When slave girls rebel, boss ladies watch out! In literature as in life, the revenge of a female underling on a female superior can be a messy business – with limbs, eyeballs, breasts, and other detachable body parts left dripping in gore around the house. A variety of situations may propel such fury. In Euripides’ Electra, Western civilisation’s mythic prototype for female-on-female mayhem, the rebel is an Outraged Daughter and the boss lady her Wicked Old Mother: Clytemnestra’s doom is sealed when she puts her sex life ahead of her daughter’s. At other times it’s a matter of plain old class rage: a put-upon servant who’s had enough of a tyrannical mistress. In France in 1933 the notorious Papin sisters – real-life models for the homicidal domestics in Genet’s The Maids – disembowelled their bourgeois mistress and her daughter in a fit of bestial frenzy after the unfortunate Mme Lancelin complained once too often about a blown fuse on her electric iron.
In women’s fiction, the heroine’s simmering hatred for an older woman – often resolving into psychic violence – has long been a classic theme. Charlotte Brontë’s excoriating portrait of Mrs Reed in Jane Eyre is undoubtedly an attack on some detested female oppressor of her youth: Brontë’s description fairly seethes with murderous venom. Edith Wharton heroines, steely girls on the make such as Lily Bart or Undine Spragg, routinely anathematise the hypocritical society matrons who obstruct their passage to wealth and status: their aversion seems grounded in Wharton’s own polite loathing of her grand yet self-absorbed mother. In the mordantly sapphic novels of Elizabeth Bowen, older women are depicted as seductive and treacherous – enchanting sociopaths who leave the younger women who fall in love with them both shell-shocked and vengeful. (See in particular Bowen’s brilliant first novel, The Hotel, of 1927.) In Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie vengeance is taken when the teenage heroine Sandy, the complicated pet of the charismatic Miss Brodie, provokes her teacher’s destruction by informing the school authorities about Brodie’s Fascist sympathies. Similar acts of girlish ressentiment roil the works of Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Plath, Daphne Du Maurier, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Jolley, Sybille Bedford and many others.
Female autobiographers have been similarly forthright about such hatreds – if less so about the pleasures of posthumous retribution. When a famous and idealised older woman fails to live up to the needs of a younger protégée it is de rigueur nowadays for the latter to rage in print at the cruelty of her faithless idol. Mommie Dearest (1978), Christina Crawford’s high-kitsch account of her wretched childhood with her adoptive mother Joan Crawford, is the archetype here – the first and most spectacular of real-life She was mean! books. Yet so many exposés of this kind have appeared over the past twenty years they might be said to constitute a popular mini-genre. Angelica Garnett’s Deceived with Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood (1984), with its quietly devastating portrait of her mother Vanessa Bell, is one of the more subtle; more tendentious is Maria Riva’s Marlene Dietrich (1992) – another mother-daughter horror story – or Bianca Lamblin’s 1993 Mémoires d’une jeune fille dérangée, translated into English in 1996 as A Disgraceful Affair: Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Bianca Lamblin. While professing to be a kind of perverse tribute, the Lamblin book is actually a morbid recounting of its author’s adolescent love affair with Simone de Beauvoir, who first seduced her then passed her over – with chilling sangfroid – to Sartre.
It is somehow not surprising that, with the publication of Rosemary Mahoney’s memoir A Likely Story, Lillian Hellman (1905-84) should sustain a similar assault. Over the course of a long and controversial life Hellman herself was hardly a stranger to same-sex animus. Her first play, The Children’s Hour (1934), about a malicious young girl who accuses two female teachers at her boarding school of conducting a lesbian relationship, is often taken retroactively as a political parable – an attack on those in the McCarthy period who ‘named names’ – yet the heart of the drama lies in its depiction of the girl’s shocking misogyny and its dire consequences. (One of the teachers commits suicide.) In the early Eighties Hellman got embroiled in her own ugly mess when she engaged in a vicious public feud with Mary McCarthy, who had attacked her on television. (McCarthy’s ever-quotable judgment on Hellman’s memoirs: ‘Every word she writes is a lie, including “and” and “the”.’) When asked by a friend why she had filed a lawsuit against the younger writer, Hellman responded: ‘I can’t let Mary’s poisonous nonsense go without taking a stand, can I?’ Her words uncannily echo the play of fifty years earlier – not least because the evil girl against whom the teachers seek to defend themselves is also named Mary.
