Last week I got an invite to a friend’s wedding. I know you won’t judge me, my bookish friends, when I say that I was pleased to get the invite and looking forward to it, but only became truly excited when I saw it was taking place in the birthplace of a favourite poet – roll on October!
Anyway….. me being a selfish friend aside, this prompted me to think that June is traditionally a month for weddings and so a suitable theme for this week.
Firstly, The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (1946), which tells the story of twelve-year old Frankie over a few sultry days in late August, around the wedding of her older brother:
“She knew that her only brother, Jarvis, was to be married. He had become engaged to a girl in Winter Hill just before he went to Alaska. Frankie had not seen her brother for a long, long time and his face had become masked and changing, like a face seen underwater. But Alaska! Frankie had dreamed of it constantly.”
Frankie is a misfit – very tall for a girl (I thought she sounded entirely normal but then I was 5’10” by age 14), with hair she’s just shorn into a crew cut, kept company by her housekeeper Berenice and her cousin John Henry, who is half her age. Her mother died in childbirth and her father is a distant presence. She is deeply unhappy and pins all her hopes on her brother and his new wife taking her with them when they leave.
McCullers creates the stultifying atmosphere perfectly:
“The clock ticked very slowly on the shelf above the stove, and it was only quarter to six. The glare outside was still hard and yellow and bright. In the backyard the shade beneath the arbor was black and solid. Nothing moved. From somewhere far away came the sound of whistling, and it was grieving an August song that did not end. The minutes were very long.”
I don’t think it’s putting too much of a modern interpretation on the novel to say a dominant theme is about gender and identity. Frankie has a gender-neutral name and does not conform to a feminine ideal. John Henry wears a dress. Markers of identity shift: Berenice is African-American but has one blue eye, she knows a dark-skinned woman who has vitiligo, and she tells of a man who became a woman. Frankie’s name changes to F Jasmine in the second part of the novel. Both children feel their ideal world would not contain gender binaries:
“She planned it so that people could instantly change back and forth from boys to girls, whichever way they felt like and wanted. But Berenice would argue with her about this, insisting the law of human sex was exactly right as it was and could in no way be improved. And then John Henry West would very likely add his two cents’ worth about this time, and think that people ought to be half boy and half girl”
At core though, it is a tale of a sad, lonely, misunderstood child who desperately wants to be seen and heard, and believes the wedding day will give her this chance:
“And since it was the day when past and future mingled, F Jasmine did not wonder that it was strange and long. So these were the main reasons why F Jasmine felt, in an unworded way, that this was a morning different from all mornings she had ever known. And of all these facts and feelings the strongest of all was the need to be known for her true self and recognised.”
What Frankie needs to recognise is what she already has: a deep intimacy with Berenice and John Henry who both love her.
“The three of them sat silent, close together and they could feel and hear each other’s breaths.”
The Member of the Wedding is an atmospheric, touching story that has many layers to it. It’s a tightly contained novel (188 pages in my edition) which still manages a remarkable richness of characterisation and setting.
The Member of the Wedding was a Broadway production and then a film with the same actors in 1952. I’ve not seen it but I believe it was acclaimed, although the claustrophobic quality probably worked better on stage:
Secondly, Cassandra at the Wedding, by Dorothy Baker (1962). Like The Member of the Wedding, the story centres not on the couple but on someone with a strong emotional investment in the proceedings. Cassandra is writing her PhD at Berkley and has to return home because her twin sister Judith is marrying a doctor she met in New York. The sisters are exceptionally, unhealthily close and Judith’s move to New York had sent Cassandra into a tailspin. At the start of the novel she is considering the Golden Gate bridge in term of a suicide vehicle:
“I think I knew all the time I was sizing up the bridge that the strong possibility was I’d go home, attend my sister’s wedding as invited, help hook-and-zip her into whatever she wore, take over the bouquet while she received the ring, through the nose or on the finger, wherever she chose to receive it, and hold my peace.”
Their mother is dead and their father is an alcoholic. It becomes apparent that the twins’ claustrophobic relationship was an extension of the elitist, exclusive culture their parents encouraged. But Judith has realised that this was not a helpful way to live:
“as a family we’d always been something of a closed corporation…we had our own pinnacle to look down from. But when we went away to college we couldn’t quite keep it the way it was on the ranch.”
Judith has dared to want the ordinary: to be out in the world, to get married and to set up a home. The few days when they are both back at home will bring the twins’ differing needs into direct conflict.
“[I] stood up and looked down at Cass and knew I loved her, but that it was not the same thing as being married and feeling married, and that now it never could or would be. I felt very solemn about it, and solemn words came into my mind. ‘Whom God hath split asunder, let nothing join them together. Ever.’ “
Cassandra is an intriguing character: bright, funny, acerbic, incredibly vulnerable (she’s anorexic since Judith moved east) and monumentally selfish and self-centred. Her obsession with Judith is in many ways an extension of self-obsession:
“To be like us isn’t easy, it requires constant attention to detail. I’ve thought it out; we’ve thought it out together. I’ve tried to explain to my doctor that it’s a question of working ceaselessly at being as different as possible because there must be a gap before it can be bridged. And the bridge is the real project.”
All the same I was rooting for Cassandra – not to get what she wanted, because that was a continuation of the destructively claustrophobic relationship with her sister – but to find a way through, for all involved.
Cassandra at the Wedding is a psychologically astute, funny and sad novel. Dorothy Baker balances the differing tones expertly; I’d definitely be interested to read more by her.
To end, The Dixie Cups in remarkable 1980s dresses (were wired hems a thing?), and looking like they’ve not bothered aging since their 60s heyday: