In Praise of Difficult Women: The Forgotten Work of Nancy Hale -The Toast

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51SjoYEuNIL._SY346_Caitlin Keefe Moran’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.

Nancy Hale came into my life as a bit of an accident. I had published a tiny review in a literary magazine, of which I was stupidly and inordinately proud, and received, along with the magazine, a copy of a new collection of some of Nancy Hale’s short stories accompanied by new criticism. The subtitle of the collection described the book as “Of the Life & Work of a Lost American Master.” The sketch of the woman on the cover could have been any white lady in an indeterminate period of the 20th century; I learned from the back that Hale’s writing had “helped to shape the early identity of The New Yorker magazine” in the 1930s and 1940s. I regarded the collection with stupid and inordinate skepticism. I considered myself a well-read person, and was an English major in school, which gave me a particular kind of hubris. I had never heard of Nancy Hale, and wasn’t sure I needed to. Then I blazed through all seven stories in the collection during one breathless subway ride, and went from a curious reader to a dyed-in-the-wool Nancy Hale evangelist. 

Hale was born in Boston in 1908, the only child of a painter and a prominent art teacher. The Hale family was well established in the New England cultural scene; Nancy Hale was related by marriage or blood to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Catherine Beecher, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, among others. Hale studied art but also wrote continuously, and following her first marriage she moved to New York where she set out to be a writer. She published her first novel, The Good Die Young, at the age of twenty-six. This book shares subject matter with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned—loose morals, excessive drinking, and general depravity in post-WWI New York. Hale and Fitzgerald also happened to share the Scribner editor Max Perkins, whose other authors included Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. During this time Hale also worked for Vogue and as the New York Times’ first female straight news reporter, which is somehow one of the lesser entries on her résumé. In 1942, Hale’s third novel, The Prodigal Women, became a bestseller, and made her career. 

 The Prodigal Women, now sadly out of print, is a strange, giant, wonderful book, full of desperate, sad, sometimes wicked, sometimes pitiable, women. Gillian Flynn wrote of her novel Sharp Objects, “Isn’t it time to acknowledge the ugly side? I’ve grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionistas that stock so many books.” Gillian, let me present to you Nancy Hale’s Leda March. Leda is deliciously unlikeable. She is described as “frantic with self-consciousness and envy and desire”; she exclusively “hated people, or envied them, or scorned them.” She schemes for social power, she carries on affairs with the husbands of her friends, and above all she feels no shame. Leda is cold, cold, cold. 

Not that the other prodigal women are hobbled by guilt either. The novel also follows Leda’s friends Betsy and Maizie Jekyll, sisters from a Southern family transplanted to Boston. What unites these three women—besides their friendship, which is sometimes tenuous, and other times nonexistent—is how badly they want. Their yearnings eat them up inside and strip their bones clean like wolves. I was shocked when, within the first 100 pages, Maizie seeks out an illegal abortion doctor in South America, while on her honeymoon with her vile pimple of a husband, Lambert. The writer Mary Lee Settle describes Maizie as a “marvelous picture of what can happen to transplanted, and not very smart, twenties flappers, cheerleaders, or small-town girls (north or south) who try old female survival techniques in new environments.” Lambert didn’t want to marry Maizie, and doesn’t want her to have the baby, and since she wants to keep him she decides—fanatically seeks, might be a better way of putting it—to terminate the pregnancy. So long, Maizie, I thought as she walks into the doctor’s office. It’s been nice knowing you. But she doesn’t die—nor does she have a conveniently timed miscarriage, the darling of the modern abortion plotline. She lives, and while she does fall ill (this is an illegal abortion in the 1930s, after all) she doesn’t particularly regret it. Lambert, for his part, leaves her alone for days during her convalescence while he goes sightseeing and kisses other women in public (may he rot in hell). Maizie and Lambert’s continuing struggle—fraught to the point of desperation—is emblematic of most of Hale’s couples; their aspirations and needs are so diametrically opposed that they end up strangling one other with the ties that are supposed to bind them together. 