Mahoney is a Rosemary, not a Mary, but her memoir – a moody, lavishly worked account of a miserable summer she spent as a teenager working as Hellman’s housemaid on Martha’s Vineyard in 1978 – is a She was mean! book with bells on. It has received unusual praise in the United States – even in such genteel quarters as the New York Times – largely, I suspect, because its author fulfils the expectations of the genre so well. In these blithe post-feminist times, everyone, it would seem, enjoys the spectacle of a famous old dead lady humbled – especially one as wrinkly, foul-mouthed and imperious as Hellman. Three cheers for the slave girl! Go get ‘em, Rosemary!
Yet huzzas notwithstanding, something about Mahoney’s bravado troubles. The author of two successful pieces of non-fiction – The Early Arrival of Dreams (1990) and Whoredom in Kimmage (1993) – Mahoney goes about her indictment of Hellman with a novelist’s artfulness and skill. But even as one admires the precocious mastery with which she crafts her ignoble tale – and the tale is in parts undeniably compelling – one feels ill at ease in Mahoney’s still embarrassingly raw emotional world. The memoir is doomed, not only by its author’s resentment, still smouldering ominously after 20 years, but also by her cloying sentimentality about her younger self.
Both the resentment and the sentimentality are present from the outset. A Likely Story begins in 1984, with an airless, slightly hysterical scene of discovery. Mahoney is helping her artist-sister strip and paint an old industrial loft-space in a grimy part of Los Angeles. As the sun beats in and the paint fumes become more and more oppressive, her eye falls on the headline on a piece of old newspaper on the floor – ‘Lillian Hellman, Playwright, Author and Rebel, Dies at 79’.
Seeing these words was like discovering that the cool, slippery object you’ve crushed beneath your bare foot in the garden is a large pus-coloured slug. I recoiled instinctively and my face tightened and my free hand flew up to cover my mouth. For several years I had supposed that Lillian Hellman was already dead, perhaps because for years I had been killing her off in my imagination. But the newspaper was only a few days old. I looked at the headline again to be certain I had read it correctly, then heard myself mutter: ‘Thank God.’ I called out to my sister that Hellman was dead. Lillian Hellman was good and dead. I clapped my dirty hands and made cracks about the pieties that were sure to be scattered about at her funeral.
After Mahoney’s first exultation is over, the news of Hellman’s death prompts a painful memory of herself, six years earlier, in the claustrophobic little bedroom off the kitchen at Hellman’s summer house on the Vineyard: ‘I remembered lying miserably awake in that small bed thinking that if I were a bolder person, I would find a way to repay all Hellman’s strictures and stridor; maybe lacing her beloved, fussed-over wine bottles with vinegar, or switching her medicines, or rearranging her furniture in the middle of the night so that she, nearly blinded by glaucoma, would become mazed in her own living-room.’
Writing in the late Nineties, the thirty-something Mahoney is careful to distance herself from her timid yet tricky 1978 self: ‘I wasn’t in the least aware that such malevolent thoughts might be harmful to my soul or that they reflected a frustration and vindictiveness that bespoke only my own unhappiness.’ Indeed, what affected her most in the end about Hellman’s death, she concludes, was an unexpected ‘feeling of sorrow’.
These older but wiser sentiments are strangely undone, however, as she begins her narrative proper. This, despite the breezy Cape Cod setting, reads like a misfiring Gothic novel. At the centre, in the role of vulnerable heroine, is the 17-year-old Rosemary – youngest of seven Irish-Catholic siblings, daughter of a doctor (who is dead) and a mother (alcoholic) whom she adores. Swept away by Hellman’s memoirs in high school – she regards the older woman as ‘brave and strong and full of noble ideals’ – she forms a desperate wish to meet her. She writes her a letter, asking if she can work for her for the summer, and to her amazement Hellman accepts the offer. All then is giddy alacrity. Like Jane Eyre setting off for Thornfield Hall, or the excitable governess departing for Bly at the opening of The Turn of the Screw, Mahoney promptly leaves her parents’ house in dreary Milton, Massachusetts, and heads for the sun-dappled Vineyard, revelling in fantasies about the marvellous experiences awaiting her in her new post.
