Josephine Hart, who sadly died earlier this year, becomes a VMC author this month, when her novels Damage and Sin are published on the VMC list. This is her recommendation for Mary McCarthy's first novel, The Company She Keeps, also published this month in the Virago Modern Classics.
The foreword is provocative. What follows is a shocking delight. Mary McCarthy with this, her first book, achieved a succès de scandale. Almost 70 years later its power to disturb remains undiminished.
The Company She Keeps is a warning-bell of a novel. It teaches us that intelligence – however finely honed – is not the same as wisdom, and that the getting of wisdom is hard. It is a Jamesian lesson delivered in McCarthy’s justly celebrated spare and elegant prose in which she is, as one critic noted, ‘both psychologist and executioner.’ And therein lies much of the subversive pleasure of this novel.
Nothing is missed by the heroine Margaret Sargent, ‘whose multiple personalities bloomed on the single stalk of her ego,’ as she observes with wit and intelligence aspects of her multi-faceted self, and of others – mostly the men she entrances with the judicious arrogance which adds a form of intellectual spice to her beauty. Such a woman should be forearmed for the fray.
Alas, much that is important in life is lost by Margaret. It is lost in the moral laziness which, in the opening chapter, ‘Cruel and Barbarous Treatment,’ leads her to waste her time with The Young Man (we never know his name) for whom she leaves her husband, though ‘she couldn’t bear to hurt him’. It is lost during her humiliating and drunken seduction on a train to Reno by ‘The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt’ – the ageing, socially and intellectually inferior ‘travelling salesman,’ Mr Breen. In this chapter Miss McCarthy gives us a chilling masterclass in the dangers of female sexual contempt. Her later weary surrender in the chapter ‘Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man’ to Jim Barnett – whose ‘inadequacy made him self-important’ ends in exasperated disillusionment – his – as he reflects that he would ‘hate her forever as Adam hates Eve.’
Finally, remarried unhappily to the controlling Frederick, we leave her talking to her psychiatrist. She is, the author warned us at the start, ‘fumbling in her spiritual pocket-book, for the ordinary, indispensable self that somehow got mislaid.’ But then again ‘perhaps she never took it with her in the first place.’
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