BWFBC: Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (1956)

Welcome to this month’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club in which we discuss Metalious’s Peyton Place.

For the discussion on Twitter we’ll be using the hashtag #BWFBC. You can also join the converation in the comments below.

If you haven’t read Peyton Place yet be warned there are many spoilers below.

Enough with the housekeeping here’s how we read it:

KE: I’m about halfway through. I’m really glad we’re doing this for book club as otherwise I would never have read this. I have mixed feelings about the novel but it is a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of the early 50s and also much franker about sex than I would have expected although I suppose that is why it made such a sensation.

JL: I’m really struggling. The opening is so boring and overwritten and ridiculous. An Indian summer is like a woman? What? I keep reading half a page at night and instantly falling asleep. The writing is so bad. Aaargh.

Haven’t got to any sex yet. Or anything much actually happening. I guess I’m gunna have to skim.

KE: It’s a perfect book for skimming. Full of mid century American moralism (a form of sentimentalism), “shorthand” sketches of classism, racism, sexism. Self satisfied and judgmental. I recognize it all from my youth!!! Overall I was surprised about the explicit references to so many aspects of sex. And the writing is, as you say, consciously overwrought.

JL: Finally got a purchase on it. And will now manage to finish in time. PHEW. All my deadlines haven’t helped. *shakes fist at them*

Anyways, once I started thinking of it as a book about how misogyny and racism function it improved out of sight for me. That combined with skimming the descriptive passages worked a treat. God, I hate Markis. I am so so so so so so over alpha male characters who somehow know what everyone else thinks and feels better than they do. The hate crime at UCSB has made Markis even more hateful to read about. Argh.

KE: Also a classic text on classism.

What fascinates me about Markis is that HE RAPES HER. It is described from Constance’s pov, in her memory, and it is horrible, and yet told from the distance of time after she has “fallen in love” with him (and yes, GOD, he is RIGHT ALL THE TIME).

The juxtapositions are whiplashing.

OMG Norman Page and the whippings and enemas. OMG OMG

JL: What do you mean, Alis? There’s no class differences in the USA.

Got up to that bit now. So. Awful. What is this?! And that’s the flashback on how they fell in love because he raped her. Aaargh! Reminded me of the scene in GWTW where Rhett rapes Scarlett and she realises she cares for him. I can’t . . . .

It’s not hard to see how we got to this moment in history—with the UCSB shootings—from the misogynist, rape-is-good mess of Peyton Place. It’s so depressing.

Also this book makes it clear why Jackson wrote “The Lottery.”

KE: The endless moralism. Everyone is judged and compartmentalized, as will become increasingly clear as you get through the rest of it. As far as I can tell not one person can escape their destined class fate.

JL: Finished! Wow, is this book one great big hot mess but I totally get why it was such a big success: whole lot of plot going on. If only it weren’t broken up by interminably long descriptions of the town and the weather. I believe these are accurate descriptions but YAWN.

KE: Metalious grew up in a mill town, so I am given to understand, so I expect she was describing a world she knew very well.

JL: I think its overly descriptiveness is part of why it didn’t love it the way I love Valley of the Dolls.

KE: It’s interesting, isn’t it? VotD has a big picture story but it is tightly told through the three narrative arcs of the three main women. In PP Metalious is, I think, trying to tell a big picture story but her method is to hammer down into a stew of moralism, sensationalism, judgmentalism, and editorializing. Thus, Susann’s book is (to my mind) far more effective as a piece of literature.

JL: Exactly. Also I liked some of Susann’s characters. Didn’t like any of the characters in PP. Especially not Tom. What a vile, self-regarding, I-know-what-everyone-is-thinking rapist jerk. UGH.

KE: I still cannot figure out whether Metalious purposefully makes it clear that he outright RAPES Connie that first time, or if she herself as writer does not see it as rape but rather him “showing” the woman “what is right for her” since Tom consistently is all about being the voice of Telling The Poor Benighted What Is Right. Ugh. So foul.

JL: I have no idea. Tom is so the hero and voice of EVERYTHING THAT IS RIGHT that his raping her doesn’t compute. That, yeah, I too wonder if she didn’t think it was a rape. And that makes me really really sad.

It sure does capture the stultifying closeness of small town living. (Or so I imagine I’ve never lived in a small town.)

KE: It captures a way of looking at small towns. I grew up in rural Oregon a mile outside a very small town (population 1800 when I was growing up, larger now). Now I grant you that as a child I could not have known what all was going on, but while I felt that Metalious captures the judgmental moralism that permeated society at that time (many of the attitudes were so familiar to me from growing up in the 60s and 70s), her portraits are extremely narrow and not remotely nuanced. The way she kept dipping into characters to tell us exactly what we need to think about them is effective in some ways (we are invited to judge them along with the narrator, which makes “us” the reader invest more, theoretically, as we are on the narrator’s side not the characters’ side) but it also stultifies and narrows the story because it can never escape from her very heavy-handed treatment.