Alas, the portents are wrong from the start. Teachers and friends who have heard about her job with Hellman have taken to muttering things like ‘They say she’s a pretty tough dame,’ and Mahoney’s mother worries about her sensitive daughter’s well-being. Stopping at the local grocery store after arriving on the Vineyard, Mahoney notices that the clerks and bag boys shudder and make obscene gestures when ‘old Lilly baby’s’ name is mentioned. Hellman herself, bored and magisterial at their first interview, is nothing less than terrifying: an uncanny mixture of artifice, decrepitude and grotesque, idol-like force:
Through the furry veil of my nervousness I noted how Hellman sat in her chair, her slippered heels just reaching the floor, how she laid one bone-thin arm across the convex bowl of her belly while the other lifted a cigarette to her lips. She smoked in a thoughtful, nibbling way, and when she paused to carry the cigarette to her mouth, her chin rose in preparation, as though someone else’s hand were feeding it to her. She looked vulnerable and girlish sitting there. She had large, flat thumbnails. I stared at her; no Eskimo icon could be more imposing. She blew smoke into the air and looked back at me, her cloudy eyes not seeing me clearly, as was obvious by the tilt of her head and the amused expression on her face, which I came to learn was not amusement at all but strain. The way her mouth settled when she was thinking, she seemed to be tasting her own large teeth, gauging their size and shape with her tongue. Her mouth was a wide, thin-lipped line that turned down slightly at its corners. Her face was a pattern of downward-slanting flesh, like cake batter running down the side of a mixing bowl, and that day her skin, like the furniture and the wood floors, glistened in the humidity. Her eyes had a faintly Asian slant that made her look almost seductive. Her face was narrower, longer, than it had seemed in pictures, and her nose in profile was colossal and angled in the middle. She had a broad and rather handsome forehead with the faintest suggestion of a widow’s peak. But the most remarkable thing about her, aside from the complicated pattern of wrinkles, was her hair: it was beautiful, thick and soft and wavy and tinted a summery wheaten colour. It was the hair of a girlish young woman, the sort of rich pelt that on an older woman inevitably prompts the observer to think wig. It wasn’t a wig.
When Mahoney is shown around by the housekeeper she is replacing – a goggle-eyed Hispanic woman named Marta who warns her in a furtive whisper that ‘Hellman is no nice lady. You look out!’ – one can almost hear the dank organ chords sounding.
Over the three months that follow – cast abruptly into the role of live-in cleaner, dresser, cook, errand-runner and maid-of-all-work to the ailing, 74-year-old Hellman – Mahoney undergoes a kind of emotional shock-therapy as humiliating (in her eyes) as any indignity perpetrated on one of Mrs Radcliffe’s insipid heroines. With her weird, unsteady gait, reeking tobacco breath and lipstick ‘the colour of dried blood’, Hellman perambulates the house like an elderly Mother of Frankenstein, oscillating between bossy tantrums, purblind inanities and a near-total indifference to the sensibilities of her youthful factotum. (When not in a senile rage over Mahoney’s deficiencies as a servant – the tomboyish Mahoney is unable to cook anything more than boiled eggs, for example – Hellman seems to forget all about her existence.) Cheated of the attention for which she yearns, Mahoney retreats into turgid adolescent angst – sulking, pining, brooding over her absent mother (to whom she writes pathetic letters) and counting up the wrongs.
Twenty years on, Mahoney recollects these wrongs as if they had happened yesterday. Hence the gory vignettes on which American reviewers of the book have fastened so gleefully. Hellman fumes at Mahoney for spilling a few drops of coffee. She humiliates her for neglecting to put the bathmat back in the right place after scrubbing the tub. She fixes her with a basilisk stare (‘thin lips clapped together like a cartoon clam’s’) for forgetting to put her nightly eyedrops on ice. Whenever Mahoney fetches the wrong food item from the store or makes the beds incorrectly She-of-the-Pelt-like-Copper-Hairdo blows her stack. She demands that Mahoney wear a frilly uniform while dusting. (Mahoney for once refuses.) The meagre paychecks she hands over turn out to be uncashable. She creeps up behind Mahoney and scares her out of her wits when she is polishing the furniture. She never apologises for anything. She is in short one hell of a bitch, with cigarette-tainted ‘warm tarry breath’ to boot.
Mahoney exposes instances of Hellman’s venality with near-photographic recall: the way she forces her to funnel ‘a bottle of Jim’s vodka, the cheapest brand available on the island, into the empty Smirnoff bottle in the living-room’; her floridly racist vocabulary (‘she was always saying Chink and Jap and nigger, which in Pentimento she claimed she would never say’); her cheating at Scrabble (during games with her neighbour Rose Styron she routinely peeks at Styron’s letters whenever Styron leaves the room); the malicious remarks she makes about friends and houseguests as soon as they are out of earshot (Joseph Alsop, she tells Mahoney, ‘is a fag … There’s no reason for my liking him except that he was very good during the McCarthy period’).
