“The problem with current [marriage] vows is their optimism, which should be radically tempered, so as to avoid rage and resentment.” (Alain de Botton)

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: 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 self-medicates with alcohol. 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, 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:

“An intellectual carrot! The mind boggles.” (The Thing (From Another World), 1951)

This is my contribution to the 1951 Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book – do join in!

Firstly, A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor. I loved Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont so once I saw Taylor had a novel published in 1951 this was an easy choice for me. Like Mrs Palfrey, it is a finely observed portrait of a life lived quietly, with its sadness not shied away from but without being depressing.

One summer after World War I, as she is on the brink of adulthood, Harriet falls in love with Vesey. I’ve no idea why as he seems proof that it’s possible for jellyfish to take on human form and he is wholly self-centred, but fall for him she does. It’s testament to Taylor’s writing that the male love-object being determinedly unheroic does not detract from the story at all. People fall for all sorts of unsuitable types and this is one example. Also, Taylor is a nicer person than me and does not judge him as harshly:

“The streak of cruelty which Lilian had perceived in him was real enough, but used defensively. He would not have wished to be cruel to Harriet, who had not threatened him. Indeed it had begun to seem to him that only she was set against the great weight of disapproval he felt upon him. His mother treated him, at best, with an amused kindliness. Among her friends she drew attention to him as if he were a beloved marmoset on a chain, somehow enhancing her own originality, decorating her.”

Their love affair is marked by very little happening. It is a series of minor misunderstandings, things unsaid, feelings unexpressed. This is absolutely Taylor’s strength: she is brilliant at depicting small devastations.

“All through the long winter and the spring, she would not have him near her; yet now, standing so close beside him, the moment which should have been so precious was worse than useless: it shrank, and stopped and curdled. These blue flowers she carried in her hand she would surely hate for the rest of her life.”

The novel then jumps forward fifteen years. Harriet is married to Charles, they have an adolescent daughter who is in love with her teacher, and Harriet has learnt to be a good wife:

“When she married Charles, she had seemed to wed also a social order. A convert to it, and to provincial life, and keeping-house, she had pursued it fanatically and as if she feared censure. No one had entertained more methodically or better bolstered up social interplay. She had been indefatigable in writing letters of condolence, telegrams of congratulation; remembered birthdays and anniversaries; remembered bread-and-butter letters and telephone messages after parties…”

When Vesey reappears, so do Harriet’s long-buried feelings. They embark on an affair, but again, it’s strangely uneventful. Given that Harriet’s mother was a suffragette and is best friends with Vesey’s aunt, the next generation of their families lack volition.

A Game of Hide and Seek is a wonderful novel filled with Taylor’s unblinking observations, humour and compassion. The supporting characters of Harriet’s husband, daughter, work colleagues and dreadful mother-in-law are all brilliantly drawn. There is ambiguity around some fairly major points in the novel, not least the ending. This is not a novel to read if you want answers and ends tied up neatly.  But if you want to have your heart broken just a little bit by a portrait of lives lived in quiet desperation, this is for you.

“Against him, against his calm and decision, she felt confused and incoherent; and, looking back on her married life, it seemed a frayed, tangled thing made by two strangers.”

Secondly, The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers. This is a collection of short stories, of which the titular story makes up half,  which I’ll focus on.  This was my first foray into both McCullers and Southern Gothic and I found it compelling. The Ballad of the Sad Café tells the story of Miss Amelia, a lynchpin in her local community despite being wholly unsympathetic to those around her. She runs the store and brews the alcohol and practices effective folk remedies.

“…when a man has drunk Miss Amelia’s liquor. He may suffer, or he may be spent with joy – but the experience has shown the truth; he has warmed his soul and seen the message hidden there.”

A hunchback arrives in town professing to be a distant relation of Miss Amelia and she adores him.  He is manipulative and untrustworthy, but things tick along.  He persuades her to turn the store into the café and she gives him all he desires, and probably a few things he doesn’t, such as her kidney stones set in a watch chain.

“For the lover is for ever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.”

Things change when Miss Amelia’s estranged husband is released from jail. He adored Miss Amelia and has taken her rejection of him badly. He arrives back in town and tensions begin to build.

“Any number of wicked things could be listed against him, but quite apart from these crimes there was about him a secret meanness that clung to him almost like a smell. Another thing – he never sweated, not even in August, and that surely is a sign worth pondering over.”

McCullers increases the tension throughout this short tale expertly, and her cast of characters are idiosyncratic but never caricatures.  Similarly, the gothic elements are not overwrought and fit well within the heady, tense atmosphere.  A short portrait of a small town tragedy.

The cultural significance of The Ballad of the Sad Café has been recognised through that most prestigious of accolades: a Sesame Street parody. If I was McCullers I’d be overjoyed 😀