JL: Yes, it definitely keeps us at a remove and meant that I didn’t like any of the characters. I didn’t like Connie. I didn’t understand her. Allison annoyed me. The doctor I was clearly supposed to love irritated me too. Selena Cross was the most sympathetic character. But I didn’t actually buy any of them. They were more like extremely detailed, well made and animated cardboard cut outs, who despite lots of really hard work never came alive for me.

KE: We are so very agreed here. The characters so often seemed to function to prove a point, or to shock.

JL: I think part of my problem was that so much of the writing just made me laugh out loud: “nipples as hard as diamonds.” Really? How would that work exactly? Wouldn’t it kind of hurt? Wouldn’t your nipples be constantly cutting holes in your bras?

Anyways several of the similes sent me off into such thoughts. It was distracting.

It did feel like a broader picture of society at the time than either Best of Everything or Valley of the Dolls. There is even a brief discussion of the desirability of racial equality. Almost as if there was a civil right’s movement happening somewhere off stage. There aren’t just white people. There are Jews and some mentions of African Americans, and a discussion of the most pejorative word–which gets used A LOT– in the US to refer to them, though no one black seems to be living in the town now. Peyton Place is very very white. It struck me as a place that might have been a sundown town.

There were only very brief mentions of homosexuality. So that’s a contrast to the New York books.

KE: I was fascinated by the backstory of the Samuel Peyton and the castle. It was on the one hand so deeply racist (how many times does she use the phrase “big handsome black man” or some version thereof? and that’s leaving aside the casual use of the n-word in a way that would have been entirely consistent with the times) and then on the other hand the acknowledgment that this was a thing that could happen (he goes to France to make his way because the racism of the USA closes opportunity to him) struck me as unusual in a book of its time and type.

JL: Yes, very. I honestly don’t know what to make off that whole section. Especially the bit about how Samuel Peyton was a Confederate sympathiser, smuggling guns to them and that’s why it was okay for a New Englander to call him the n-word. So many layers of WTF?! What is this book?

KE: It also made judgments on male characters in relationship to their service in World War II. We are alerted to Ted Carter’s unworthiness the moment we realize he stays in school instead of signing up. Selena’s brother turns out to have made good because he is a TRUE war hero/responsible man. And so on.

JL: Yeah, masculinity was as heavily policed as femininity. Yay! I did not love this book. There was none of the joy or humour of Valley and no proto-feminism. And it wasn’t even remotely as well written as Best of Everything.

This was not a book that had any criticism for the underlying structures of inequality except as they fell along class lines.

KE: While I agree that to some extent she critiques the underlying structures of class inequality, the story still felt as if many of the “lower class” characters were essentialized and thus unable to escape “their place.”

JL: Totally agree. Especially Betty who awful Rodney gets pregnant who’s sole character note seems to be “tramp.” Lovely. Though everyone was essentialised.

The normalised sexual harassment and rape felt like a very accurate portrayal. If anything I bet it was even worse back then. But it made me sick to my stomach. Especially reading it as a young man murdered six people at UCSB out of a deep seated hatred of women. I kept turning the pages and thinking, not hard to see the seeds of his misogyny when this is how men and women are taught to be men and women. Even the so-called good people of this book are misogynist and racist to their core.

KE: As I said earlier, the attitudes expressed struck me as true to the time, that these were pervasive in terms of the default way many people saw the world or how the world was expressed to them through the daily attitudes and interactions of life. When I or anyone speaks of systemic sexism and racism, for example, or when my dad would say, “if you grow up in a racist society, you are a racist” this is what he meant. That even while you yourself may strive to treat all people fairly, if you grow up steeped in this toxic stew you will absorb it and have to work to see past it and not fall into engrained ways of thinking about class, race, sex, gender, religion, and so on.

JL: Exactly. But there were books at the time that did rail against it. I mean Virginia Woolf rails against sexism and misogyny earlier in the twentieth century and she was by no means the first. I found this such a complacent book. None of the women had any sense of wanting more. Unlike, well, Best of Everything or The Valley of the Dolls. This is not a book where you think, “Well, feminism’s going to hit your lives in a big way soon.” The way I did after reading those other two books.

KE: I wanted to make one point about the one thing that did honestly surprise me in the book and that is the degree to which Metalious mentions sex in a blunt and realistic (if often really skeezy) way. Masturbation, hard ons, rape, incest, sexual feelings, and so on: all present. OMG Norman Page and the whippings and enemas from his mother, clearly outed as a form of incest. I did not expect any of that. Even the moralistic treatment of abortion.