Some of this tartufferie is good for a hollow laugh – or even two or three. Bad behaviour on the part of the eminent, especially those who preen themselves on their moral or intellectual superiority, is always enjoyable to contemplate, and the gossip quotient in Mahoney’s book is high. Hellman is not the only snotty famous person to fall under her jaded eye. James Taylor and Carly Simon, Hellman’s guests one sunny afternoon, ‘smile stiffly’ at Mahoney when she brings coffee in on a serving tray, but otherwise ignore her. Mike Nichols and John Hersey win grudging approval – the former for giving her a nice tip, the latter for his kindly, slightly alcoholic smile (‘He had the look of a person who understood other people, who wanted to hear what they had to say’). Joseph Alsop, making chitchat with her in the kitchen, speaks with such a ludicrously fake British accent that he reminds her of Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island. William Styron is almost as monstrous as Hellman herself: self-centred, nervy, and savage with contempt for anyone who gets in his way. When he accidentally burns the fancy pan-fried quail he is preparing for Hellman and her friends in Hellman’s kitchen one night, he blames the resulting mess on Mahoney and her fellow cook, who have been helping out by chopping vegetables for him: ‘My apologies for the few that are singed,’ he says to the assembled guests: ‘The girls lost control of a burner.’
And Mahoney, it must be allowed, has a gift for a certain cruel situation comedy, as when she records Hellman’s ponderous attempts to instruct her in the use of the Cuisinart:
Hellman tugged a Cuisinart out from its spot in the corner of the counter. It was new, she told me. Someone had given it to her as a gift. It was a terribly fancy gadget. She hadn’t used it much. Its blades were terribly, terribly sharp. We must use extreme caution. She fussed over the plastic machine, removing fittings and containers and putting them on again, feeling their shapes with her fingers, bending over to inspect the handle, the electrical cord. Her long fingernails clicked on the hard plastic, and her hands hovered gingerly over the pieces, as though the machine were a fancy pipe bomb.
After she and Hellman manage to reduce some sorrel leaves to a ‘thrashing green potion’, Mahoney turns off the machine and tries to pry free the blade in order to wash it. When it suddenly pops up in the air and lands harmlessly on Hellman’s foot, the scene turns to geriatric slapstick:
Her head tipped forward, seemed to wobble on her neck. ‘Oh! Oh! Jesus Christ!’ she yelped. Magnified through her eyeglasses, her lashes fluttered wildly, her face a map of tension and fear. ‘Oh, my God! Jesus Christ!’ she gasped. ‘Am I all right?’ Her lips trembled and she clutched at her own hands and stared down at her green-stained sneaker. She took a tiny step, a kind of test to see if her foot was still there. She looked up at me. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Oh, fine,’ I said. My heart pounded with confusion and fear. I saw no blood on the floor or on either one of us, so I concluded aloud again that we were both all right. I picked up the Cuisinart blade by its little knobbed handle and held it up for Hellman to see, perhaps hoping that the sight of it in my hand would provide further evidence that we were not hurt …
‘Jesus Christ. It nearly took my head off.’ Her mouth hung open in fright. Her lips trembled. ‘My God, that fuckin’ thing is a menace. I’ve got to have Melvin take a look at it.’
She went to the table, stabbed her cigarette into the ashtray, snatched up a pack of cigarettes, fished a fresh one out with trembling fingers, fitting it into her mouth, and lit it with her palm cupped protectively around the match, as if the room were subject to a howling wind.
Yet Mahoney’s depiction of Hellman disturbs more than it amuses – indeed often repels – mainly because Mahoney pretends to a self-knowledge that her narrative does little to endorse. A crucial background element in A Likely Story is Mahoney’s relationship with her widowed mother, Nona, whom she adores with a mixture of veneration and panic. Nona wears a leg brace (the result of polio) and moves about with difficulty – a fact that fills her daughter with both anxiety and lover-like solicitude. Mahoney’s early adolescence has been taken up with caring obsessively for Nona, trying to ease her burdens, yet also coping with her ‘stuporous disappearances’ – the times when she comes home drunk and her daughter has to help her stagger to bed to sleep it off. (Mahoney’s numerous older siblings mostly ignore the situation.) At the time Mahoney takes the job with Hellman she is still deeply and slavishly embroiled with Nona. Indeed when mother and daughter reunite they conduct strange little rituals of absorption and interdependence. Mahoney will massage her mother’s ‘dead leg’, as if to bring it magically back to life, or help Nona practise taking her leg brace on and off at high speed, just in case she ever has to flee a burning house or swim free from a submerged car.
