The Group by Mary McCarthy
published 1963 chapter 9 set in the 1930s
Libby saw Polly as often as she could and almost always asked her to her parties... If you did not explain her family background (a nest of gentlefolk with a few bats in the belfry; Mr Andrews’ sisters had all been painted by Sargent), people were inclined to overlook her or ask after she had gone home who that quiet blonde girl was. …If you told her someone was a great catch, she would not make the slightest effort – ‘I’m afraid I must make my excuses, Libby’ (all the Andrews talked like that)…
Black was Polly’s color. Weekdays, she dressed very plainly, in an old sweater and plaid skirt and low-heeled shoes. But for parties, like today, she had one good black crêpe dress, with a low scalloped neckline and a fringed sash, and she had two wide-brimmed black hats, one for winter and one for summer. The summer one, which she was wearing today, was a lacy straw trimmed with black lace. The crêpe of her dress was getting a little rusty (black crêpe did that, alas), but it set off her full white neck, fleshy chin, and bosom; she had done her hair low on her neck, in a big knot, which was much more becoming. Harald Petersen said she looked like a Renoir. But Libby thought a Mary Cassatt.
The Group is an absolute personal favourite, a Desert Island book, one that can be read over and over. Picking it up to find this quotation makes us want to sit down and start it from the beginning. The story follows a group of young women who graduate from Vassar (posh US all-women college) in 1933, taking them through to the early 1940s. It’s a book you can read at any age, and it means something different to you depending on how the stage of your life relates to the protagonists’. The mysterious Lakey’s prolonged absence – disappointing when you first read the book - is beautifully done. (‘The absent influence, so boring and so overdone in literature, but I can see now that in real life it can eat you with curiosity’ as Cedric says in Love in a Cold Climate – present company obviously not counting as literature in either case.)
Links up with: the Nancy Mitford book features here, and John Singer Sargent has graced some of our blog’s women too – here and here. There is a genre of books about groups of young women, and this entry discusses it, and lists some other entries from such books.
The picture is a cheat: it is a Mary Cassatt but in a black and white photo so it matches the description – the original shows a green dress.