JL: Right. It’s more explicit than any of the other bestsellers I’ve read from the period. There’s even a scene in which a pregnant woman’s husband goes down on her. Pretty radical back then saying a pregnant woman can feel desire.

The abortion was really interesting because the doctor very explicitly puts it as a choice between destroying the life of the foetus and destroying Serena Cross’s life and he choose Serena.

KE: I found this quote on Wikipedia as to the frankness of her work, Metalious stated, “Even Tom Sawyer had a girlfriend, and to talk about adults without talking about their sex drives is like talking about a window without glass.”

So I can see why the novel was a sensation.

JL: Yes, indeed. But notices that she expresses it in terms of male desire. It’s Tom Sawyer who has a nameless girlfriend. Who was the girlfriend, Grace? What was her name? Why did you give her no agency!

That struck me over and over: all the sex is initiated by the men. The language is about men “taking” or “having” women. Sex is something men do to women. The women have very little agency. Connie doesn’t want her daughter to go to NYC to be a writer. It’s Tom who actively encourages Allison to do so. It is, in fact, pretty much only Tom who says anything about sexism with his magical ability to know everything about everyone. What a stand up guy.

KE: I will never get over the enemas, Justine. NEVER. And that she went there with it. Props to her.

JL: Ha! I guess that’s our TL;DR: ENEMAS!

Our Next Book: Ann Petry The Street (1946). Join us at the end of June to discuss the first ever bestseller in the US by an African-American woman. You can see the whole year’s schedule here.

14 comments

  1. Rose Lerner on #

    Huh! In some ways my reaction was really similar to yours, and in other ways, not at all! I definitely saw a lot of proto-feminism and saw a very intentionally dystopian cast to how she describes the lives of women. I really thought she WAS making a commentary on the economic and social position of women, and certainly she was taking a hatchet to the picture of “idyllic” small-town life. And yet…

    I am only halfway through the book because I was really loving it and reading very quickly and then I got to the “Tomas rapes Constance” scene and just could not continue. Because I really didn’t see it coming, I had actually liked Tomas up to that point, and it was SO AWFUL, and I really couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be “this is the dark side of this relationship and Constance doesn’t even know how to articulate her experience and her pain because Tomas is a ‘nice guy’ who ‘loves’ her and she was attracted to him so she felt responsible” which seemed possible, or “Tomas ‘had’ to do this because she was too afraid of her feelings for him” which seemed EQUALLY possible and it’s not like such a scene would be unusual in literature. (I was also reminded of the scene in Gone With the Wind.)

    I had been enjoying the book so much up to that point that I felt extra blindsided…and maybe I had been giving previous events benefits of the doubt that I really shouldn’t have! It was just another reminder that rape culture is everywhere and that I can’t feel safe while reading/viewing anything I haven’t read before or that hasn’t been vetted by a trusted friend. Blargh.

    I also was not a huge fan of the doctor. I liked him quite a bit at the beginning but he got more and more annoying as the book progressed (and I was NOT amused by the farting prank anecdote on ANY level. Unquestionably there is plenty of casual racism in this book).

    • Justine on #

      Rose: Yes, that rape scene . . . And the work does get more and more awful. I totally understand stopping reading it.

      And that fart prank is when I knew the doctor was awful. Nothing about that story reflected well on him and yet we supposed to read it as the nurse being uptight. That crystalised for me how far from mine the narrator’s view of the world was.

    • Kate Elliott on #

      We discussed Tom Makris at length on Twitter. That scene also totally blindsided me.

      Like both of you, I was very ambivalent about the doctor. On the one hand he makes some choices I felt were the right thing to do and were meant to show how he takes his Hippocratic Oath seriously. But there was always something a bit . . . I don’t know. What you guys said.

  2. Katharine Kerr on #

    I was 12 when this book came out and really had no understanding of why the adults in my family were so incensed about it. The word “trash” was heard across the land even as a lot of people rushed to buy it. :-) A few years later, when I was in high school, one of my friends discovered an old copy in her mother’s bedroom while looking for something else and dipped into it here and there. She had the same reaction as Kate did about the enemas. Thanks to her report, the rest of the girls in my circle of friends vowed never to read it. And we didn’t. Just as well as it sounds awful. But this was the time and place — small town California in 1960 — when teenagers seriously discussed whether we were mature enough to go see PYSCHO, and most of us decided against it. Things do change . . .

    • Justine on #

      I wish I had a friend who would read all the popular books to vet them for whether I needed to read them or not. How lucky you were! (I think you dodged a bullet on Pyscho too. It’s so overrated.)

    • Kate Elliott on #

      Had I read the book as a teen I would not have understood Norman’s plot!

    • Kate Elliott on #

      Kit, did everyone read it because they were incensed? Was being incensed an excuse to read it? Do you have any other memories of the impact it made? It is fascinating because it is far starker and more open than I had any idea a work written at that time might be.