Mahoney clearly wants her readers to draw the obvious parallel between the relationship with Nona and the relationship with Hellman. Both women are seductive and powerful yet physically enfeebled; both induce in the youthful Mahoney the same embarrassingly masochistic attitudes. Each seems rich in ‘adult’ experience: Hellman is a famous writer and presence in the world; and even Nona, despite disability, alcoholism and murky bouts of depression (Mahoney’s father may have committed suicide), reads lots of books and manages to support her numerous children as a high school English teacher. The teenage Mahoney inevitably sees herself as impoverished in comparison – compelled as if by destiny into the role of juvenile dogsbody and emotional supplicant.
What disturbs, however, is that Mahoney, even now, seems not to grasp any deeper psychic link between her feeling for her mother and her feeling for Hellman. While recognising some of her mother’s failings, Mahoney presents Nona for the most part with saccharine, even sickly forbearance – as a kindly, Dickensian parent, unhappily prone to a few dipsomaniacal lapses. Yet what female child enjoys looking after a crippled and inebriated mother? Mahoney clearly yearned for her mother to look after her, and resented her fiercely when she did not. Only such resentment can help to explain the wildly rebounding fury at Hellman. Yet A Likely Story lacks any retrospective authorial insight of that kind. Despite maudlin attention to her adolescent vulnerability – she is endlessly keen to tell us how gauche she was as a young woman, how lacking in confidence, how unprotected, weak and shy – Mahoney seems unable, after twenty years, to relate the enmity towards Hellman to what was patently a profound sense of being unmothered, un ours mal léché. The link is there; it is palpable in the narrative; but the crucial emotional synapses never seem to fire.
This failure of insight seems in turn connected with the most disquieting aspect of A Likely Story: Mahoney’s painfully elaborate descriptions of Hellman’s ageing, raddled, all too human body. Mahoney’s renderings, as when she describes watching through binoculars as Hellman strips naked for a swim on the little private beach below her house (‘a skeletal figure with two pendulous bosoms dangling from her ribcage like white leather wineskins two-thirds empty; her pruny arms and legs the colour of butterscotch in the bright light’), are infused at once with moral disgust and an almost erotic disappointment. She is transfixed by Hellman’s huge pillowy breasts (‘like sloping cushions stuffed into her dress’) which seem to promise a maternal nurturance that never comes. Hellman’s voluminous bra-cups, fondled as they emerge from the washing-machine, are so ‘copious and solid they reminded me of quahog shells’.
Yet Mahoney is shy when it comes to taking responsibility for her own not too subtle symbolism. One day when Hellman demanded that she make cookies from scratch rather than simply picking some up from the store, she remembers thinking to herself: ‘I had never tasted a homemade cookie as good as an Oreo.’ When her favourite edible turns up later, however, it is in a strangely fraught, if not primal, context. Finding the drunken, snoring Hellman stretched out naked on her bed upstairs during a bibulous evening with the Styrons, Nichols, Peter Matthiessen and the rest, Mahoney comments – with the bizarre know-nothingism of the amnesiac – that her ‘nipples were the size of Oreos’.
This culminating image of the post-prandial, brown-nippled Hellman – comatose, alone, exposed and snuffly – is not only the cruellest in the book, it is also a fitting emblem of what is wrong, ethically and rhetorically, with Mahoney’s enterprise.
Her twisted toes poked up out of the ruffle of the sheets. She breathed softly, dead to the world, ribcage rising and falling, while her fancy guests laughed and chattered downstairs, smoking and enjoying her wine. She was the oldest person in the house by nearly ten years. She was like a wayward granny. Her body was so skinny and old it was like a scientific event looking at it in this way, like finding a large fragile fossil embedded in stone, or the mummified remains of a three-thousand-year-old man preserved in a bog, his prunish face flattened and smeared and warped, like a face pressed against a windowpane. I had once seen one of these men stretched out in a museum, and looking at him in his glass box, every joint visible beneath his dusty film of skin, I half-expected him to sit up, with the floppy, corky creak of folding leather, and say: Yes. Here I am. Again.
