,  is friendless and longs to fit in with other girls:  she is victimized first at the Country Day School in Hampton and later at a girls’ schools in Boston.  Her life changes when the Jekylls, a Southern family, move to Massachusetts because Mrs. Jekyll wants culture:  the youngest daughter, Betsy, takes Leda under her wing, they spend hours giggling and putting on makeup, and both adore Betsy’s lovely older sister, Maizie, who is surrounded by men.  Maizie is their role model.

As the book goes on, the women grow apart and fall into dysfunctional relationships for which literary language seems inadequate.  Leda becomes a successful, and very snobbish, writer in New York, but the nice Jekyll girls don’t fare so well.

Maizie falls in love with Lambert, an artist who is  sadistic in his treatment of this Southern belle. When Maizie gets pregnant she refuses to have an abortion:  Lambert agrees to marry her, though he says she is ruining his life. She is thrilled to marry him, under any circumstances.  But on a cruise to South America he is so  cruel that she agrees to have an abortion. And then the abortion is botched, and her health breaks down completely.  So does her mental health.  And yet Lambert continues to badger her.

Here is an example of the dialogue between Maizie and Lambert.

“Oh, darling, I just can’t bear to have you talk like that.  I’ll be well so soon, now.  It was only for a short time, all this…. You don’t think I’ve enjoyed being sick, do you?”

“I know damned well you’ve enjoyed it.”

“No, I haven’t.  I hate feeling old, and tired, all the time.  I’m young, and I hate not feeling young.  The only way I can stand it is to realize that if I’m careful I’ll be well soon and then everything will be lovely.”

“Hell, you’re too optimistic.  You aren’t going to get well.  You’re a born invalid.  You’ll be sick all the rest of your life, and I’ll take care of you.  That’s the schedule.”

And on and on it goes.  Can you imagine?  Poor Maizie!  What a son of a bitch that Lambert is.

Not how I pictured the prodigal women…

At this point in my rereading,  I wondered, Do I want to reread this whole book?  (I’ve decided to skip the saddest parts.)  Maizie never recovers her health, and spends time in a mental hospital.  Cold, self-centered Leda has an affair with Lambert–they are very alike in their artistic ruthlessness–and coolly sets out to steal him from Maizie, until a socially prominent quasi-friend accuses her of adultery.  Leda marries a doctor she doesn’t love, but she and Lambert eventually become involved again.

Of the three women, Betsy is the most level-headed, happily working for a fashion magazine in New York and going out every night, but she becomes involved with a man who is sometimes violent.  And she sticks by him, because she understands his mental health problems.  We all know about abusive relationships, and know the women should leave as they do in magazine articles and made-for-TV movies.  But does the “should” always happen?  Hale shows that, unfortunately, it doesn’t.

Hale went in this novel where few women dared to go in the 1940s.  And when I think about it, not many women dare to now.  We all prefer something less melodramatic–or do I mean less real?  The ends are not tied up neatly here, but it is a great out-of-print pop literary novel.

Nancy Hale’s The Prodigal Women

Nancy Hale

               Nancy Hale

“I specialize in women, because they are so mysterious to me. I feel that I know men quite thoroughly, that I know how, in a given situation, a man is apt to react. But women puzzle me.”–Nancy Hale in an interview at The New York Times.

I am a great fan of Nancy Hale.

Never heard of her?  Her  work is out of print.

Not for long, though.

In September, Dover Books will reissue her 1943 bestseller, The Prodigal Women.

Raised in Boston, Hale was the daughter of two painters, Philip L. Hale and Lilian Westcott Hale, and a descendant of Harriet Beecher Stowe.  She escaped from stuffy, WASPy New England to New York and became a journalist, novelist, memoirist, and short story writer.  (She was the first female reporter at The New York Times.)  A few years ago I discovered her work in an anthology , Short Stories from the New Yorker, 1925 to 1940.   I became an avid reader of her work.  My favorites are the brilliant novel, Dear Beast (which I wrote about here),  and her stunning memoirs, A New England Girlhood and A Life in the Studio (which I wrote about here and here.)

Fortchoming Dover edition

Fortchoming Dover edition

I very much enjoyed The Prodigal Women.  It is unputdownable, the equivalent of a text munchie. Want to read and read until you forget it’s fiction?  Imagine a fusion of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, and Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls.

Set between 1922 and 1940, this well-written blockbuster vividly portrays three very different heroines.  Leda March, the intellectual daughter of a well-to-do Boston family, is friendless and longs to fit in with other girls:  she is victimized first at the Country Day School in Hampton and later at a girls’ schools in Boston.  Her life changes when the Jekylls, a Southern family, move to Massachusetts because Mrs. Jekyll wants culture:  the youngest daughter, Betsy, takes Leda under her wing,  and both adore her lovely older sister, Maizie, who is surrounded by men.

As the girls grow older, their interests diverge.  Leda, who once wanted to be a debutante, rebels and moves to New York, where she becomes a successful writer.  Did Hale chose the name “Leda March” as a riff on Jo March, the tomboy writer who eventually settles for a middle-aged German professor?  Leda will never settle.

Maizie could marry anyone, but  becomes obsessed with Lambert, an artist, and entraps him in marriage.   Poor Maizie! Once she is married, Lambert becomes sadistic.  He insisted that she have an abortion in South America on their honeymoon, and Maize never quite recovers. She loses her health and spends time in mental hospitals.  Even Lambert admits he ruined her life.

But Leda doesn’t give a shit.  She  wants Lambert.  Boy, does she want him!  Since Maizie has become a frump, Leda thinks it’s fine to steal her husband.

Betsy is the most normal: a fun-loving young woman with an active social life in New York in the ’20s.  Then, unfortunately, she moves in with, and then marries, an abusive failed writer who wants a mother figure.   Betsy is strong enough to rise above domestic problems, but the situation is dire.

Are no men good enough for these women?  Hale wasn’t afraid to vilify male characters.  Nor are the women saints.

I am hesitant to call this a feminist novel, though some of the characters are feminists.  The writer Mary Lee Settle, in the  introduction to the 1988 Plume paperback of The Prodigal Women, explains it most clearly.

Plume paperback edition.

Plume paperback edition.

Settle writes,

It is too easy to categorize it as an early feminist novel.  It most certainly is “feminist”–though the use of that word is far more “contemporary than the book itself–but it follows the tradition that existed long before women began using a self-conscious langauge in their appraisal of where they were  and what they wanted.  …  [Nancy Hale’s] female revenged are as ancient as Medea or Electra.  But neither does she condone the excesses of “feminine wiles.”  These, too, are punished–terribly.

The ‘feminist’ novel, if that is what is meant by novels where men are interpreted in less than heroic manner, goes back to the great classics by women. The list is formidable: George Eliot’s Middlemarch, where Dorothea’s choice between Casaubon and Will Ladislaw is hardly a choice, and which is enough to frighten any sensitive woman out of marrying; Ellen Glasgow’s Jason Greylock in Barren Ground, the author’s terrible revenge on Southern men for losing the Civil War and drinking too much; Edith Wharton’s Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence; Willa Cather’s Jim in My Antonia. Here they are–strong women, frail men–a genre, a tradition, and a revenge for all the natural insults that female flesh considers itself heir to. Like these great women novelists, Nancy Hale’s women are more alive, stronger, both more sympathetic and more destructive than her men.”