      • Katharine Kerr on #

        My mother’s side of the family’s reaction (and they were Baptists, remember) was totally based on the sex scenes. “They shouldn’t be allowed to print this kind of trash” about sums it up. None of them had read it. Their attitude to many things, like European art film and James Joyce’s work and Catholic theology was “you don’t have to drink rat poison to know it’s bad for you.” A great many cultural products went into that category.

        Years later my Aunt Bea (father’s sister and the artist) admitted to me that she’d tried to read it but disliked the writing style and the characters too much to finish it. I don’t know if she got to the part about the enemas or not, as that definitely would have been too much for even her. :-)

        • Kate Elliott on #

          The writing style is, um, yes. Turgid. Florid. Purple. Strong. Whatever you want to call it. Doubtless Aunt Bea’s artistic sensibilities rebelled while she was trying to read it.

  3. mutantreptile on #

    One last thing: did anyone else find it super annoying that everyone was referred to with first and last name constantly?

    • Kate Elliott on #

      You’re right. I didn’t even notice until you mentioned it just now.

      That’s so odd that Metalious did that. I wonder why.

  4. Susan Loyal on #

    My first reaction to Peyton Place was “This reminds me so much of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss.” That description of the landscape that you reacted to so strongly is nearly an imitation. Both books are focused on a village and the economic separations between the working class and the upper middle class, with the lower middle class precariously balanced, trying to climb but more likely to slide down. “Mill” both sexualizes (symbolically and indirectly) and idealizes sibling relationships, which may explain why the most affectionate family relationship in Peyton Place is that between Selena and Joey Cross.

    A first novel is likely to resemble some literary template. If, indeed, Metalious was haunted by the Victorian novel, that might explain not only aspects of the structure and obsession with descriptions of the landscape, but also why a novel set in the 30s in the US has economic class relationships that are influenced in no way at all by the Great Depression. That was the oddest thing about the novel to me.

    I was positively impressed by the author’s direct and brave treatment of domestic violence and the (generally unacknowledged) shadow of incest that lurks behind it, the various ways that parents who have not found an equally matched adult partner may inappropriately ask children to meet their emotional and physical needs. The forward of the edition I read remarked that the original manuscript had Lucas as Selena’s biological father, and the editor insisted on changing the relationship to “stepfather.” Metalious fumed about it, saying that the change ruined the novel. But between the trials of poor Norman, the total spoiling of the mill owner’s son, and the ways in which Constance requires companionship, justification, and compliance out of Allison, I think the theme doesn’t in fact suffer much by the change.

    I think the “swimming date” and its aftermath is, in fact, supposed to be exactly like the scene where Rhett sweeps Scarlett upstairs against her will and leaves her smiling in the morning. As I read it, there is an implication that Tom is steeling himself to persist in having sex with Connie until she ceases to resist her natural desires and lowers her defenses. The “sex as siege warfare” trope was woefully prevalent mid-last-century. I am unable now to read it as anything but a rape scene.

    I was amused that, though Metalious writes quite directly about sex, she nonetheless includes a raging forest fire that clearly symbolizes the town’s collective repressed desires. In The Mill on the Floss, the plot crisis culminates in a swelling, sweeping river in flood, which causes a death or two and resolves some most inappropriate feelings.

    On the whole, I’m grateful for the author’s attempt at directness and honesty about sex. I’m grateful that her vision included something that she considered happiness for Connie and for Allison. Dolls and Best were so very bleak. I’d have been grateful for a stronger sense of economics and politics, since she chose to set the novel two decades in her past. And I really wish that she’d read a lot of Virginia Woolf right before she sat down to write. Or Dorothy Sayers.

    • Kate Elliott on #

      Susan, I love your comments. You are absolutely right about the Great Depression, and now I wonder why it isn’t more present in the text (and why I missed that, given that it was something my father and grandparents lived through and were deeply affected by).

      I’m very sorry that she had to change Lucas to step-father, and oddly enough I kept thinking of him as Selena’s father. It is true that Selena and Joey have what might be the only unmixed supportive relationship that isn’t creepy (as far as we can tell).

    • Justine on #

      Wow, Susan. I had not made the connection to Mill on the Floss. Very convincing reading. (In my defence I had not read the book for 20 years.)

      I’d have been grateful for a stronger sense of economics and politics, since she chose to set the novel two decades in her past. And I really wish that she’d read a lot of Virginia Woolf right before she sat down to write. Or Dorothy Sayers.

      Co-sign. Though she did share Sayers anti-semitism. :-)

      And, yes, the total absence of the depression was surreal. Though like Alis I hadn’t made that connection until you wrote this comment. Frankly I read this book has being very much about the 1950s. It felt like the 1950s, not like the 1930s. And I think the lack of even a passing mention to the depression is part of why I read it that way.

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