Fine writing, yes (almost too fine), but Mahoney can’t resist layering on ‘significance’ with rich, self-consciously artful strokes:
Anyone leaving by the formal second-floor entry that night would have to pass her door and see their famous hostess dumb and naked, snoring and muttering on her bed. I stood there staring, floating in a wave of scorn and pity. I could punish her, leave the door open, and let people catch the terrifying sight. Or I could close it and protect her. I argued with myself. She had been so hard and unwelcoming. She hadn’t allowed me in and had forced me to block her out. Everything here seemed bitter and sour to me. It wasn’t what I had expected, wasn’t what I had wanted. And I felt embarrassed and angry for not having been wiser, for not having anticipated how complex it would be, how marginal my person was in this place. I hated surprises. I hated not knowing things.
After a last cool look at Hellman’s wrinkled face, the lips ‘hanging loose in her oblivion’, the made-up eyebrows ‘stuck up in spikes and spears’ and hair ‘a glossy jumble on the pillow’, Mahoney throws a sheet over her and gently pulls the door shut.
At such moments Mahoney’s story seems to resolve into allegory: a kind of hortatory tableau, like one of those strange early Renaissance German paintings in which a young girl and old crone, emblems of Youth and Age, confront one another in a landscape, the one glowing in her naked youthful beauty, the other withered and hideous. (Mahoney frequently comments on her own prettiness, and how much Hellman resents her for it.) As much as a Cranach or Memling, Mahoney seems to want to convey a message here about youth and age, beauty and vanitas, life and death.
The problem is that Hellman is not the archetypal crone of fable or allegory, despite the sinister boiled sweets she offers Mahoney on their first meeting. By all accounts Hellman was difficult and contentious and abominable to those she disdained, but she was also as complex and soulful a human being as anyone else on the planet. One can’t help feeling, even after reading Mahoney, that she deserves to be treated as such. Mahoney’s central complaint is that Hellman never bothered to find out who she (Mahoney) was. Yet the most telling feature of Mahoney’s own book is its own tit-for-tat emotional logic. Hellman, through her indifference, treats Mahoney as a thing, and Mahoney does the same in reverse to Hellman. The Hellman of A Likely Story is not so much a real woman as a puppet or voodoo doll or primitive icon: ‘a cloth stitched around a skeleton or whittled sticks and twisted wire hangers, a piece of Peruvian handicraft’. She has no inner life, no humane dimension – is set up instead as a sort of effigy in training. The clinical descriptions of her body, sunken in boggy sleep, hint at the further dissolution to come: Hellman is indeed halfway to corpse. And thus Mahoney distances herself – and us – from any identification with her target. Her portrait of Hellman is strictly from the outside – and wilfully so – for it is by staying outside, remorselessly, that Mahoney is able to exact her revenge.
Sadistic impulses are hardly to be disavowed, of course, least of all by churlish reviewers. A favourite poem of mine has always been Eileen Myles’s divinely boorish ‘On the Death of Robert Lowell’:
O, I don’t give a shit.
He was an old white-haired man
Insensate beyond belief and
Filled with much anxiety about his imagined
Pain. Not that I’d know
I hate fucking wasps.
The guy was a loon.
Signed up for Spring Semester at MacLeans
A really lush retreat among pines and
Hippy attendants. Ray Charles also
Once rested there.
So did James Taylor …
The famous, as we know, are nuts.
Take Robert Lowell.
The old white-haired coot.
Cruel, indeed: but as anyone familiar with Myles’s precocious, punked out, exquisitely droll work will know, her aggression is inevitably tempered by a paradoxical fellow-feeling. The poet’s own histrionic travails – with alcoholism, abusive homosexual relationships, mental institutions, and the ravages of a Boston Irish working-class childhood (a childhood similar in many ways to Mahoney’s) – link her with the coots and the loons. Impertinence is merely a sally, a way of saying hello across the generations.
Mahoney has no such amiability, however, no saving urge towards comic self-incrimination. One finishes her book with the decidedly less than momentous feeling that it was all rather a shame – all the bickering and bullying and loathing – but hardly cataclysmic. And without cataclysms, who cares? The promised Gothic horror, the much-vaunted Terror on the Vineyard, turns out to be nothing more than a feeble old woman drinking Scotch and a girl moping in a spare room. It’s a kind of low-rent Northanger Abbey, without Austen’s (or even Hellman’s) genius. One ends up feeling hard and impatient, and sorry for Hellman. Indeed, the more Mahoney tries to make us identify with her, the more the socked-in rages of adolescence and young adulthood – one’s own – seem merrily to fly out of the windows of memory. Surely, I found myself thinking, Clytemnestra wasn’t all bad … It’s hard being a boss lady! And thus ‘old Lilly baby’, dead to the world, may get the last laugh after all: however much it hurt at the time, the children’s hour is over at last.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.