Maizie’s sister Betsy has a better time of it, sort of. She escapes Boston but instead of returning to her ancestral lands of Virginia goes to New York. “To be a young girl in New York in those days,” she says, “was to be like a young boy, as free, as unshackled, as adventurous.” She finds her own vile pimple of a male partner in Hector; but, interestingly, the shame of Betsy’s promiscuity is visited not upon Betsy but upon her old-fashioned Southern father. He commits suicide out of humiliation for her lifestyle. The prodigal women, meanwhile, keep on keeping on. 

Though none of her subsequent novels matched the success or notoriety of The Prodigal Women, Hale’s short stories solidified her literary reputation. She published over eighty stories in the New Yorker, a record untouched by even New Yorker great Ann Beattie, who knew Hale during her time at the University of Virginia. One of Hale’s longer stories, “Who Lived and Died Believing,” about a mentally ill woman receiving shock therapy and the nurse who tends to her, presages Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar from its first line: “It was a strange, hot summer. The days throbbed and the nights were exhausted and melancholy.” Another story, “Midsummer,” captures beautifully the feeling of being young and in love for the first time and desperate for release, without the rosy tones of other coming of age tales. Protagonist Victoria Jesse “had grown thin from her own fire and the unrelenting fire of the weather,” but she “could only sit around interminably in chairs on the lawn in the heat and quiet, beating with hate and awareness and bewilderment and violence, all incomprehensible to her and pulling her apart.” 

Hale also excelled at writing dry, archly funny heroines. The exasperated narrator of “Club Car,” on an overcrowded train from New York to Boston on Christmas Eve that she booked at the last minute because it hadn’t “occurred to me that anyone but myself would want to go to Boston on that day,” finds herself ostracized from the male-only space of the club car, which she has sought out to smoke a cigarette in peace. She realizes that the men, who she dryly describes as “elderly bank clerks, haberdashery salesmen, and students at Rutgers,” are threatened by her—because they think she’s out to seduce them. Our long-suffering narrator demurs (“Far be it from me,” she says, “to destroy the decency of a man’s refuge”) and moves to another car. She refuses, however, to return to the car full of children where she was sitting originally; she declares, “I had no wish to bring sex into these men’s sheltered lives, but on the other hand I was damned if I wouldn’t smoke the cigarette I had struggled all this way for.” She escapes into another compartment, whose only occupant is a mustachioed old gentleman smoking a corncob pipe. The narrator imagines them sitting in companionable silence, enjoying their moment of peace not as a man and a woman but as two fellow smokers, stuck on an awful train. The kicker of the story is, of course, when she looks back over at him and realizes that he has written, on the fogged glass of the train window, I AM MARRIED. 

This story is barely three pages long, and now I’ve basically ruined it for you. I couldn’t help it. “Club Car” struck me right in the gut because it recognizes the fundamental truth of being a woman in a public space, a truth hideously unchanged in the more than sixty years since its publication: your intentions are inscribed onto you by forces outside of yourself (usually, men) and it doesn’t matter what you want or what you think, or whether you just want to smoke a cigarette in the smoking car in peace, dammit. It’s not hard to imagine “Club Car,” had it been written in the 21st century, ending with #yesallwomen. 

Much of the responsibility for representing women’s experiences in the interwar period has been claimed by the male greats of the era—Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner—which is a shame, because new rights and new possibilities were coming at women so hard and fast that their stories almost wrote themselves. You can’t really imagine Daisy Buchanan or Caddy Compson having adventures in this exciting, liberated time; they’re more the sort to remain immobile, posed, while the men around them slowly go insane or drink themselves to death. (I suppose that’s not exactly fair to Caddy—she does go out and have adventures, but the narrative doesn’t care enough to follow her there. Much better to hang around and listen to Jason Compson swear, for sure.) 

This is all to say—Hale gives us an expertly and at times shockingly drawn portrait of a particular kind of liberated woman in a particular American time (though regrettably, Hale doesn’t explore the racial dynamics of the era any more than Fitzgerald or Hemingway), in a way that hardly any other writer of the period did. Acknowledging that women like Leda March or the narrator of “Club Car” existed was a challenge for many readers, but Hale didn’t shrink from it. (“Definitely,” read the 1942 Kirkus review of The Prodigal Women, “it is a book to ‘red flag’ for public libraries.”) 

So that’s my pitch: bitches being bitches, consequences be damned. If you want to know how women got on in the early twentieth century, skip Fitzgerald—give Hale a read instead.

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